Down, chums, aunty Flo, periods. There’s an abundance of names for menstruation but a lack of menstrual education. God forbid if anyone shows a sanitary napkin or tampon in public. In order to make a change we must start conversations early and what better way to start than in school?
Period Education: Would it get your attention if it were a Netflix series?
Saba Malik is a currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in English honours and psychology from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi University. She is an avid advocate of awareness for women’s health and gender issues. She is a baking enthusiast and loves reading and writing about issues concerning women.
Here in India, we are not known for talking about or even acknowledging women’s health issues. They are often reduced to dirty, sexual, or “private” problems. One such taboo topic that needs urgent normalisation is menstruation. Do you remember that one awkward yet exciting chapter in class 10th biology on Reproduction? This one class always ended up having full attendance even though the teachers skimped through it, and most students were just there for laughs! A part of this chapter talks about the menstrual cycle, but according to most health agencies, the average age for a girl to get her periods is 12. So why do schools wait for so long to introduce us to this fundamental biological concept? Is it because society has ingrained in us that periods are something shameful? Or that they are not to be talked about? Or that they are dirty and impure? There are many reasons, but most of them make no sense!
For all those who’re still lost about what exactly I’m talking about, menstruation ‘is the regular discharge of blood and mucosal tissue from the inner lining of the uterus through the vagina.’ Simple enough, right? And nothing sexual, obscene, or mucky so far? Which leads me to the million-dollar question, ‘Why do we need to talk about this?’
Women have gone through this alone and unguided from the beginning of time and have faced social stigma, taboos, and discrimination. They are told that it’s soiled and deplorable, they are denied entry into places of worship and kitchens, some even have to sleep outside their homes to keep the house “pure and clean”. Women grow up thinking that this one week every month, they need to be caged away like a dirty little secret. It is no wonder that at the same time, innumerable women also died due to the lack of knowledge about or resources regarding hygienic menstrual periods, with no access to clean water, sterile sanitary products, or even the most basic understanding that roots itself in science rather than myth. In a report by WaterAid, it was brought to light that unsanitary conditions are among the top five killers of women worldwide.
It was found in a 2014 report by the NGO Dasra, that nearly 23 million girls decide to quit school every year due to the lack of menstrual hygiene facilities. These include access to period products such as sanitary napkins and the correct scientific information about it. What was highly disconcerting was that the same report highlighted that 70% of mothers with menstruating daughters considered menstruation as dirty, and 71% of adolescent girls were uninformed about menstruation till menarche. Fortunately name brands like Whisper are now taking up responsibility and coming forward with campaigns like ‘Keep Girls In School’ to prevent them from dropping out when they get their periods. The company came forward with a film that shed light on the fact that 1 in 5 girls who start menstruating drop out of school every year. To bridge this gap, Whisper pledged to reach five crore girls by 2022 and improve the existing menstrual education. An initiative by the Delhi government also provided a sigh of relief. Delhi government schools will hold period talks where an NGO Sachhi Saheli will answer menstruation questions under a campaign called ‘Break the Bloody taboo’
In my attempt to understand how different schools deal with educating it’s students about menstruation, I talked to girls of different ages and from various schools all over India. I found that most schools don’t even address the topic in the right way. Some schools allowed senior students to have a quick chat with junior ones. Some used promotional events by hygiene product companies, and most of them decided to leave it for self-education. What concerns me about this is that should 15/16-year-old girls teach the younger girls something they barely know about? This not only allows myths and stigmas to be passed down but also generates a “normal” standard of what periods are supposed to be like and thus creating shame in the minds of those who didn’t resonate with the experiences of their elders. The schools that used external speakers to come to take up workshops might have had good intentions. The end product was companies trying to have a more extensive customer base and promoting only their products rather than spreading awareness or demystifying the understanding, if any, about periods. Out of all the schools, only one school put in a sanitary pad incinerator and had a proper conversation among teachers and students. Most of these conversations happened around 10th grade. By that time, most girls already had their periods and formed their understanding, which may or may not be complete or well informed. It is necessary to have these conversations early and appropriately. In these conversations, what was highlighted was the culture of hiding period products, whether you get it from the infirmary or as part of the workshops. Girls were told to “hide” the pads in their pockets or make sure no boys see it.
