Period Education: Would it Get Your Attention If It Were a Netflix Series?
Saba Malik

Saba Malik

Jan 06Menstrual health

Period Education: Would it Get Your Attention If It Were a Netflix Series?

Here in India, we avoid talking about or even acknowledging women’s health issues. They are often reduced to dirty, sexual, or “private” problems. One such taboo topic that needs urgent normalisation is menstruation. Do you remember that one awkward yet exciting chapter in class 10th biology on reproduction? This one class always ended up having full attendance even though the teachers skimmed through it, and most students were just there for laughs! A part of this chapter talks about the menstrual cycle, but according to most health agencies, the average age for a girl to get her periods is 12. So why do schools wait for so long to introduce us to this fundamental biological concept? Is it because society has ingrained into us that periods is a shameful subject l? Or that they are not to be talked about? Or that they are dirty and impure? There are many reasons, but most of them make no sense!

For all those who’re still lost about what exactly I’m talking about, menstruation ‘is the regular discharge of blood and mucosal tissue from the inner lining of the uterus through the vagina.’ Simple enough, right? And nothing sexual, obscene, or mucky so far? Which leads me to the million-dollar question, ‘Why do we need to talk about this?’

Women have gone through this alone and unguided from the beginning of time and have faced social stigma, taboos, and discrimination. They are told that it’s soiled and deplorable, they are denied entry into places of worship and kitchens, some even have to sleep outside their homes to keep the house “pure and clean”. Women grow up thinking that this one week every month, they need to be caged away like a dirty little secret. It is no wonder that at the same time, innumerable women also died due to the lack of knowledge about or resources regarding hygienic menstrual periods, with no access to clean water, sterile sanitary products, or even the most basic understanding that roots itself in science rather than myth. In a report by WaterAid, it was brought to light that unsanitary conditions are among the top five killers of women worldwide.

It was found in a 2014 report by the NGO Dasra, that nearly 23 million girls decide to quit school every year due to the lack of menstrual hygiene facilities. These include access to period products such as sanitary napkins and the correct scientific information about it. What was highly disconcerting was that the same report highlighted that 70% of mothers with menstruating daughters considered menstruation as dirty, and 71% of adolescent girls were uninformed about menstruation till menarche. Fortunately name brands like Whisper are now taking up responsibility and coming forward with campaigns like ‘Keep Girls In School’ to prevent them from dropping out when they get their periods. The company came forward with a film that shed light on the fact that 1 in 5 girls who start menstruating drop out of school every year. To bridge this gap, Whisper pledged to reach five crore girls by 2022 and improve the existing menstrual education. An initiative by the Delhi government also provided a sigh of relief. Delhi government schools will hold period talks where an NGO Sachhi Saheli will answer menstruation questions under a campaign called ‘Break the Bloody taboo’

periods education

In my attempt to understand how different schools deal with educating it’s students about menstruation, I talked to girls of different ages from various schools all over India. I found that most schools don’t even address the topic in the right way. Some schools allowed senior students to have a quick chat with junior ones. Some used promotional events by hygiene product companies, but most of them decided to leave it to self-education. What concerns me about this is that should 15/16-year-old girls teach the younger girls something they barely know about? This not only allows myths and stigmas to be passed down but also generates a “normal” standard of what periods are supposed to be like and thus creating shame in the minds of those who didn’t resonate with the experiences of their elders. The schools that used external speakers to come to take up workshops might have had good intentions. The end product was companies trying to have a more extensive customer base and promoting only their products rather than spreading awareness or demystifying the understanding, if any, about periods. Out of all the schools, only one school installed a sanitary pad incinerator and had a proper conversation between teachers and students. Most of these conversations happened around 10th grade. By that time, most girls already had their periods and formed their understanding, which may or may not be complete or well informed. It is necessary to have these conversations early and appropriately. In these conversations, what was highlighted was the culture of hiding period products, whether you get them from the infirmary or as part of the workshops. Girls were told to “hide” the pads in their pockets or make sure no boy saw them.

