Aditi Gupta, co-founder of Menstrupedia, discusses A Taboo-Free Way to Talk About Periods at TEDxGatewayWomen Conference. This event occurred on May 29, 2015 in Mumbai. Below is the full transcript.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: free way to talk about periods | Aditi Gupta | TEDxGatewayWomen
Periods. Blood. Menstruation. Gross. Secret. Hidden. Why? A natural biological process that every girl and woman goes through every month for about half of her life. A phenomenon that is so significant that the survival and propagation of our species depends on it. Yet we consider it a taboo. We feel awkward and shameful talking about it.
When I got my first periods, I was told to keep it a secret from others — even from my father or brother. Later when this chapter appeared in our textbooks, our biology teacher skipped the subject. You know what I learned from it? I learned that it is really shameful to talk about it. I learned to be ashamed of my body. I learned to stay unaware about periods in order to stay decent.
Research in various parts of India shows that 3 out of every 10 girl is not aware about menstruation at the time of her first periods. And in some parts of Rajasthan this number is as high as 9 out of 10 girls being unaware about it. You’d be surprised to know that most of the girls that I have spoken to, who did not know about periods at the time of their first menstruation thought that they have got blood cancer and they’re going to die soon.
Menstrual hygiene is a very important risk factor for reproductive tract infections. But in India, only 12% of girls and women have access to hygienic ways of managing their periods. If you do the math, 88% of girls and women use unhygienic ways to manage their periods. I was one of them.
I grew up in a small town called Garhwa, in Jharkhand, where even buying a sanitary napkin is considered shameful. So when I started getting my periods, I began with using rags. After every use I would wash and reuse them. But to store them, I would hide and keep it in a dark, damp place so that nobody finds out that I’m menstruating. Due to repeated washing the rags would become coarse, and I would often get rashes and infections using them. I bore this ordeal for five years until I moved out of that town.
Another issue that periods brought in my life was those of the social restrictions that are imposed upon our girls and women when they’re on their periods. I think you all must be aware about it, but I’ll still list it for the few who don’t. I was not allowed to touch or eat pickles. I was not allowed to sit on the sofa or some other family member’s bed. I had to wash my bed sheet after every period, even if it was not stained. I was considered impure and forbidden from worshipping or touching any object of religious importance. You’ll find signboards outside temples denying the entry of menstruating girls and women.
Ironically, most of the time it is the older woman who imposes such restrictions on younger girls in a family. After all, they have grown up accepting such restrictions as norms. And in the absence of any intervention, it is the myth and misconception that propagate from generation to generation.
During my years of work in this field, I have even come across stories where girls have to eat and wash their dishes separately. They’re not allowed to take baths during periods, and in some households they are even secluded from other family members. About 85% of girls and women in India would follow one or more restrictive customs on their periods every month. Can you imagine what this does to the self-esteem and self-confidence of a young girl? The psychological trauma that this inflicts, affecting her personality, her academic performance and every single aspect of growing up during her early formative years?
I religiously followed all these restrictive customs for 13 years, until a discussion with my partner, Tuhin, changed my perception about menstruation forever. In 2009, Tuhin and I were pursuing our postgraduation in design. We fell in love with each other and I was at ease discussing periods with him. Tuhin knew little about periods. He was astonished to know that girls get painful cramps and we bleed every month. Yeah. He was completely shocked to know about the restrictions that are imposed upon menstruating girls and women by their own families and the society.
In order to help me with my cramps, he would go on the Internet and learn more about menstruation. When he shared his findings with me, I realized how little I knew about menstruation myself. And many of my beliefs actually turned out to be myths. That’s when we wondered: if we, being so well educated, were so ill-informed about menstruation, there would be millions of girls out there who would be ill-informed, too.
To study — to understand the problem better, I undertook up a year-long research to study the lack of awareness about menstruation and the root cause behind it. While it is generally believed that menstrual unawareness and misconception is a rural phenomenon, during my research, I found that it is as much an urban phenomenon as well. And it exists with the educated urban class, also.
While talking to many parents and teachers, I found that many of them actually wanted to educate girls about periods before they have started getting their menstrual cycle. And — but they lacked the proper means themselves. And since it is a taboo, they feel inhibition and shameful in talking about it.