"I thought I was going to die." This was Sugna Bai's reaction to her first menstrual period when she was 15.
Her reaction, while extreme, is not surprising. Menstruation, though experienced by roughly half the world’s population, is still a dirty secret in countries all over the world. What should be a shared experience among women is instead, a deeply stigmatised subject that is only talked about behind closed doors. What’s worse, many young women only learn about menstruation when they begin to menstruate. According to a 2016 UNICEF study conducted by Neilson, 70% of the participants were unprepared for their first menstrual period. This was the case with Sugna as well.
Sugna was cutting wood when she saw a stream of blood trickling down her leg. “I thought a small piece of wood had somehow got into my private parts and cut the skin there.” Not knowing what was happening to her, even though she had had stomach cramps since the morning, the young girl sat down and began to cry. Even as other women, including her own sister-in-law, called out to her, Sugna couldn’t stop her tears. Nor could she get up from where she was sitting lest the others noticed the blood. Finally, after repeated coaxing, Sugna had confessed to her sister-in-law, but she had no explanation for where the blood came from.
Her sister-in-law was relieved, Sugna remembers. She had told Sugna that this was normal and that she could expect to have this occur for three to four days every month. There wasn’t any need to be scared. She had taken Sugna home, where the latter cleaned herself, and then taught her how to tie a cotton cloth around the waist to absorb the blood.
Knowledge is power
Her sister-in-law’s wisdom had eased Sugna’s fears somewhat. But curious about the phenomenon, the then-15-year-old Sugna had met her friends the next day to tell them what had happened to her, and to ask if any of them had gone through it. “They had not,” says Sugna ruefully. Instead, her friends had made fun of her, accusing her of being ill because it was abnormal to bleed from the vagina. But Sugna had persisted – she told her friends what her sister-in-law had told her: Menarche was a natural phenomenon, and every girl around that age would have it. She had even shown the girls how her sister-in-law had taught her to tie her cloth so it would absorb the blood.
Today, Sugna is eager to narrate how sharing this knowledge helped her friends. A few days after her conversation with them, the girls had attended a local fete in a nearby village. One of the girls had left hurriedly midway through the evening. When Sugna met her later, the friend confessed that she had begun bleeding and had rushed home to her mother in panic. Having her mother reassure her had eased her fears and the friend sheepishly apologised for not believing Sugna.
This was Sugna's 'first period story', which she shared when she attended the menstrual health management sessions conducted in her village by the Trusts’ team. With knowledge about menstruation and different absorbents, Sugna also attended the cloth pad stitching workshop organised by the Trusts.
Lack of knowledge and awareness of menstruation leads many women, regardless of their socio-economic strata, feel like they are alone in their suffering. The silence also leads to deeper stigma around this body function. What’s worse, the health, schooling and dignity of girls is at stake – more girls drop out of school when they reach puberty. This has far-reaching consequences on social development.
The key to overcoming these age-old taboos is through education and open dialogue. Sharing her experience had made Sugna’s friends somewhat prepared for the event. The knowledge of why menstruation happens, and what to do while menstruating, helps remove the fear and shame associated with this natural phenomenon. It also makes young women aware of their own menstrual health, and allows them to take charge of menstrual hygiene. It helps empower them to see menstruation for the natural experience it is.