The Bloody Taboo: Interview with Swati Singh the founder of MUHEEM

Hygienic menstruation goes beyond just the use of pads or cloth. It demands a large behavioural shift  which requires both men and women to talk about periods - Swati Singh

To talk about periods among the urban educated men, women, and teens is difficult. But, choosing to talk about menstruation amongst rural populations- women, girls and, men is more than just difficult.  

However, Swati Singh the founder of MUHEEM or the Multidimensional Upliftment, Humanistic Evaluation and Empowerment of Marginalized, an organization that works in spreading awareness about a simple, natural act which is shrouded in shame, silence and misinformation for centuries, is making this more than just possible.

Swati, a mass communications graduate from the Benaras Hindu University, established MUHEEM in 2017 along with a group of her classmates- all men. The team of seven men travels from village to village and demystify periods- why they happen, how they happen, and how should they be tackled in a hygienic and safe manner by using menstrual health products.

Swati’s inspiration for MUHEEM came one day when she was having a conversation about ‘mahavari’ with her mass communication classmates inside the BHU campus. A few research scholars stopped by to listen in. Though no one said anything at that time, Swati heard that she was being called a woman of loose morals because she was openly talking about periods.

This shook Swati – “ This statement was by a research scholar who would go on to teach one day. So, I felt a need for a conversation around periods because if an educated person can think like this then in villages things would definitely be very challenging. This is how we got the idea for MUHEEM. We are a close-knit team of seven and I am the only woman.”

“Mera period aayega toh main darongi nahin.” (I will not be scared when I start menstruating)

Fear is the dominant reaction of young teens on reaching menarche. They feel they have accidentally hurt themselves or have contracted a deadly fatal disease. Due to this fear,  they hide the bleeding. But, when the flow gets heavy, they have no recourse but to open up to their mothers who give them a rag and ask them to stuff it in their panties… and not tell anyone!

It didn’t take long for Swati and her team to unearth this dynamic of fear, shame, guilt and disease surrounding menstruation in some of the poorest households of UP. It is actually very much the same story everywhere, except the language and the menstrual product used by a woman are different.

Women fear periods because of the intense shame associated with the act of menstruating!

And language locates this fear in their bodies. The parts of the bodies that bleed are called ‘guptang’ or the secret organs…hence these parts are never spoken about or even looked at.

I had read somewhere society encourages little boys to develop a healthy self-esteem about their sex organs and sexuality. But, little girls’ bottoms are always covered up. Even baby girls as young as one year are not allowed to go bare-bottomed in houses. They are covered up. By the time the girl is 11 or 12 and begins to menstruate, the covering up is almost total.

“Our first session in workshops in villages is with mothers and daughters. It is designed to build a level of trust and comfort so women can start talking about periods. What I have noticed is that teenage girls know nothing at all about their sexual parts. They think that they only have one orifice down under- from where they pee. They think that they bleed and give birth through the same hole.”

This urgent need for information on menstruation prompted Swati’s MUHEEM to participate in a research-based project called ‘My First Blood’ in December 2017 along with ‘Womania’ and ‘Lok Samiti’.

They built a database of menstrual taboos prevalent in UP that girls have to follow during their period. They can’t run or play, pray or visit a temple, touch small babies, touch pickles as they will spoil, eat sour food, enter the kitchen or cook, wear or touch new clothes… the list goes on and on. The menstrual blood is impure and they are impure!

We know that in certain parts of India like Assam, menstruating girls are not allowed to sleep on beds and are forced to sleep on the floor even in the extreme winter. Sometimes, girls are packed –off to go and sleep in cow sheds during this time in the interiors... Women follow these rules because they don’t want to be ostracized and they, in turn, make their daughters follow the same age-old traditions… it’s a vicious circle.

Talking about menstruation without shame

In a short span of just a year, MUHEEM has worked in 50 villages in the UP and spoken about periods with over 3000 women.

While Swati talks to the girls, the male menstrual ambassadors educate the men in the village. The effect of this advocacy is sometimes so positive that the men go home and send their wives and daughters to attend MUHEEM workshops.

