“So when does this all stop happening?”, a 13 year old girl asks us at the end of a session on adolescence and the changes that come with the onset of puberty. We were talking about emotional changes, that come along with other physiological changes - some positive like the developments of strong friendships and relationships and some not as appealing such as heightened sensitivity and emotional turmoil.
This question makes it clear that puberty is not a fun time for all, and in our work with adolescents and youth it seems that girls often have it worse. True boys also go through many embarrassing changes, uncertainty and pressures of masculinity, however along with that they also experience rising freedoms and decision making powers. Girls on the other hand have their freedom taken away by placing several restrictions on their mobility and even on their own bodies. They are given responsibilities of home and house chores, taking on the domestic roles of the house in order to mold them into “good wives”. This is especially the case after the onset of their menstrual cycle.
In a study conducted by Deepa Pawar, one of the founders at Anubhuti, for her MA thesis on religion and the taboo of menstruation as systemic violence faced by girls1, 52% of the girls interviewed said that after they began their menses they had felt like they had lost their childhood and had entered womanhood. In fact many girls don’t experience an adolescence at all as society often puts them in roles of women as soon as they reach puberty. Many girls are taught directly or indirectly that their menses are a thing to be ashamed about, along with their own bodies and their sexuality. The effect of menstruation is not only then limited to those 5 to 7 days in the month, but rather has a lifelong effect on women. In our work with girls and young women over the years we’ve often heard how playing sports or even going outside is not allowed by their family after beginning their menses. Many parents bring up their fear of sexual violence as a reason for such restrictions limiting their opportunities for growth, and even education. “Ladki badi ho gayi hai” (The girl has grown up) hence becomes a shorthand for fear about their fertility. Girls themselves seem to internalise this fear - in role plays during our sessions exploring romantic dynamics between partners, the girl in question invariably becomes pregnant, ostracised by society and family - sometimes even being driven to suicide.
Not only in the family, but in schools also this taboo of menstruation continues. In my research during my MPhil thesis2 on forms of sexual harassment in schools, menstruation often came up as a means to shame girls. For instance, in an Urdu medium school, girls spoke about a particular male science teacher who would make it a point to ask girls why they weren’t fasting during the month of Ramzaan, if he found out that they were eating during that time. Like the girls said, “As a science teacher and a Muslim, sir was well aware that if we weren’t keeping roza3 it was most probably due to having periods - such questions were asked obviously to embarrass us.”
Similarly religious practices are used to propagate an environment of shame around menstruation. In another research done by Amrita De (founder member of Anubhuti) in ‘Puberty, Poverty and Gender: Girls speak about Menstruation’4, many girls spoke about religious restrictions being put on them during their menses of not being allowed in temples, not being allowed to touch the Koran, not being able to touch certain food items and being made to sit in a corner during a religious festival. As one girl put it- “I used to feel very dirty.. (during menses).. Not because I thought blood was dirty. It was because how people around me would behave with me.”
Family together with educational and religious institutions then begin to control not only the perception of menstruation as an impure action but also the understanding that a woman’s body is inherently shameful. Tilottama Thite, another founder member of Anubhuti, in her experiences of doing sessions with adolescent girls on body literacy has seen certain ideas getting repeated such as girls talking about being forced to wear particular clothes to ‘cover’ their bodies - such as dupattas, control of their body language - like how to sit, where to look, how much to smile or laugh, and of course control over who to speak to - socializing with boys is seen as suspect, and brothers (even younger ones) are used to keep control over them.
Menstruation hence is not only a biological change for girls, but also comes with structural violence in the form of the denial of rights. As a result it affects not only their mental health by being a constant source of stress and shame, but also their physical health. Girls who use cloth pads- a traditional practice that is now seen as a trendy and eco-friendly method of menstrual hygiene- are often not able to dry them in a well ventilated space with sunlight, leading to the development of bacteria and hence chances of infections. Many girls living in communities with communal toilets don’t have access to a proper space to change or dispose of sanitary pads, thus ending up overusing them leading to rashes and other infections. Further, due to shame associated with genitals, sexual health is not given a priority. If a girl is facing any problem related to her genitals, firstly, she can hardly speak about it to a responsible person in the family because of the shame and lack of language available to explain the problem, and secondly, girls’ health problems are often not taken seriously as a health problem at all.
