In her satirical piece, If Men Could Menstruate, Gloria Steinem shares an interesting anecdote.
"But listening recently to a woman describe the unexpected arrival of her menstrual period (a red stain had spread on her dress as she argued heatedly on the public stage) still made me cringe with embarrassment. That is until she explained that, when finally informed in whispers of the obvious event, she said to the all-male audience, "and you should be proud to have a menstruating woman on your stage. It's probably the first real thing that's happened to this group in years."
Laughter. Relief. She had turned a negative into a positive."
How did she do that? How did she turn around a situation that most of us who menstruate have been conditioned into believing embarrassing?
A revolution seems to happen at the moment when the whispers turn into an unapologetic declaration on the stage. Her decision to reclaim menstruation from the pile of that-which-should-not-be-named using words infused with confidence, to me, is radical.
38 years and 13,568 km away from Steinem's words, Sanjana Gautam, 17, in Nevada, Uttar Pradesh, is not just engaging in such small acts of rebellion but is also facilitating a radical journey for the young girls and women in the area. With support from Yeh Ek Soch Foundation, she is running a small project to bring Menstrual Health Awareness to her neighbourhood.
"The biggest challenge is to actually get the girls and women to shed their embarrassment, come to the sessions, and talk about their bodies. The giggles, the side glances, and the hushed voices are the root cause of all the problems associated with Menstrual Hygiene Management," Sanjana said.
The reluctance to freely talk about their bodies that most women inherit from their mothers reflects in the awkward silence that falls when these girls are asked by their fathers and brothers about the meetings.
"Once a mother-daughter duo attended our meeting. The mother shared how her daughter never talks about periods. She would never ask questions or seek help. She would just get by during periods by herself without taking proper care of her hygiene. The mother was worried about this lack of communication but did not know how to reach out to her own daughter. It is families like these that our project aims to help," Sanjana said.
For menstruators to be able to talk about and understand their experiences, they need to have the right vocabulary and awareness. Sanjana has made it a point to involve Anaganwadi and Auxiliary Nurse Midwives (ANMs) in the meetings so that they can share reliable information with the young girls and women. This not only helps them to understand their bodies but also busts the period myths that they have grown up believing to be true.
Period awareness has helped them in acknowledging the pain and cramps that they experience during their periods. They understand now that it is perfectly normal for them to feel pain and communicate it to their families. Instead of having to brave the pain and carry on like those impossible girls in sanitary pads commercials.
"Now if they are in pain, they tell that to their families. And if they are accused of lying or being over-dramatic, because other girls don't behave like this on their periods, they know now to answer that all menstruating bodies are different, therefore, all period experiences are different."
This progress might feel insignificant to those of us who have moved on to demanding period leaves in the workplace. But imagine how empowered those young girls must feel who now have learned to unashamedly reply to the queries with, "Oh, we were just talking about Menstruation." (I imagine them flipping their hair as they say the words in a normal voice.)
This is why social action projects like Sanjana's are a crucial step in the long struggle to reclaim Menstruation and normalize the period talk in the personal and public spaces. Sanjana's project is a cog in the wheel in the larger Jabardast Jagrik Program supported by UNFPA and REC Limited, and run by ComMutiny and Yeh Ek Soch Foundation.