MUMBAI, India – If a snake touches your used sanitary pad, you’ll never get pregnant. Don’t touch pickles during your cycle; they’ll go bad. Don’t cook. Don’t enter the temple. Sleep on the floor – use a rug given to you especially for these days. If you don’t get your period, you’ll die.
By now, Snehal Chaudhari has heard every myth about menstruation. And five years ago, she set up the Kshitij Foundation, a Mumbai-based NGO, to try to stamp them out.
The 26-year-old software engineer says it all started when she saw firsthand how being unprepared for the onset of menstruation could badly affect girls. While visiting an orphanage in remote Maharashtra, a state in west-central India, she came across a 13-year-old girl who had locked herself in the bathroom.
“I have blood cancer,” the girl cried inconsolably. Chaudhari introduced her to the process and normality of menstruation, assuming that the girl’s lack of knowledge was due to living in an orphanage.
However, as Chaudhari delved deeper into the issue, she realized that the problem was common in a number of Indian households, even in cities. She established her foundation is response. She says she has now reached out to 10,000 girls across 50 Indian villages, busting myths about periods.
Ignorance Is a Health Hazard
“It’s not just about taboos,” says Chaudhari, who also heads the Women and Child Development Programme at the Wockhardt Foundation, “It’s also the health hazards that result from them.”
She says, “In India, cloth pads are commonly used during periods, and because girls are taught to keep menstruation a secret, they wash these cloth pads in dirty ponds before reuse, dry them in filthy corners, and store them in dark, dirty places. Girls drop out of schools after the onset of menstruation, or miss school simply because of the fear of staining.”
A study published by A.C. Nielsen and UNICEF in 2016 found that only 28 percent of girls were currently using sanitary pads in the eastern Indian states of Bihar and Jharkhand. Many women and girls in these states, and in other parts of India, use alternatives such as unsanitized cloths or rugs and ashes.
The same study reveals that 70 percent of Indian girls feel completely unprepared for their first menstrual experience because of the stigma around discussing menstruation.
The restrictions placed on menstruating girls can also lead to secrecy and potential ill-health. In 2016, a study in the British Medical Journal, also funded by UNICEF, found that 77 percent of menstruating women and girls in India faced restrictions against praying, visiting places of worship and touching religious items; 38 percent faced food-related restrictions; while 26 percent were asked to sleep separately.
Dr. Ashvini Gawande, a gynecologist working in Maharashtra, says that she has encountered several cases where girls who’ve just started menstruating have refrained from sharing the news with their families, fearing the restrictions they’ve seen their friends experience.
“The restrictions are so many that girls start slipping into depression,” she says. “They’re made to sit in a corner, and start fearing interaction with the opposite gender. Many of them believe that if they come in touch with boys after they start menstruating or after their breasts develop, they’ll get pregnant.”
An Uphill Battle
Chaudhari first tried to hold her educational workshops in remote and urban Indian schools, but these initial efforts were met with strong resistance. She was frowned upon for being vocal about what was seen as a shameful issue.
Relatives complained to her parents, saying she wouldn’t be able to find a suitable husband because of her “antics.” Teachers at the schools she approached to conduct sessions avoided her calls.
But, she says, awareness is gradually increasing, and people are becoming more receptive to her message.
“I was recently invited to deliver a lecture in a temple at Solapur [a city in southwestern India]. This is a phenomenal achievement, because the most common menstrual restriction in India is against entering temples,” she says.
Stories of Shame, Stories of Hope
Now, Chaudhari is collecting first-hand testimony from women and girls about their first periods, and sharing them on social media. In May this year, she started the #BleedTheSilence campaign, and has since received hundreds of stories, poems and sketches from women, girls and even men and boys.
One girl shared the list of restrictions she was handed the moment she got her first period. A boy questioned why murderers are allowed in temples, but menstruating women are not. A father shared the story of his efforts to bring about prejudice-free discussions about menstruation in his home. And a pharmacist has spoken against the practice of concealing sanitary napkins in black, translucent bags before selling them.
One girl who practiced boxing shared her story of what should have been a triumphant moment:
“After I won a difficult boxing match, no one seemed to congratulate me – neither my coach, nor my team. Instead, everybody just stared.
“Soon, my friend rushed to me from the audience, and informed [me] that my pants had red stains. I froze that instant, and tears rolled down my cheeks. But even after I cleaned up, I noticed that the stares continued to follow me.
“I was ashamed, disgusted with myself, and to make things worse, everybody kept laughing at me for weeks after that incident. I obviously gave up boxing thereafter.”
Not all the stories are of stigma and shame. One girl told the foundation how her family had celebrated her first period.
“My parents had heard that some Indian communities celebrate the onset of a girl’s first period. They liked the idea, and although we don’t belong to that community, my family celebrated my first period.
“That day, my mom told me something very important. She said, ‘Menstruation is the most beautiful thing that can happen to a girl. This makes you capable of giving birth to a new life, so never feel bad about it.’”