While none of these observations are new, and many studies having been done on the impact of menstruation myths on girls and women, at Anubhuti we understand issues related to puberty and menstruation as an issue of a denial of our constitutional rights. The constitution of our country gives us the right to a dignified life, however our understanding of our own bodies often lack dignity. This is not an issue of a few, but rather a systemic issue that needs to be viewed with a political perspective. Increased surveillance and restrictions, along with body policing, results in the denial of right to access: to public spaces, education; right to health: sexual and reproductive; right to dignity: to live a life without shame or fear; and right to equity: to same opportunities regardless of gender. As mentioned earlier, it is important to see menstruation as not just as a matter of something that happens every month or something that affects only adolescents, but rather a lifelong process controlling women’s sexuality.
For instance, during a particular session with the youth we work with, girls and young women began to share incidences of control in not only their own lives but also in the lives of their mothers. One young woman shared, “My mother is not allowed to talk to any adult male, even if he is a relative, or even sit outside the house where she could be seen by ‘outside’ males.. All this because my father thinks she is very beautiful and therefore needs to be ‘protected’. She has no life outside the house..” Similar examples were shared by other young women in the group.
We understand the violence faced by young women and girls due to menstruation as not only limited to the perception of menstruation as an impurity, but a manifestation of the larger patriarchal control on their sexuality, expression, freedom and rights. Upon research, it can be seen that this denial of rights lies in religious texts and are sanctioned by social institutions, rituals and caste based practices that uphold the brahmanical patriarchal status quo by suppressing women, similar to the way in which Dalits have been oppressed by the artificial notion of purity and pollution. There are many examples of women being kept out of temples, mosques and other sites of temporal, social and political power by citing the impurity of their menses. This ostracisation should not merely be seen as a matter of religious belief, as religion cannot be completely separated from our social and political lives. Community decisions affecting the lives of women often take place in religious or religiously sanctioned spaces. By removing women, by turning a healthy biological function into criteria of disqualification, these institutions are removing their decision making power over their own lives. By making women shameful of their sexualilty, their bodies and their opinions, they are denying them selfhood and a dignified life.
At Anubhuti, we work with youth on developing their leadership so that they can access and protect fundamental rights for themselves and others. The underlying principle of all our work is gender justice. Raahi, a youth network of young men and women from across Mumbai being mentored by Anubhuti, is working towards building their own capacities to make a just and equitable society. In sessions with Raahi, a subject we constantly focus on is how personal issues can be seen as political ones. For instance, a personal experience of alcoholism in the family can be linked to issues of poverty and class, unemployment and the political economy of the alcohol industry. “When a problem concerns one person it can be seen as their personal problem, but when the same problem affects ten people it becomes a social or a political problem,” - as one young woman in Raahi expressed.
Youth members of Raahi, especially the young women associated with the group, have begun to see menstruation and sexuality in the larger framework of sexual and reproductive rights. “Many girls don’t even know that they have a sexual right, mostly because we are not supposed to talk about sex, or our bodies.” They have begun to see the restrictions placed on them after their menses, the control over their dress, their behaviour, and their mobility as a denial of their sexual right, a denial of their right to dignity, to expression and to equity, and more so a denial of their right over their own body.
Raahi has joined Anubhuti’s Sharir Sanvaad Abhiyan - a campaign for sexual and reproductive rights and equity between partners. This campaign speaks about how women’s sexuality is controlled by not only social institutions but also by the state. For now the campaign is focused on the onus of invasive contraception methods on female bodies, and on ensuring shared responsibility of male bodied partners. This campaign is currently running on three levels- focused on the experiences of youth and their issues, with stakeholders such as health workers (https://anubhutitrust.org/
Please visit anubhutitrust.org for more information on this campaign and joining us. Members of Anubhuti are also available as trainers across a range of topics such as gender, sexuality, sexual and reproductive health, leadership, constitutional rights, advocacy, group building, and other related topics. Do contact us at [email protected] for further inquiries, or to know more about our work.
1Pawar, Deepa (2015) “Palchi Kheli” in Prerak Lalkari
2Salelkar, Anu (2015),”Sexual Harassment in Schools: The everyday experiences of adolescent girls in Mumbai”, Tata Institute of Social Sciences
3Fasting during Ramzaan from dawn to sunset
4De, Amrita (2014) “Puberty, Poverty and Gender: Girls speak about Menstruation”, Vacha Trust.