This brings me to the highly problematic culture of “girls only”. Ironically, while the word is MENstruation, and most men are absolutely devoid of what it entails. The already prevalent discomfort about the period talk is not helped by the fact that an entire gender is entirely excused. Young boys are told it’s not for you, and this can keep them ignorant of an important part of women’s lived experiences.. From a very young age, girls are taught that periods aren’t something you talk about with the other gender. With most schools tell girls to hide the pad up their sleeve or in their bags and make sure no boys see. It not only encourages period shaming, which has caused many girls and even women to leave the outside world and hide for a week every month but also means that young boys will grow up ignorant and unsympathetic of periods and menstrual management. With this lack of communication and understanding, women also grow up to feel uncomfortable and impure. Understandably, a few talks may be kept only for girls, but boys shouldn’t be entirely excluded from female biology. Boys should understand that unhygienic menstrual practices are fatal and that periods are not unclean. There are a plethora of illnesses that arise from lack of understanding and hence the management of periods like dermatitis, urinary tract infections, genital tract infection, alteration in the pH balance of vaginal secretions, bacterial vaginosis, all leading to increased susceptibility to cervical cancer.
The myths and misconceptions that bubble around the word menstruation are not only flabbergasting but also terrifying. There are widespread misconceptions about period products. For instance, using a tampon will “take away your virginity,” which is simply not true. “In fact, according to a 2016 study, eight of ten Indian girls are not allowed to enter religious shrines when they are on their period; six of ten girls are not allowed to touch food in the kitchen, and three of 10 are asked to sleep in a separate room.” One of the reasons that these practices still exist comfortably in society is that schools do not educate students of all genders enough to break these taboos and understand that periods are not filthy! Problems are more severe in rural areas than in urban areas. A 2015 survey by the Ministry of Education found that in 63% of schools in villages, teachers never discussed menstruation and how to deal with it hygienically. There is a blatant disregard for sanitary practices with products like hygienic napkins being absent from most rural schools. Children teasing and shaming girls, mothers telling their daughters to stay in, and illnesses caused due to unhygienic conditions are all too common. On the contrary, the schools that provide sanitary products charge up to Rs.20 for a single pad even though most school fees include a medical charge and thus exclude a chunk of the population to have access to health care.
Our education system is far from discussing sustainability and various product options when it can not even openly talk about periods in general. Sustainable menstruation refers to practices where environment-friendly alternatives to menstrual products are used, which do not produce waste. Girls must know these things because ‘tampons, pads, and panty liners, along with their packaging and individual wrapping, generate more than 200,000 tonnes of waste per year’. They all contain about 90% plastic. Schools need to teach students about periods and tell them about the various options they have concerning the products they can use and their pros and cons. This allows girls to make sensible choices.
But don’t lose all hope because there are companies like Menstrupedia, which share information in a comic form. It aims to remove the taboo and make the biological process of puberty healthy for both men and women. Schools could start by having such magazines in their libraries and allowing students to read and learn through the right, informative and fun sources. Even UNICEF has a “Period lesson plan: guide to menstruation for teachers” to help schools adopt pro-period practices and encourage teachers to talk about it with students explicitly. Periods shouldn’t be left to the children to understand on their own; we must consciously fight against the misinformation and replace it with the right information through the correct channels sooner than later.
What saddens me the most is that menstruation has been reduced to an unspeakable ‘women’s issue” covered in myths, stigmas, taboos, newspapers, and black polythenes. It also comes down to the fact that this is indeed a form of gender discrimination. Nothing can explain this better than a quote from the upside-down world in an article written by Gloria Steinem, U.S. feminist writer, titled “If Men Could Menstruate,”
“If men could menstruate…clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event: Men would brag about how long and how much…Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free. Of course, some men would still pay for the prestige of such commercial brands as Paul Newman Tampons, Muhammed Ali’s Rope-a-Dope Pads, John Wayne Maxi Pads, and Joe Namath Jock Shields – ‘For Those Light Bachelor Days.’”
If men were to menstruate it would be a talk of pride and not hidden away the way it is now. Young boys would brag about the duration and intensity of their periods and it would become a measure of strength. Yet we call women weak when they go through this every month for a large chunk of their lives.
In a society where periods are highly misunderstood, ads still show blue water instead of red, schools don’t have the proper facilities for hygienic menstrual practices, sanitary napkins are not available to most, period shaming is the norm, men are either too embarrassed or too misinformed, women are so ashamed or excluded that many lose their lives and periods are often labelled as an excuse, we still wonder why we need period education in school!
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