Menstruation is a topic close to every woman’s heart – more than the vagina. The wonderful, life-giving process is as natural as breathing and still period shaming happens everywhere in the world.
Let’s talk about India. The subject is so taboo as if it’s a crime to have periods! In my own fairly educated middle class family, women took great pride in following the custom of 5 days’ isolation. There was a separate mattress for the menstruating woman. Our Hindu Gods couldn’t even tolerate the shadow of a menstruating woman. There was a huge roar to close the door of the Pooja room if anybody had periods. The woman couldn’t enter the kitchen, couldn’t touch anything, was made to sit separately in a corner for 5 days. If she touched anything by mistake, some clean water was sprinkled to purify it again. “Kawala shivala” – a crow has touched her was the ridiculous term used. On 5th day, the woman would take a headbath and was declared shuddha (pure/clean) again. There are many other practices followed in different parts of the country, the world and also, different communities.
I was blissfully oblivious of what happens when a crow touches a woman, until one day I had to face this humiliation at the age of 13. All the women in my huge family, including my mother were giggling at my plight. I wanted Mother Earth to swallow me! A cotton saree was cut in 2 pieces and given to me. Pursuing any sport or swimming was stopped or never allowed. All this shaming and the horrendous experience stays with me till now. My little mind decided it was best to hide periods. So, I just didn’t tell anyone the next time. But of course, they found out thanks to the thick wad of cotton saree! I remember my grandma telling me “tujha paap tujhya barobar” – your sins remain with you. Can’t stop laughing now! Grandma rests in peace and my sins are with me!
What exactly happens inside the head of a teenage girl when we period shame her? We are basically telling her that she and her body is dirty. We are telling her that periods are not natural, healthy or clean. We are destroying her confidence in herself. Period shaming can create a havoc in the world of a little girl. At the age of menarche (when a girl starts to menstruate), girls not only have to deal with the physical changes in their bodies but also have to manage their studies at school and focus on the academics. As mothers/parents/ relatives, our role is to guide the little girl into womanhood and make her comfortable with the process of menstruation.
With changing times, women’s role in the society changed and so did the period management methods. Haven’t we Indian women switched from pieces of an old cotton saree to sanitary napkins with strings to sanitary napkins without wings on the pieces of cotton saree to only sanitary napkins with wings to now, tampons? Some of us even use different kinds of sanitary pads during the day, during the night, 2-3 days before the expected date (just in case). All the itching, rashes, irritation is a constant struggle!
How to buy a pad? Tell a chemist sheepishly, he will wrap it in a BLACK polythene bag. Some will look at you suspiciously wondering whether you need it right away! How to dispose of the used sanitary pad? Wash it, wrap in a paper, then wrap in plastic bag and throw in the dustbin. Some mothers or mothers in law don’t allow that. A dirty pad cannot even go to the dustbin, it has to go straight out of the bathroom window!?! Not many women use clothpads now but then it has to be dried in a dark, dingy place where no one would see it. The entire process from buying a pack of sanitary napkins, using it, disposing of the used ones revolves around shaming a woman. These stories can range from simply hilarious to downright distressing.
And where does a pad “go” once disposed? It doesn’t go anywhere! It remains in the system for ~800 years. So basically, in our lifetime and also that of our future generations, it just stays there! A little bit of google search will take you to the goriest pictures of landfills, water bodies, clogged manholes and manual scavengers. Management of this solid, sanitary waste is not just a challenge, it is practically impossible for a growing country like India. Some work premises even have incinerators to burn used sanitary napkins! This only releases fumes and gases from burning of menstrual flow, polymers used in the making of sanitary napkins, preservatives, perfumes etc. Imagine how do you feel when you come across a soiled sanitary pad on the road. Ashamed is the word! In a nutshell, disposables are always out of sight, out of mind but always in the environmental system!
Women have a HUGE role to play here by making periods shame free and green! By saying a BIG LOUD NO to disposable sanitary napkins and tampons. We are at an inflexion point when it comes to period management methods. We have reusable, safe, smart options available like menstrual cups and clothpads, that simply eliminate sanitary trash from our lives. The life giving process of menstruation needn’t make Mother Earth a trash dump and it certainly needn’t shame our girls and women.
I read about menstrual cups way back in 2011 but online shopping wasn’t so in in India that time. I asked the local chemist and he had never heard of it. So, I gave up on the idea. In early 2016, I started following a blog on minimalism and the woman writing this blog uses menstrual cup to save money, as a conscious consumer and not stack up a variety of sanitary napkins and tampons in her drawer. I decided to give it a try again and typed “menstrual cup in India” in google search and voila! It was available everywhere! I ordered mine and received it within a week.
Menstrual cup has changed my life singlehandedly! This wine glass like receptacle not only cleared all the period related clutter in my head, it has saved my recurring expenses and recurring shame of buying sanitary napkins/tampons and has also given me a huge sense of confidence. When almost every woman I know makes a hoopla about periods, cramps, misses office/swimming class during periods and generates more and more sanitary trash, I cannot even describe how wonderful I feel to have made the switch! Yes, there is a small learning curve involved and is totally worth it.
About the Author: Priyanka Watane is a chemical engineer and MBA by education She is also a member of Green the Red. She is an avid advocate of menstrual cups, carries a clothbag everywhere and has recently started composting kitchen waste.
This is the first article in the series of seven for Earth Day and is done in a collaboration with Bhoomi College, a center for learning for those who wish to take up green paths, as well as those who wish to live with more ecological consciousness and personal fulfilment. The last article in the series of seven will be published on Menstrual Hygiene Day On 28th May.
In these 7 weeks, we will cover a variety of topics around menstruation, which are eye opening, thought provoking and will inform you more about sustainable menstruation options. We urge our readers to stay tuned and participate in this crusade.