Menstruation is concomitant with womanhood. Nevertheless, in my adolescence, I was taught to deal with this as a taboo subject. But, that was a while ago. What is the situation now? How does the modern adolescent girl, in this age, deal with this inevitable body function? Has the silence around ‘those five days’ been broken? It was with these thoughts that I embarked upon a study to explore what adolescent girls in small towns think of menstruation, and how to deal with it.
Recently, I happened to chat with a bunch of 12-14- year old girls about menstruation, and what they thought about it. The girls were shy and uncomfortable in the beginning. Gradually, they began to open up and what followed was a very engrossing discussion. Every single girl in the group had something to say from her own personal experience. While many of the stories sounded similar, a few were rather unusual.
When I was growing up, despite the silence and the taboo, my mother had taken care to introduce the concept of menstruation to me. When I attained menarche, I was mentally prepared to handle it. Contrary to what I had experienced, most of the girls I spoke to practically had no information about menstruation from their mothers. On the other hand, many of them had been told that they had to inform an aunt or an elderly woman in the neighbourhood at the onset of their first period. It was a popular belief that informing the mother or the grandmother would bring bad luck to the girl for her entire life. The girls also said that during the course of their first period they were made to sit on a wooden plank in a secluded area of the house for a period of 7 to 10 days. Some of them were also made to remain there for as long as two weeks. Once the period of seclusion was over, some families celebrated the occasion with a grand ceremony to which neighbours and relatives were invited.
However, once this celebration was over, the girls were not expected to speak about their periods openly even with their own mothers. Their monthly cycle was to be ‘suffered’ in silence, because of which girls got the basic information from their peers, who were as ill-informed as themselves. This had resulted in a variety of misconceptions around menstruation and menstrual hygiene.
The girls also reported that several restrictions were imposed on them during their monthly menstrual cycle. They were prohibited from attending any religious festivals, going to the temple, prevented from entering the kitchen or hanging out with their friends and family members. Some of them were even prevented from eating certain kinds of foods.
“During my periods, my family behaves like I have got a contagious disease. I am not even allowed to touch anyone else,” said one girl, while some others reported that they had to refrain from eating some kinds of foods. Anything sweet was forbidden because it was popularly believed that eating sweets would result in increased blood flow, which would be detrimental to the health of the girl.
Attending school during the menstrual cycle continued to be a nightmare, with problems being faced at every stage from travelling to school to concentrating in the classroom to changing sanitary pads. “Taking a sanitary pad out of my bag, carrying it discreetly to the toilet and safely disposing of the used pad, is not at all easy,” said one girl. Her story reminded me of my school days.
While government schools have made a small attempt to make girls comfortable during their monthly cycle by offering them six packets of free sanitary napkins each month, the girls were not comfortable using them. “These pads are not very absorbent,” they said, adding that most of them took the packets and gave them to their mothers, who used them along with the usual cloth. The girls, on the other hand, preferred to use branded sanitary pads, which they got from the local pharmacy.
Home remedies were still the most popular form of treatment to deal with problems and discomfort associated with menstruation. Most of the girls said that they had never thought of consulting a physician for any period-related discomfort like stomach aches or cramps. Coconut oil, turmeric powder, fenugreek seeds, castor oil etc., continued to be the sought-after remedies during those five days. Superstitious beliefs continued to thrive around everything related to menstruation, some of them even leading to unintended good. “My grandmother says if I don’t dispose of the used napkin properly I will get Naga Dosha,” said one girl to my amusement. At least proper disposal was being taken care of, I thought.
As the discussion came to a close, I realised that taboos and irrational fear continued to abound around everything related to menstruation. It is very important that girls are not only educated about menstruation and menstrual hygiene but also to be given lessons that would trigger a positive perception about their monthly period, thereby boosting their self-esteem. Parents, especially mothers, had to be brought into the ambit of discussion and talking about menstruation and menstrual management had to be encouraged.
S. Elizabeth Prasanna, Social Worker,