This brings me to the highly regressive culture of menstruation being a ‘girls only’ topic. This prevalent discomfort about ‘period talk’ is not helped by the fact that an entire gender is kept ignorant. Boys are told this subject is not for them, which leaves them unaware of an important part of every woman’s life. From a very young age, girls are taught that periods aren’t something you talk about with the other gender. Period shaming is also encouraged when most schools insist that girls hide the pad up their sleeve or in their bags and ensure it’s not seen by boys. This only means that most girls & women seclude themselves in some manner or form from the outside world during that ’one week’ of the month. It also means that young boys will grow up being ignorant and in some cases unsympathetic towards periods and menstrual management. With this absence of communication and understanding, women grow up feeling uncomfortable and impure. Understandably, some conversations on this topic may be kept exclusive to girls, I feel that boys should not be excluded from the topics of female biology. Boys should be aware that unhygienic menstrual practices are sometimes fatal and that periods are not unclean There are a plethora of illnesses that arise from lack of understanding and hence the management of periods like dermatitis, urinary tract infections, genital tract infection, alteration in the pH balance of vaginal secretions, bacterial vaginosis, all leading to increased susceptibility to cervical cancer.

The myths and misconceptions that bubble around the word menstruation are not only flabbergasting but also terrifying. There are widespread misconceptions about period products. For instance, using a tampon will “take away your virginity,” which is simply not true. “In fact, according to a 2016 study, eight of ten Indian girls are not allowed to enter religious shrines when they are on their period; six of ten girls are not allowed to touch food in the kitchen, and three of 10 are asked to sleep in a separate room.” One of the reasons that these practices still exist comfortably in society is that schools do not educate students of all genders enough to break these taboos and understand that periods are not filthy! Problems are more severe in rural areas than in urban areas. A 2015 survey by the Ministry of Education found that in 63% of schools in villages, teachers never discussed menstruation and how to deal with it hygienically. There is a blatant disregard for sanitary practices with products like hygienic napkins being absent from most rural schools. Children teasing and shaming girls, mothers telling their daughters to stay in, and illnesses caused due to unhygienic conditions are all too common. On the contrary, the schools that provide sanitary products charge up to Rs.20 for a single pad even though most school fees include a medical charge and thus exclude a chunk of the population to have access to health care.

Our education system is far from discussing sustainability and various product options when it can not even openly talk about periods in general. Sustainable menstruation refers to practices where environment-friendly alternatives to menstrual products are used, which do not produce waste. Girls must know these things because ‘tampons, pads, and panty liners, along with their packaging and individual wrapping, generate more than 200,000 tonnes of waste per year’. They all contain about 90% plastic. Schools need to teach students about periods and tell them about the various options they have concerning the products they can use and their pros and cons. This allows girls to make sensible choices.

But don’t lose all hope because there are companies like Menstrupedia, which share information in comic form. It aims to remove the taboo and make the biological process of puberty healthy for both men and women. Schools could start by having such magazines in their libraries and allowing students to read and learn through the right, informative and fun sources. Even UNICEF has a “Period lesson plan: a guide to menstruation for teachers” to help schools adopt pro-period practices and encourage teachers to talk about it with students explicitly. Periods shouldn’t be left to the children to understand on their own; we must consciously fight against the misinformation and replace it with the right information through the correct channels sooner than later.

What saddens me the most is that menstruation has been reduced to an unspeakable ‘women’s issue” covered in myths, stigmas, taboos, newspapers, and black polythenes. It also comes down to the fact that this is indeed a form of gender discrimination. Nothing can explain this better than a quote from the upside-down world in an article written by Gloria Steinem, U.S. feminist writer, titled “If Men Could Menstruate,”

“If men could menstruate…clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event: Men would brag about how long and how much…Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free. Of course, some men would still pay for the prestige of such commercial brands as Paul Newman Tampons, Muhammed Ali’s Rope-a-Dope Pads, John Wayne Maxi Pads, and Joe Namath Jock Shields – ‘For Those Light Bachelor Days.’”

If men were to menstruate it would be a talk of pride and not hidden away the way it is now. Young boys would brag about the duration and intensity of their periods and it would become a measure of strength. Yet we call women weak when they go through this every month for a large chunk of their lives.

In a society where periods are highly misunderstood, ads still show blue water instead of red, schools don’t have proper facilities for hygienic menstrual practices, sanitary napkins are not available to most, period shaming is the norm, and men are either too embarrassed or too misinformed, women are so ashamed or excluded that many lose their lives and periods are often labelled as an excuse, we still wonder why we need period education in school!

Disclaimer : This information is educational and should not be construed as medical advice. Please consult your doctor before making any dietary changes or adding supplements. 

ProactiveForHer is a digital clinic for women, offering accessible, personalised, and confidential healthcare solutions. We offer out-patient care, diagnostic services and programs for various health concerns of Indian women, across their lifetime - from puberty to pregnancy to menopause. To know more on the sexual and reproductive health of women, visit https://www.proactiveforher.com/