By Shagun Bhandari
At age 10, my friends whispered amongst themselves, having a very serious conversation. Later they included me and softly asked, do you know about periods? I was confused, what is that? A friend replied, it’s a discharge of blood that happens every month to clean your body. I was puzzled, nothing made sense to me. What? Blood? Out of my body? From where? Will I know about it?
My friends sat me down and diligently explained whatever their own understanding of periods was.
Soon, the topic caught up in school like wild fire. It became a conversation starter and was the duty of all girls who were aware about periods to go and spread the word among other girls in school, extra-circular classes, neighbourhood friends… basically every girl we ever knew in our age group and considered a friend.
So, by now we had a lot of misplaced knowledge by word of mouth. Everyone patiently waited for their period to start; some terrified girls still hoped that the concept of periods did not really exist and was just a subject used by their peers to scare them.
Some girls started menstruating by the age of 11 or 12. We did not have easy access to the internet then, and only a few households had computers or laptops. Smartphones were yet to be launched, and not every question was a click away. Mostly, knowledge was sourced from shared experiences.
I distinctly remember my first period. My stomach hurt awfully throughout the evening and it subsequently followed me for a celebratory family dinner. The moment I reached home, I ran to the washroom and there it was, the first red spot I had ever seen in my 12 years of life. Usually, in such a situation I would have cried and run to my mother but I had been prepped for this moment for the past 18 months, and now it was here.
I finally went to my mother and told her about the red spot. She sat me down and explained it that night in a format that a seventh grader could understand but did spare a little information for me to accumulate later in life.
Now the conversation at school shifted from, “Do you know about periods?” to “Did you get your first period?” It was a big secret and ONLY GIRLS were supposed to know and one wasn’t permitted to utter a word in front of boy students. It was somehow the universal unspoken law that was followed around the world.
Girls beautifully managed to keep it to themselves for years. But when they asked their seniors why boys could not be a part of this secret, the only answer they received was, “Their body is biologically different, they don’t experience this.” Hence, girls were not allowed to share this with their male friends for the longest time.
Society has really done a wonderful job with demarcating a line between men and women, which leads to a knowledge gap among male and female peers. This leads to years of conditioning, blindly accepted by girls, to hold on to the baton provided by their seniors in society and then pass it onto our juniors. This is how gender discrimination begins.
Consequently, our school authorities hired a few professionals who would – with the help of power-point presentations in the school auditorium – explain the menstrual cycle in detail, how it is different for every individual, the cycle, the flow, the number of days. The presentation ended with a video demonstrating how a sanitary napkin is supposed to be worn. As a souvenir, they gave a small pack of two sanitary napkins to each student.
Unsurprisingly, this event was only for girls. Class eight and nine students were called from our classrooms to the auditorium. Boys were clueless but a few did have a fear of missing out.
Now began our training for another battle to be fought for years to come. It was called ‘Hiding the Sanitary Napkin’. Some students managed to stuff it in their pockets and a few hid it inside books. Traditions had to be continued. Our vice principal asked all the girls to keep our souvenir packs safe from the boys; upon entering the classrooms they had to directly get into our bags.
Why the unnecessary stigma revolving around periods?
There are millions of individuals out there without access to correct information, knowledge or internet to self-educate. Until this day sanitary napkins are still not accessible to many and are a luxury item for most of the population. In a country where daily-wage workers earn less than Rs 100 a day, spending 10 per cent of their earning on the cheapest available single sanitary napkin is a hard pill to digest.
The purpose of sharing this story is to let the ‘BIG SECRET’ out. It should be our primary duty to talk about periods or menstrual cycle openly, educate young impressionable minds who may or may not have the required knowledge, as not everyone is privileged enough to attend progressive schools.
Not only girls experience periods but also many transgender folks (AFAB – assigned female at birth but identify as men). There should not be a particular gender associated to periods; the individuals who experience it should be called ‘menstruators’ as transgender men and non-binary individuals who may see themselves as both feminine and masculine may menstruate too. The shift in language reflects and assures inclusivity.
The idea of separating girls from boys in an educational institution reiterates that menstruation is supposed to be just a women’s issue. Boys at many schools are excluded from this knowledge at a young age and many are not aware of it for the longest time. It is a priority to have healthy conversations around it.
Additionally, the individuals who undergo menstruation may experience terrible cramps, low blood pressure and may find it difficult to carry out daily tasks. It is very important to create awareness about how to cope, have the appropriate knowledge of medications that can be used, and the basic right to use sanitary napkins.
Gender equality cannot be achieved by secrecy and shame but rather by openness and education. If we want to create a more equal future for our girls, we must include the boys.
Shagun Bhandari, 22, is a lawyer based in Thane, Maharashtra, soon heading to King’s College London for her LLM