I started working as a resource person for conducting training interventions and workshops for adolescent girls on Reproductive Child Health (RCH), Family Life Education (FLE) and Infant Young Child Feeding (IYCF) three years ago.
It was, as far as I can remember, my third or fourth workshop session. This time, the place was an open community in one of the biggest industrial areas of Delhi called Mongolpuri. Now Mongolpuri is a huge basti with a lot of compartmentalization with the help of alphabets like Block K, Block L and Block M for instance, for aiding in easier navigation within it. The local NGO supporting this training workshop there was called the AV Baliga Memorial Trust. I conducted many workshops with them. The participants were adolescent girls living in nearby communities. The batches of students were a mixed bag which had girls from different educational backgrounds, but all of whom were from the low – income strata of society, many even from families living well below the poverty line.
Sometimes, the girls attending the workshops would reveal that they had already been married off in their childhoods but were still awaiting their gauna, which is a ceremony wherein the girl leaves for the home of her already assigned husband, based on her family’s will, which decides whether the girl is physically ready for the transition or not. Alternatively, this implies that the girl has started menstruating and is ready to have sex which would then bless the concerned families with babies. Reproductive essentialism and male superiority has been an underlying principle to this ancient ceremony which now, in its contemporary form, also gives time to the girl’s family to accumulate enough material wealth (in the form of a disguised dowry) to be given along with the ‘transfer’ of the daughter at a time when she is considered to be capable of playing the role of a ‘good’ wife and/or mother. The improvisations that may have been incorporated to this transfer-of-the-daughter ceremony, at select places, has been sprinkled with a selective rights-based approach, at least in some places of North India where many girls with whom I interacted were allowed to finish at least some part of their schooling. This also became a major reason behind mothers telling their daughters to hide the fact that they had started to menstruate, a fact that was revealed by many girls at the workshop. In addition to this, girls were often told by their mothers or elder sisters that one should keep this fact a secret as one had to save oneself from the ‘evil eyes’ of the society that was predominantly patriarchal in nature.
The girls at the workshop were between the age groups of 12 – 18 years (which corresponds with problematic menstruating years) who either studied and went to nearby government schools, or were school drop-outs. The starting of periods in a girl’s life did not necessarily have to fall within these age groups and as such it may have been too late to impart any training or education on the same topic to them. Many times, the girls would agree that the correct/common age to start menstruating was between the age group of 12 to 15 years (which is also what is written in their school text books). However, after some reflection, many would then think of some friend or the other who started menstruating when she was in the fourth standard (approximate age being between 9 to 10 years) in Indian schools and then self-contemplate vis-à-vis the popular literature provided through school textbooks, and then draw their own conclusions about it.
Travelling from my part of the city to Mongolpuri would involve travelling by a cycle rickshaw, changing the metro train thrice, followed by an auto rickshaw ride (if lucky) or a wobbly journey with a mini-bus crammed with people over and above its carrying capacity and of course, walking. At first, the venue was a small room on the terrace of the Trust’s office building which did not have the capacity to contain 30 and odd girl participants. The initial workshops were conducted here as there was no other option available at that point of time. This was until the Trust coordinated with the local gurudwara (Sikh temple) for letting out the premises of this sacrosanct place to conduct training by paying a small amount of rent for the same. The space allotted was generally in one corner of a vast hallway. There was enough space for everyone to be able to fit in. However, things became a bit uncomfortable both for the girls and me when parallel workshops started taking place in the other two corners. Sometimes, it was with few mid-aged women (or mothers of the girls attending my workshop) who were getting trained on safe pregnancy by an Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM) and at other times, it was their contemporaries who were participating in theatre workshops or workshops on environmental hazards and its preservation. An interesting episode was when the Trust had a parallel workshop on adolescence running within it for adolescent boys just outside the gurudwara in their verandah. This knotty situation made the girls shy away from talking about their bodies in the fear of being heard outside and many girls in my workshop became uncomfortable with issues regarding the female body being explicitly discussed.
The point of the aforementioned details is to highlight the barriers in effective communication in addition to a lack of space for knowledge-transfer, often on such stereotyped and neglected but vital topics concerned with one’s body and sexuality. The girls would often be afraid of their mothers because they were coming to workshops that talked about the female body and discussing ‘dirty’ issues they were not supposed to know as they were thought to be too young to receive such information. Peer-pressure was another factor which made the girls uneasy, as their friends from school often teased them about getting access to such vicarious knowledge. However, sometimes it worked the other way round because often, their friends who got to know about these workshops but had no access to gaining such information would urge the girls attending the workshops to share details with them in school.
The girls also described special customs that were followed in their households when they were menstruating. Some of them were not allowed to go to school for one week, irrespective of class tests or the increasing burden of homework. They were served food in separate utensils that were washed separately and not mixed with other kitchen utensils. They were even given a separate bed sheet or a floor mat to sleep on, as they were not allowed to sleep on their beds. Many times, they were told not to make any eye-contact with the male members of their families, especially their brothers and fathers, as they were feared to get impregnated on doing so. The girls were made to have a very negative image of their menstruating bodies. The whole obsession with the fact that they were considered ‘polluting’ was something that they had been habituated to. They were also told not to enter the temple or pray at that time,which was ironical for those who were menstruating and simultaneously attending the workshop inside the very premises of a temple!
Along with this, restrictions with respect to what food items were to be eaten and what should be prohibited, were intense and rigid. One should also remember the fact that anemia is rampant among adolescent girls in India especially due to malnutrition, if it is not already chronic. To add to this misery of ill-health, the menstruating girl who in fact requires more nutrition to combat any weakness, may suffer a disproportionate loss of blood, doubling the burden of ill-health – a common complaint I received from the girls.
I will continue to share many other misconceptions with regard to menstruation based on my field experiences in my subsequent writings for Menstrupedia.
Author: Ina Goel
Ina is a life enthusiast. Juggling her role as a radio documentarian working with many community radios and otherwise, she did her Master’s in Social Work from Delhi School of Social Work, University of Delhi.Working as a consultant and resource person with many NGOs she has imparted training and given workshops on Reproductive Sexual Health (RCH) to adolescent girls in many urban slums and resettlement colonies in Delhi. At present, she is a Research Scholar at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Edited by: DIvya Rosaline