Breaking the silence around menstruation

MHM meeting in Lalpur, Uttar Pradesh WaterAid/Dhiraj Singh

“What do you do when you are expecting guests in the house?” Anju Maurya. She’s sitting with a group of women of all ages under a shady tree in front of village Panchayat Office in Sonva (Bakshi Ka Talab block of Lucknow). “I prepare some nice food,” one lady pipes up. “I make sure my house is clean,” says another. “I plan how best to entertain them…” says a young girl. Anju, a block coordinator with WaterAid’s field partner Vatsalya smiles at the group. “This is exactly how all of us must prepare for our period! We all know roughly when it is going to come – so like you’d prepare for a guest, keep some cotton strips cleaned and ready, make sure you look after our own nutrition and plan your time well!” She shows them a flashcard with two pictures – one of a smiling woman and the other, of a downcast one. “The ones who treat their period like a monthly visitor that they are ready to welcome, look like her,” she says, pointing to the picture of a happy woman. “Those who don’t, could end up like the sad woman in this picture!” Next, she shows a flash card with the diagram of a woman’s reproductive system. “Can anyone tell me what this is?” she asks. One woman answers correctly while others giggle that it looks ironically like a bulls head.

MHM meeting in Lalpur, UP
WaterAid/Dhiraj Singh
Anju conducting a session with the women

There is almost a carnival-like atmosphere here. The women laugh and talk among themselves as they share their own period stories. “They all know they can say whatever they like for this is a safe space,” says Anju. The conversations within the group are interesting: “When I started coming to these meetings, I realized every woman shares my fate…” says one. Others said that it was only when Anju had told them that they realized that periods and pregnancy were so deeply inter-connected. It enabled them to look at their own experiences differently when they finally understood why they had periods in the first place. Others at the back of the group spoke in whispers about `safe’ and `unsafe’ times for sex.

Meetings such as this one have helped make menstruation relatively more mainstream in Sonva village today. “I encourage women of all ages to come for these meetings,” says Anju, the feisty young activist who whizzes around the village on her scooty. “Very often, there are young girls who haven’t even started their period. They listen intently too, and hopefully when their time comes, they will be more matter-of-fact about it.”

The conversation next veers on how to prepare cloth pads for those who can’t afford store-bought sanitary napkins. “You can use any old cotton cloth for this,” says Anju, “but ensure that you wash it in disinfectant and dry in full sun!” A woman says that she is embarrassed to do this. “What if anyone sees it?” she asks. Before Anju can say anything, some of the other women tell her that periods are nothing to be ashamed of. “Every woman gets them and they are the reason why every person on earth is born!” they say. 

Among the group is the village ASHA nurse, Priyanka Devi. “Earlier, many women here used to get infections because of the improper usage of dirty cloth,” she says. “Now, as the silence is being broken and they are learning how to maintain hygiene during those days, I’m seeing fewer such health issues…”

MHM meeting in Lalpur, Uttar Pradesh
WaterAid/Dhiraj Singh
Women listen intently to Anju as she explains the various aspects of menstruation

Bringing periods out into the open has had other positive consequences. 14-year-old Jaya Gupta, a Peer Educator in Sonva and class ten student of the Government Secondary School, avers that the new-found openness on menstruation in her village has given her a great deal of confidence and support. Earlier, the shame and taboo around menstruation was such that Jaya would feel very alone when she was on her period. “We didn’t even talk about periods among our friends, let alone to our families,” she says. “Now when I go into the community to change attitudes towards hygiene and sanitation, I openly talk about safe sanitary waste disposal,” she says. Moreover, a bond of sisterhood borne out of shared experience seems to be developing among neighbours, sisters, mothers and daughters. “The best thing is that for the first time, I’ve been able to talk about periods openly with my mother,” Jaya says. “It something I’d never even thought was possible earlier…”