With the media spotlight on the issue of rape, the taboo of menstruation, and the lack of women’s rights in India, I’m reminded of two unique conversations I’ve had during my time in Hyderabad, India, where I work in a low-income private school as a social enterprise fellow.
While working on a project with 8th class students, I bonded with several girls in the class. One day, I saw a girl rushed from the classroom, flanked by friends, fear on her face and those of her peers, and girls whispering with each other and the school’s administrative assistant. A former 8th grader myself, I figured I knew what was going on, but I decided to ask the girls anyways. “Why did she leave in the middle of the school day in a rush?” I whispered to them. At first they didn’t want to say, but then they finally told me: “Because of her function, Madam.” The girls in India call their period’s “functions.” This led to a long, enlightening discussion on menstruation.
At first these girls were in shock that I too have “a function.” It’s not only common among women in India, I explained; it’s something women all over the world have. The girls, I realized, had no idea what periods are, that it related to child-bearing, or what was happening physically to their bodies. While my progressive middle school started teaching about periods in fifth grade, these 13-year-old girls were clueless. I explained to them what menstruation is and means, and how girls in the United States manage them. They shared how their periods were painful; how they have to sit isolated in their home and not be touched; and how they have to take special baths with spices, and others who touch them while they are menstruating have to do the same. After a girl gets her period, her family hosts a party for her where pictures are taken and she wears a half-sari. One girl took me to her home, and proudly showed me the large photos and the half-sari she wore for her function ceremony. Most stressful, however, is that they have to stay home and miss school. The girl ranked first in the class, yet to start her period, is terrified of it because she doesn’t want to have to miss school.
One of the reasons these girls miss school, beyond superstitious and pain reasons, is because the nature of India’s sanitation infrastructure makes periods difficult to manage. While it’s fairly easy to find pads and some menstrual cups in India, tampons are virtually non-existent. Making matters more difficult, traditional Indian bathrooms aren’t designed for women dealing with periods. There are usually no trashcans or toilet paper, and in schools like the one I work in, where the toilet is a hole in the ground, water from a bucket is used to “flush” the contents. For my school of 530 students, approximately half of which are girls, there is only one girl’s bathroom on an upper floor with only a couple of stalls. The bathroom is so dark and dank, with a safety hazard of leftover construction pieces on the floor, that I refuse to step foot in it, too scared to see the inside of the stalls. And I’ve been to some disgusting pit stop bathrooms in India. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for these young girls to handle their periods during school hours.
A few weeks after my discussion with the girls, I had an interesting conversation with my school’s principal about a recent incident at school. The principal was watching the classroom TV monitors when she noticed a girl and boy in 10th class touching—either consensually holding hands or leaning into each other. When she informed them that their conduct was inappropriate for the classroom, the girl, not wanting to get in trouble, immediately claimed that the boy’s approaches were unwanted, and called her mother. Her mother arrived at the school and chastised the boy in public, enough for him to cry. He was also punished by the school with daily lunch-time detention. When I asked the principal about the incident, she said that she knew that the boy and girl had an interest in each other, but the girl didn’t want to get punished by the school or her mother, so claimed otherwise. On the one hand, we should be grateful that a young woman was acknowledged, believed, and protected, as has sadly not been the case in many instances of sexual assault in India. On the other hand, this boy and girl were just being teenagers in lust, but their public display of affection is essentially forbidden in their community. Regardless of this specific situation, more troublesome is that the school cannot discuss issues of dating, sex, or sexual protection, unlike sexual education courses in many American high schools. It’s considered taboo, and many parents would not allow it, and don’t educate at home either.
Crushes are natural emotions by 10th class—these students are 15 and 16 years old. But in India arranged marriage is still very much the norm; a marriage that is not arranged is called a “love marriage.” And a 14-year-old girl dropping out of school for marriage is all too common, and not just in rural areas. Another fellow in my program attended such a wedding for a young girl from her school. Besides what is shown in Bollywood movies—which can be surprisingly sexual and at times disturbing in their male-female dynamics—dating and sex are unspoken topics, leaving little awareness for protection and much to the imagination and naiveté. Since internet access is still uncommon in low-income communities in India, it is an unused resource for awareness and exploration. My school’s principal, an open-minded and educated Indian woman, agreed that discussions on such topics as dating, sex, and sexually-transmitted disease prevention are important, but that she was restricted by community practice and expectations.
I don’t share these stories to judge Indian culture or any parent’s decision to not share information about menstruation, sex, and dating. I decided to share these stories given their relevance to the on-going, important discussion regarding women and India. More importantly, I want to encourage more discussion about strategies for Indian youth to safely and freely learn about issues such as menstruation and sex. It’s very difficult to do, requiring immense community buy-in and trust. One beacon of hope is Voice for Girls, which is rapidly scaling across India. They teach English and girl’s empowerment through learning about topics such as menstruation and nutrition. Their program is definitely a step in the right direction towards raising awareness and knowledge for young girls and boys, whom are otherwise left in the dark about these life-changing issues.