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US/INDIA: Let's Change Menstruation Culture

Dr. Shruti kapoor
Posted August 9, 2016 from India
Photo by Dominique Bergeron on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

What will it take to transform the way we view periods?

“Periods need to be normalized, and the only way to do this is to talk about them.

Sayfty | US/India

I was 9 years old when I started my menstrual cycle. My mom had a talk with me one day. She told me I would see some blood in my panties, and that it’s normal, and I need not worry. She told it would happen every month. I would need to use a pad. That was the only time we talked about menstruation.

Soon after, I began menstruating. Blood would appear promptly every month. I remember the first time it happened my mom made me skip school. She wanted to monitor me to see how I felt. I was only in grade 3—too young to understand why this was happening to me. All my friends didn’t experience menstruation until almost a year later.

Growing up in India, periods were never openly discussed at home. I learned about it briefly in biology class, but that was all the education I received. I do remember horrible cramps and being heavily dependent on pain medicines to help me get through. Some days I would lie down screaming on the floor in pain. My mom was always there to take care of me.

As I grew older, my periods brought with them a sense of embarrassment and an urgency to conceal that I was bleeding from others. Those five days each month were my secret days. I had to hide my cycle from my father and brother. I used code language: “I am on my cycle.” “It’s that time of the month.”

The pharmacist across the road wrapped my pads in brown paper and then in black polythene before handing them to me. I felt like I was buying drugs from him, taking great care to keep the transaction secret.

My grandmother and aunt believed that girls and women must not visit the temple when on their periods. I was repeatedly told not to enter the ‘puja’ room when on my cycle. This was a custom I loved breaking. I would secretly step into the tiny room at home while on my period just to see how God would react. Trust me, I soon learned he didn’t mind it.

Today, I am the founder of an organization called Sayfty. In a recent Twitter discussion that we organized, women around the world shared about various cultural practices related to periods. Across the board, it seems that periods are considered impure and women are made to feel dirty when on their menstrual cycle. Silence surrounds the topic, and most people (especially girls) are uncomfortable discussing it in public.

In Swaziland, if a woman is on her period she is not allowed to do household chores like cooking or washing dishes. She is supposed to keep her distance from the kitchen. Girls on their periods are punished and not allowed to play with other kids; instead, they are expected to stay at home.

In some parts of Nepal, girls are banished to sheds during menstruation. Nepal even has a national holiday so that women can wash themselves of menstruation sins.

In countries like India and Pakistan, menstruation remains hush-hush. In fact, it is so taboo that one Pakistani male participant in Sayfty’s Twitter chat received an SMS chiding him for talking about this subject publicly.

There are not many menstruation-positive cultural practices, but they do exist. In some Punjabi cultures, it’s absolutely normal to have your period and read the Guru Granth Sahib. In a temple in Assam, menstruating goddess Kamakhya devi is worshipped and considered auspicious, signifying that it’s not religion that brings shame; it’s culture.

We need to change the culture. Let’s provide education before menarche to help break the taboo and help girls develop healthy habits. And let’s help formalize positive rituals to mark the start of menstruation.

A big hug, chocolates, pads, and sharing stories would be a great way to bring attention to menstruation and eliminate fear and embarrassment. Periods need to be normalized, and the only way to do this is to talk about them.

Regardless of gender, we must talk to our children about menstruation. We must provide education to remove stigma associated with this normal biological process.

What better day than today to get this conversation started and take a step towards breaking the taboo?

Comments 16

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  • ShamithaD
    Aug 10, 2016
    Aug 10, 2016

    Such a great article. It is unfortunate that periods are seen as a taboo in certain countries. I am glad efforts are being made to shift this culture. 

  • Dr. Shruti kapoor
    Aug 10, 2016
    Aug 10, 2016

    Thank you Shamitha. True, it's not a problem of developing countries, period is a taboo in countries like UK, US and Canada do. By talking about it & openly sharing stories, hopefully we will be able to make this normal and not something to hush hush about!

  • Sammy Sahni
    Aug 10, 2016
    Aug 10, 2016

    A great read. Aptly sums up  the experiences of most Indian girls of our generation. 

  • Dr. Shruti kapoor
    Aug 10, 2016
    Aug 10, 2016

    Thank you Sammy, do you have any period stories to share from growing up? Do tell us!

  • Namrata Sadhvani
    Aug 10, 2016
    Aug 10, 2016

    Great article Shruti. I'm glad it also talks about some of the period positive stories as well. We need to build on those and make conversation about periods as normal as possible.

  • Dr. Shruti kapoor
    Aug 11, 2016
    Aug 11, 2016

    Namrata, many thanks! Yes it's important to share the positive stories as well. Those will serve as examples of how we can break the taboo and make this a great experience for all girls. 

  • Karuna Dayal
    Aug 12, 2016
    Aug 12, 2016

    Shruti! You article is a stepping stone and an excellent way to start a conversation with youth who face maximum taboo while growing up. This surely is a way forward to start some positive interaction in schools, with parents, organisations working with adolescents for breaking down patriarchal mindsets, shame, embarrassment and instilling confidence in young lives. Best!

