A Peek from the Other Side

How many of you who do not menstruate can testify that you possess complete knowledge about menstruation and its processes? Is your awareness of it limited to our middle school textbooks? Have you ever asked your mom or sister how they feel during their periods?

Menstruation, frequently considered taboo, often remains unknown to non-menstruators for long periods, sometimes even till adulthood. The ignorance may originate from the belief that non-menstruators are not required to know about menstruation as it does not concern them, at least not directly. Raised in a typical household, my experience with the subject was quite similar to other teenage non-menstruators. Like many, my family focuses on upholding cultural traditions, essentially carrying forward elements of a patriarchal society (link to tara’s article). As a result, menstruation stays concealed from the non-menstruating members of the family. To resolve this, we must become actively conscious, aware and inclusive of one another’s lived experiences. Let me start by presenting my story.

I was 13 years old when I was looking for some food in my older sister’s bag and came across what appeared to be some wrapped napkin. Barely a second later, my sister snatched the bag out of my hand, perhaps out of shame, and vanished before I could pose any questions. It was quite confusing; I wondered why she would hide these tissues. My confusion intensified when I saw a packet of them hidden far away in the corner of the storage room. There was an ample amount of toilet paper in the bathroom – why the need for special samples? Initially, I thought it was some sort of prolonged diarrhoea that ran in the family. That would explain her need to hide and cover the tissues with newspaper out of embarrassment. However, this left me worrying about whether it was contagious. After all, I could not afford to be sick with my final exams just around the corner.

My family never came forward to shed light on the topic; my father uncomfortably changed the subject if I ever brought it up, leaving me befuddled and fearful for a long time, hoping that the diarrhoea would never take hold of me. This fear was somewhat alleviated when I overheard this phenomenon being referred to as a “girls’ problem” and, therefore, unlikely to affect me.  

Once, my sister was in a lot of pain, so my mother asked me to get some hot water bags for her. I sensed that the pain had gotten more severe. After much hesitation, my underlying concern for my sister finally made me confront my mother about the issue. Luckily, my mother is a gynaecologist. 

The first time she mentioned menstruation, I almost took out a ruler and a pencil. However, as she went on, things started to fall into place. Revelation upon revelation filled the blanks in my mind as things finally started making sense to me. Slowly, I realised how off-course I was. Those particular tissues were sanitary pads used by menstruators during menstruation, a normal biological process faced by roughly half the world.

Given how easily I understood this idea as an adolescent, I realised that the widespread notion that children should be sheltered from serious topics like this one is baseless. It is far more palatable and, dare I say, easier to teach a child about menstruation than a confused, self-conscious teenager. The problem is the taboo of the topic, creating an evident gap in education, particularly prevalent in rural areas of India. Even outside rural areas, few children are lucky enough to have informed parents willing to have these critical conversations. As a result, non-menstruators tend to absorb bleak beliefs from their surroundings and the internet. These perpetuate the stereotype of the process as impure, prohibiting women from the kitchen during their periods or wrapping sanitary pads in newspapers to ensure no one recognises them.

This lack of information causes many kids to form negative correlations with menstruation at an early age. Truth be told, there are many gaps in India’s menstrual education system, which collectively paint an intimidating, even scary, image of this simple biological process. Menstruation is looked at as some sort of a disease, menstrual blood is considered dirty, and a variety of myths like these do not portray the process in the right light. To make matters worse, the National Library of Medicine conducted a qualitative study exploring the concerning absence of menstrual education in most rural areas of India. 

How can so many people perceive an innately biological process as unnatural? Ironic? Yes. Devastating? Definitely. 

Did you know a menstruator loses about 60-80 milliliters of blood (2-3 tablespoonfuls) each month? On top of that, they go through the severe discomfort of abdominal pain, cramps, and nausea. Despite this, they stick with their daily schedule. They go to work. They take care of their households. They give exams. They are expected to go about their lives without considering their physical and mental states.  

At first glance, it might seem that the menstruating period is a painful week that all menstruators hope to pass quickly. While it is true that a lot of menstruators do have to persevere through the entire process, we must not undervalue how beautiful the process is. After all, it is initiated by the same process that brings life into our world. To make this experience safer and more comfortable for menstruators, we as a society need to accommodate some changes.

The first step of change begins in our homes. The non-menstruators in a house should first learn about the basic biology of menstruation. This will ensure they understand how this biological process is an entirely natural occurrence, further eliminating stigmatised views that young boys often catch in their early years from untrustworthy, inaccurate and even violent sources like online pornography. By knowing the basic process, they’ll create an understanding of a menstruator’s struggles, becoming approachable when menstruators need help and support, creating an understanding of their struggles. Empathy and respect for them will ultimately follow.  

The fact that even this fundamental lack of awareness has become so alien to people in India is a matter of utmost concern. I speak from personal experience when I say that putting an end to social tension when talking about a topic like menstruation is precisely what all of us need to create a safer space for menstruators and non-menstruators to flourish. 

Good talk, peeps.

Article by Aadi Raj Dewan from the REDefine Team

Featured Artwork by Sanvee Jatia

Holland, Kimberly. “How Much Blood Do You Lose on Your Period?” Healthline, 30 May 2018, https://www.healthline.com/health/how-much-blood-do-you-lose-on-your-period.

Mason, Linda, et al. “‘We Do Not Know’: A Qualitative Study Exploring Boys Perceptions of Menstruation in India.” Reproductive Health, vol. 14, no. 1, 2017, p. 174, doi:10.1186/s12978-017-0435-x.

Author: The REDefine Campaign

A group of students trying to spread the message and bring out of the shell the taboo topics of Menstrual and Sexual Health. The REDefine Campaign is a campaign devoted to helping the population of India understand the key parts of female's life that is known as puberty. This blog is designed to show our progress, reports as well as learnings and new experiences along our journey. We hope that one day this world that we live in will willingly and openly not only talk, but give advice and spread awareness of the bodily cycle that is puberty. We do hope that you learn something along with us, and please spread the word. For any questions please do not be afraid to comment and/or email us. Come along with us on our journey!

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