Kozhikode: When Kavya Menon first brought up the idea of installing a sanitary pad dispenser in the girls’ bathroom of Calicut Medical College, fellow students said she shouldn’t really discuss such matters openly at a student union meeting, where boys were present. “It was strange. I mean, we’re supposed to become doctors yet some people would say, ‘How can you talk about this here?’”
For Menon, the sanitary pad dispenser was a necessity: “If you start your period in the middle of the day and you can’t find a pad, you have to go all the way to the hostel, which is at least a 10-minute walk away. There’s no time between classes to go there.”
Periods are only ever mentioned in hushed tones, Menon said. “You can’t raise your hand in class and tell your professor you need to leave because of period pain, for example. You have to be discreet.”
She eventually convinced her fellow students that the dispenser was a worthy expense for the college. But still, she found she couldn’t talk openly about her period when there were boys around.
“We learn about menstruation and yet we can’t talk about it. Even I was hesitant to talk about it openly at first, but soon I realised that when I did, the boys were supportive. Sometimes I think we women impose this secrecy about periods on ourselves.”
At the college’s literary club, a group of core members decided to launch a menstruation-themed haiku and poetry competition to mark International Women’s Day earlier this year.
But not all the club’s members were keen. Among those initially resistant was Main Wafy, a second-year male student. “This is a taboo subject,” he said. “It is not comfortable for me. In my family, the women discussed this among themselves – I was never really exposed to it. Many of the students at the college are from conservative backgrounds, and I didn’t know if it would be offensive to them. I said that we didn’t need to be so open about this topic. I thought – would anyone write about this?”
But as the entries started to pour in and he read the poems, Wafy changed his mind. “Now I don’t think it should be a taboo. I still don’t think we should be very open about it, but I am OK with talking about it.”
She loved biology. Wanted to be a doctor. Then biology took over. She never saw school again. Athira Unni, Pune
The competition was publicised through social media and entries arrived from across the country. “We started circulating those on WhatsApp and Facebook, and then people from our college started writing in too,” said Menon.
Sreya Salim compiled the haikus and poems into a magazine. “We got 87 entries,” she said. “We chose to have a haiku competition because some people don’t feel comfortable writing entire essays about it. This way it doesn’t take people too long to write something.
“It has had a such a big impact. When I was young, I was ashamed to talk about it. Most girls weren’t allowed into the temple or to do certain things when they were on their periods. One of my friends, who comes from a very orthodox family, was confined to a room and no one would touch her, or eat with her while she was on.
“When you’re on your period, you’re constantly checking your dress for stains. Even though it’s happening to our bodies, it’s something that we can’t speak about.”
Locked in a room, food served in turns. Get out, they warned, For it seemed we ruined godly places! Funny, I said, For we bleed to give a life.
Anuna Vinod, Calicut Medical College
Menon said she was given gold when she got her first period. “In Kerala we have a ceremony called valayakuttiyay, which means, ‘You became a big girl.’ It’s a coming of age ceremony to tell everyone in the community that the girl is now ready for marriage. On the day, you wear new clothes, and all your family members and community are there. It’s quite embarrassing, really. I guess it’s OK as long as they don’t isolate you after that.”
Menstrual health is a serious issue for the 355 million women of reproductive age in India. Only 12% use sanitary pads, and tampons are rare. For the rest of India’s menstruating women, a reusable rag is the only option.
A lack of toilets, and taboos that surround hanging washed underwear outdoors, mean sanitation during periods is poor. One study says that roughly 20% of girls aged 12-18 drop out of school because of menstruation-related issues.
“I’ve seen patients who don’t know basic details about menstrual hygiene,” said Salim, who works in hospital wards as part of her medical studies. “They come from poor families, they use dirty rags instead of sanitary napkins – they have no idea how to dispose of them correctly. It’s a real shame to see.”
For the students of Calicut Medical College, reading poems about menstruation is one small step towards erasing the taboo. “The girls definitely seem to have gained confidence to discuss it publicly now,” said Wafy. “The boys still don’t talk about it properly. We discuss the language, the structure of the poems. The focus point is not on the issue of menstruation, but how the writer has written about it.”
“She fed him, bathed him, she loved him.Now he lies in there motionless, draped in white cloth.She must not touch him, they say.She is bleeding.”
Dr Sona Vijay
For Menon, the haikus and poems have already done a lot to change attitudes on campus. “We’re budding doctors, so if we don’t talk about this, who will?” she said. “It only takes a small number of people willing to break a taboo, and then the others will follow.”
(Source: The Guardian)