“I’m not crying because I’m on my period or anything. I can’t believe a film on menstruation just won an Oscar,” Rayka Zehtabchi said in her acceptance speech at the 2019 Oscar Awards.
Since that night, I have been reflecting on the meaning behind Ms. Zehtabchi’s statement: was it because the topic menstruation has never been a priority? Or has it just taken the world this long to realize that yes, menstruation does matter?
The Worst Introduction to Menstruation
I was only ten years old when I moved away from my family and loved ones into a small, crowded hostel room to attend school. There were at least ten of us girls in one room, and we didn’t even have enough space to move around. It was always jam-packed - total chaos. Despite the living conditions at this school in rural Nepal, we had each other, and I gained a lovely group of girlfriends who were really helpful, charming and funny most of the time. Growing up away from our families, we tried not to be nostalgic, and passed the time by cracking jokes, making fun, and laughing unnecessarily.
"Who is untouchable today?"
Every day I spent at the hostel is worth remembering except one: the day us girls faced the shame associated with being on our periods. I still clearly remember that day where all of us students, both boys and girls, were in class. The principal’s wife entered the class with red tika (vermillion powder with rice seeds - a sacred Hindu blessing), flowers, sweets and fruits. As soon as she came in, some of the senior girls started whispering with very strange and upset expressions on their faces. I was confused - I could easily see that they didn’t want to welcome her, but I didn’t know why. She first went to the boys row and gave them the tika as a blessing, along with sweets and fruits. I was so excited for us girls to be next - especially for the delicious sweets and fruits! As she moved towards the girls’ benches, the principal’s wife asked in a very loud voice, “Aaja koko nachhune vayeko chha?” - “Who is untouchable today?”. I didn’t understand. I looked around, seeing that some of the senior girls had raised their hands with their faces lowered down to the ground in shame, as if they had committed a serious crime. I was still bewildered. What was the question? Why are they ashamed? It wasn’t until later that I learned that she was asking the girls, “Who is on their period today?” I learned that the code words for periods which were “para sarnu” - “ to get away ” and “nacchune hunu” “be untouchable ”.
The reason the principal’s wife had asked this question was so that she could make sure that no girl who was on her period touched her. If they did, this would contaminate her, and ruin her daily religious ritual. During these formative years, instead of taking the opportunity to teach us students about the causes of menstruation, menstrual hygiene management practices, and sex education, we were instead taught by her actions in this moment. Through her discriminatory behavior, us girls - and the boys who were watching as well - learned the lesson that menstruation is a shameful sin. I saw it in practice: the senior girls had shame and felt awkward about having their period; they even used to miss classes because they feared all the other students finding out that they were menstruating. From this, us younger girls learned the same - periods are shameful. From that day this lesson was instilled in my memory - I struggled to accept it though.
"I too started skipping my classes"
I had my first period when I was thirteen. I wasn’t excited that I was “becoming a woman” or now suddenly “mature”, because I saw its burden on the other girls. Because of the shame and burden of menstruation, us girls never had an environment where it was okay to share and learn from each others about our experiences, what it was, or how we felt about it - I didn’t know what to do. That day, I borrowed one pad from my friend, and went off on my own to figure out how to use it. However, I had no idea that the pad needed to be changed every four to six hours a day. I was bleeding - so badly that my trousers were all colored and painted red. I had a severe cramps. I felt like I was going to die. The cramps were so severe that I fell unconscious and collapsed onto the floor of hostel room - alone. After some time, I woke up in a hospital bed. Everyone at the hostel knew what had happened to me, but nobody had any advice to offer me. Nobody could tell me, “Shanti, do this or that when you are on your period” or “this is how you can deal with severe cramps”. Not even the adult women who were supposed to look after us as caregivers - the hostel wardens or the principal’s wife - would give me guidance. Like other girls, I too started skipping my classes during my periods because of the pain and shame.
"menstruation is not a sin - it is a moment to celebrate"
The day I left the hostel, after spending seven teenage years of my life there, I was so happy and relieved to leave this life behind - one where I faced such harsh discrimination because of my period. I was determined, within myself, that from now on, I would care for myself well. I would heal myself whenever I was brought to tears from severe cramps. I would never deny people coming near me when I was menstruating, as I had been taught to do. I knew what was next for me: I was determined to bringing the ripple of change into others’ lives too, making them aware that menstruation is not a sin - it is a moment to celebrate. A period is a sign to women and girls that we are healthy!
Now, I am proud to be working for this very movement with Aythos. As my colleagues and I bring health lessons to remote Himalayan villages, we teach the women, young girls - and any men and boys that we can get to listen - about the basics of health, menstruation, menstrual hygiene practices, as well as the importance of nutrition. We teach these rural communities how to make and use reusable pads, and we exchange our experiences of periods. In this way, Aythos is increasing the self-confidence of women, working hard to reduce the stigmas around menstruation, and encouraging women to own their place in their communities. With access to clean reusable pads, we are helping reduce the absenteeism rate of young girls from school. These pads also make it easier for women to more readily participate in all sorts of development activities such as the other training offered by Aythos on farming workshops and female-led income generating activities. While delivering these health lessons, I have found myself replacing the shame of my teenage years with connection and enjoyment of womanhood - and on the days when I have my period during an Aythos training, I can share these days with these fellow women and girls. It is my hope that the young girls learn this lesson from the start - women can empower other women, and that periods are to be celebrated, and not any reason for shame or exclusion. I believe that when a woman or a young girl is supported and liberated to enjoy the full rights of her life during her period, then she is empowered to chase her dreams to the fullest.
Aythos has a goal of reaching 1,000 girls and women with our health programs over the next year. Focusing on menstruation, menstrual hygiene management practices, reproduction, and nutrition, our curriculum is filling a need for these women who never got a chance to learn these topics, as their rural families could not send them to school. In all we do, Aythos is dedicated to celebrating and uplifting the position of the women. Here's to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.
Happy International Women’s Day !!!
To help Aythos reach out goal, please donate between March 11 and March 29th, 2019, or anytime. Your donations make a real difference in the lives of women and girls.