  • Dr. Shruti kapoor
    Aug 14, 2016
    Aug 14, 2016

    Karuna, many thanks for your kind comments. I wish schools would spend more time educating both boys and girls about menstruation. Encourage an open and healthy dialogue on this topic. Unless we openly speak about our menstrual experiences it will continue to be a taboo topic in so many homes. 

  • Lydia Martin
    Aug 14, 2016
    Aug 14, 2016

    Dear Shruti,

    What an excellent article. There is no better time to begin discussing and normalising the subject of menstruation than right now, the 21st century! Even as an American girl with all of my rights and freedoms, menstruation still often felt like a dark secret, something not meant to be discussed unless making disparaging jokes about it with friends, something embarrassing and unmentionable and even repulsive especially to boyfriends and male relatives. But now that I've been dealing with it for a decade and a half, I realise that half of the world's population also struggles with this inevitable event, and often in much less liberal, safe, or clean environments than my own. So why is it so taboo? Women need support! Menstruation is not our fault, not something we choose, and definitely not something sinful; but it's something we all go through and all need to be strong enough to handle. So I completely agree that we should start talking with girls and boys, men and women, about this normal biological process that nearly every woman in any of our lives has experienced. In place of secrecy, knowledge; in place of shame, understanding. And above all, I like your idea of sharing chocolates :)

    Thank you for daring to speak up about this subject. Best of luck to us all as we begin the challenge of normalising it in our homes.

    LightMyWay (Lydia)

    P.S. I think it's so cool that Kamakhya devi is a menstruating goddess who is still respected and worshipped. Girl power!

  • Dr. Shruti kapoor
    Aug 14, 2016
    Aug 14, 2016

    Lydia, Thank you so much for sharing your personal experience. I am always intrigued when I hear that menstruation is such a taboo topic all over the world. Like you mentioned even with all your rights, freedom and awareness, it was still something that had to be hidden and be ashamed about. How sad. Where did you first learn about menstruation? Are you doing anything actively now to normalize this taboo experience? 

  • Courtney Randolph
    Aug 26, 2016
    Aug 26, 2016

    This was a great article to read. I believe we still need more education on feminine hygiene here in America. Especially for girl who do not have mothers or a responsible female role model. I can not imagine how many girls out there start their menstrual cycle and have no idea how to care for themselves. I believe it would help if there were also classes on how to care for yourself before a girl even begins. That way when the day comes she will know what to do and not be humiliated in school or in the play yard. Girls here in America are starting their menstrual cycles as early as ten and I believe probably even earlier. I have a 9 year old and I prepare her all the time by making the conversation, casual, relaxed and random. I do not scare here by introducing the topic with "We need to talk..." I am always sure to make her feel like it is like a right of passage to the next step of womanhood.

    I am glad I read this article. I knew that access to sanitary pads was an issue in developing countries but I never knew the extent to which the subject was so taboo in other places in the world.

    I've always wanted to start "The Pynk Bag" as an extension of my brand where I collect donations of feminine hygiene products and give them to areas where women can not afford them and bring education to young girls about female reproductive system. 

  • Courtney Randolph
    Aug 26, 2016
    Aug 26, 2016

    Here in America you think its normalized because you see so many commercials promoting sanitary napkins but then you come to the realization that the commercial is not education at all just promoting a product.

  • Dr. Shruti kapoor
    Sep 06, 2016
    Sep 06, 2016

    Well said Pynk. The aim of these commercials is primarily to sell & not to educate. Which is sad because they can really accomplish both if they chose to. 

  • Ayako Ezaki
    Sep 02, 2016
    Sep 02, 2016

    Thank you for sharing! I was excited to learn that there was "a male participant" in Sayfty’s Twitter chat (from Pakistan), even though his speaking out seems to have led to others reacting negatively to it.

    A key part of the problem, I think, is our cultures turning what is a perfectly normal and healthy part of human existence into a "weird thing girls / women have", and so, (as is the case with many gender issues) we need boys and men to be part of the solution and proactive participants in the process of encouraging positive conversations and promoting education. The Pakistani man (along with other male participants in the Twitter chat) - the fact that he was there - was a great example of that.

    And this reminded me of this widely covered story from a while ago about Arunachalam Muruganantham's sanitary pads production business in Southern India which has succeeded against all odds. I loved the story because of Mr. Muruganantham's conviction, courage and sense of humor. And his story is also proof that people's attitude towards periods can change, and reinforces the point Dr. Kapoor makes about menstruation 'taboo' in traditional cultures: "it’s not religion that brings shame; it’s culture".

    Another positive story related to this topic I'd like to share is this TEDx talk by Aditi Gupta. I think that her organization's approach to using approachable and culturally-appropriate educational materials to raise awareness is also a great example of the kind of educational solution needed in many communities.

  • Dr. Shruti kapoor
    Nov 02, 2016
    Nov 02, 2016

    Very well said Ayako. We do need more men & boys in the conversation & in that sense I feel our #sayftychat has successfully been able to involve men regularly in these conversations. Do join us every Monday at 11am on Twitter for a chat. You also quote some very good examples. I am familiar with the work of both Aditi and Arunachalam. They indeed are doing excellent work in the field. 

  • franelle
    Dec 13, 2016
    Dec 13, 2016

    good day Mrs Doctor,

    a slogan : taboo so long, disaster heart so quick

    cordialement de France

    Fr.