2009 has been one of the most memorable years of my life, not on account of all the subjects I learnt for my MBA degree, but for a project we passionately pursued for almost 8-10 months during its tenure. We were a team of four, working towards a two-fold approach to empower rural women. Our first approach was to help them run successful micro-enterprises and earn enough money to sustain their families and educate their children. Our second approach was to enable these micro enterprises to locally manufacture and distribute low-cost sanitary napkins to the women of the village and to ensure good menstrual hygiene. We had not expected that what had begun out of curiosity would gift us memories that would last for a lifetime.

Menstrual days contribute to almost 1/6th of a lady’s life during her prime years. However, it is unbelievable that such a huge part of our lives hide under the folds of old damp rags, wrapped in myths and abused without reason. A huge part of our project was spent in building awareness about menstrual hygiene among women. Local doctors and school teachers volunteered to impart menstrual education to the young girls.  I would maintain a journal of sorts, of my experience through the project and I am pulling out one of those sheets to share the same with you. I wrote this note on a hot summer day of May after I got back from an awareness camp in one of the waadis (hamlet /colony) of a village near Ahmednagar, Maharashtra, called Karjat (not to be confused with the one near Mumbai) where we spent two months with some wonderful people. 

Life has been tough so far. The only whiff of hope is the care we are receiving from everyone around us. I feel indebted to the women of the village for the love they are showering on our team which is the only thing that has kept us going in this scorching heat and the soaring temperatures. It is getting intolerable with every passing day, with hell breaking loose during noon, when the fans refuse to move even an inch.

Today, like every other day, the team woke up early to visit one of the waadis for the awareness programme. We were travelling in a rickshaw since there was no other mode of transport to reach there. One of the ladies accompanying me tied a wet scarf to one of the iron bars of the vehicle to combat the hot wind which was blowing right on our faces. Within three seconds, it dried up and she immediately untied her scarf, turned towards me and said “Had I left it there for a few more minutes, my scarf would have caught fire by now.” I gazed blankly at the lady and returned a nervous smile. 

Despite repeated reminders, there were only 25 women who had assembled in the house, each one of them catching up quickly with each other. It was disappointing to see such a small gathering after a long journey. I started off with my talk on women’s health, moved on to menstrual hygiene, usage of sanitary napkins and so on. As always, the women refused to discuss and ask questions, despite repeated requests from us. When I stopped, my friend took over to demonstrate the simplicity of the usage of a sanitary pad and then promoted the local brand which the women were manufacturing. While she spoke, I quickly scanned the audience present there. A young girl caught my attention. The girl’s eyes were fixed on me and refused to stray away despite my reciprocal stare. I gazed back into the teenager’s eyes, dull brown with darker orbital rings, yellow streaks radiating from the lens, like the orange rays of the sun I would draw as a kid. There was something intriguing about her gaze. There was hope of a better tomorrow and I shuddered at the thought that all those hopes were pinned against our team. I dived deep into those eyes and could see a young image, representing the lakhs of women of my country. The image was begging me to free her from the discomfort most of us go through during our teenage years. 

Menstrupedia Comic

It had never been pleasant. She recollected those initial days of being clueless about what was happening around her and within her. A grand function commemorated her entry into adulthood while she longed to remain a child. She hated being dressed like a clown and greeted by all the women around for something which was but a very natural process. Those five days of the month were the most dreadful of all. She would choose the cleanest of all the old rags from the cupboard since it was extremely embarrassing to go to her mother for a new set of clothes. She would wash it in the backyard, hoping that her father and brothers would not get to know. The room where she dried them was dark and seldom saw sunlight. One of those days, when she picked up an old cloth, a lizard had jumped out of it. She was confined to a small corner of the house, not allowed to touch things or people around her and had to sleep on the floor with a thin carpet spread over it. Speaking loudly when her grandmother was around was forbidden. She was advised not to go to college, but with the support of her mother, had managed to obtain permission for it. The situation at college was no better. She recollected the days when her menstrual cycle began while she was visiting her aunt who was extremely orthodox. To avoid the trauma, she would go to the fields each day and dry her cloth on the thorny shrubs, away from her aunt’s prying eyes. She had to stand guard to save the cloth from being eaten away by a snake. The villagers believed that it would make the lady infertile. 

Even though this is not my experience, it is as true as mine since I voice the discomfort of lakhs of women in India.

“Do you have anything to add?” my friend turned to me and asked. “Y..Y..Yes,” I said, recovering. 

“Let’s vow today to help make every woman’s journey more comfortable. After all, it’s only a woman who can feel for another woman!”

There was silence for a few seconds. Maybe it was too profound to be understood, I thought, but then the women started smiling, nodding and clapping, with smiles of reassured trust for having gotten a new lease of life. The young girl had a smile on too.” 

The experiences narrated here depict the living conditions of 90% of women in India during their menstrual cycle. It is a shame that despite all the talks given on women empowerment, only 7% of women in India actually use sanitary napkins and close to 93% of Indian women use unhygienic means for menstrual protection. 14% of Indian women suffer from urinary tract infections and 2% even use ash and sand during menstruation.

 We can reduce these numbers by just spreading the word. All we have to do is to encourage women to discuss the issue openly. On a lighter note, women should be able to ask for a sanitary napkin as confidently as a man asks for a shaving razor.

Ah well, now that’s a feminist talking!

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Author : Nagashree Natarajan

Nagashree is the Co-founder of Humdinger Labs,an analytics firm. She volunteers and leads Startup Saturdays at CIIE, IIM Ahmedabad and blogs at: Effusive emotions.She owes most of what she is today to her liberal minded mom.

Edited by : Divya Rosaline