In a new village, Swati breaks the ice by talking about white discharge. Almost 70 percent women suffer from this chronic problem.  

Breaking the period stigma

Women have internalized the message that they become impure during their periods. Swati demystifies menstruation and explains how periods happen. The uterus sheds the extra blood and tissue, which it had used to prep for an implantation. When fertilization does not happen, the blood comes out of the vaginal opening. It’s good, honest blood. But once it comes out and is absorbed by unhygienic products that are unclean or used for a long time, it starts breeding fungi and bacteria that cause disease and RTIs.

Because women don’t have the means or privacy to clean themselves and their clothes, especially during menstruation, they fall prey to dangerous RTIs. “There are no private spaces for women. Women can’t dry their underwear out in the sun as it’s taboo. They have to cover them up with other clothes. There are no proper toilets in homes and women have to wash and bathe in makeshift shelters. They have to do a quick wash with their clothes on. They wash their face, arms and torso with soap, but leave their vaginal area untouched. Sometimes, girls want to save soap or they don’t feel the need to clean there. Thus, the private parts are left unclean.”

85% of women use cloth during periods. Girls know about sanitary pads,  but are unable to buy them as they are expensive. There is a big aspiration value attached to their use. Other reasons for non-use are lack of shops selling feminine products in villages, or the presence of boys around shops selling these products.

Swati says she faces a lot of resistance in changing perceptions related to menstruation amongst girls in villages. What has been handed down from mother to daughter is taken as the gold standard and any advice contrary to this wisdom is ignored.

“Most mothers use cloth so their daughters use cloth too.  Another reason why cloth is preferred over ‘plastic pads’ is that there is just no way to dispose of these pads. If women throw them away, someone finds them, they are unable to bury them as people object. If thrown into small ponds they pop up and float. They also throw away used cloth, but as cotton bio-degrades faster, it's not such a big issue.”

Women don’t wash and re-use cloth here, informs Swati, unlike say Assam. Why this happens is that there is absolutely no scope for them to hang out stained cloth out to dry in the open.

Women on their periods are barely treated as humans  

Period shaming and stigma is rampant. Menstruating girls miss school during periods. They are anyway advised not to be physically active during this time. Lack of toilets is a major reason for non-attendance at school. Sometimes, toilets are there, but are filthy… the cloth used during periods tend to leak and stain. The girls are then period shamed.

Don’t talk about these things

Cities are as much a partner to this culture of overlooking the needs of girls and women and silencing them, as are the villages. Sharing her experiences of working as a menstrual ambassador in cities, Swati recollects-“ We were invited to talk about menstrual health at a government school. We were in this hall with the school girls and their teachers and when we started talking about female anatomy and a girl student tried to participate in the conversation, one of the teachers upbraided her and asked her to shut up and sit down. We were also asked to stick to the agenda of how to use a sanitary pad, washing hands after pad use, and keeping the toilet clean. Even in private schools where we are invited to talk about menstruation, we can’t bring up words like ‘vagina’ and ‘periods.”

Encouraging women entrepreneurs

MUHEEM encourages grassroots women entrepreneurs to produce cloth pads that are sold at a very low price. The organization provides the women with used clothes to tailor these pads in 10 rural centres in UP.

“After seeing these pads, a couple of girls who know tailoring volunteered to make better pads. Now, they show their pads with great enthusiasm and also take great pride in using them during their periods.”

Swati is passionate about gender justice and wants to involve men in the discourse about safe menstruation. She plans to hold camps exclusively for men to join the ‘muheem’ or movement for safe menstruation in the near future. She wants to challenge the culture that treats periods as just a  women’s issue and dismisses anything that involves the female as of no consequence.

Swati Singh and her organization have changed the toxic period game to a great extent and have forced people to rethink the way they think about, talk about or care about periods. The takeaway for the rest of us from Swati’s  ‘muheem’ is to talk about periods openly and frankly, otherwise period stigma, shame, and the ‘invisibilization’ of women will live on, perhaps longer than it takes a plastic pad to decompose.

About the Author

Shikha Gandhi