As The International Day of Girl Child approached I thought about my journey from girl child to adult woman and realised that it was marked by many ‘growing pains’. The most devastating of these experiences was during my teens.
It was that small but catastrophic red blot: the period stain! The period stain is many things; it is an experience, a fear, an event that marks the end of the world, a rite of passage!
I can wager money that all Indian girls know what I mean. I remember that uncomfortable wet feeling that was a premonition that the unnamed stain, that which was the ultimate give-away of our teen shame- menstruation, that great calamity was taking shape on the backside of your school uniform!
My most abiding memory of that terrible terror is from Class VII. It had been a year that I had started ‘chumming’ (as we now call it), and we were on a day trip to another school an hour away from ours to attend some programme. I had my period and was on my third day.
About 15 minutes into the programme, I went to the loo. In the bathroom I stared at my sanitary napkin lined underwear in horror. I needed to change my pad now! As luck and stupidity would have it, I hadn’t carried an extra napkin. I came back to my seat in this not-my-school’s auditorium, desperate and scared.
My friends were all in a rather jolly mood. I pinched and poked them in desperation whispering my urgent query and requirement of a sanitary napkin but none of my friends had one. This drove me towards asking the other girls I wasn’t even friendly with.
But that day no other girl in class had an ST! The matter was getting out of hand and the boys were beginning to notice. “Arre kya hua yaar Swara? Why are you creeping around?”
“Shut up and mind your own business!” I spat, dying a little from the fear that one of the boys might realise that I had my period! Catastrophe would come today!!
I was nearly in tears and begged my friend Divya to accompany me outside. We made an excuse to the teacher and fled. Outside we began to stalk the girls of this not-our- school, “Excuse me, do you have a sanitary napkin please?” It seems on that day I was the only girl in the world who was menstruating!
I was now feeling officially wet down there , very uncomfortable but really it was the fear of that shameful red blot that was paralysing me. I began to cry. “Maybe we can use leaves? I mean that’s what the Neanderthal man.. errr.. woman must have done!” offered Divya helpfully.
An hour passed as I stood in the corridor and cursed the gods and finally we were in the bus heading back to our own school.
A new problem presented itself in the bus. Any menstruating girl will tell you that sitting down will not only cause the cursed stain to appear, it will accelerate its spreading. I tried standing but the sharp instruction “Sit down Swara!” from my teacher caused me to squat! I half squatted down, not allowing my butt to touch the seat for the entire 45 minutes of the journey back.
When we reached school I could barely move! I dashed to the sickroom sideways, sticking my behind to the school walls since Divya had informed me of the birth of the dreaded stain on my skirt. In the bathroom I looked at my stained skirt and underwear and made my decision.
I came out, stuck my back to the walls and began to pretend that I had an excruciating stomach ache. The nurse looked at me doubtfully, I ooohed and aahed some more. She called my father and he came within an hour and took me home!
As we celebrate International Girl-Child Day let us not forget the little terrors that make up the daily lives of so many young girls going to school. Let us pledge to dissipate these silly little terrors. Let us teach our girl and boy children about their own and the other’s body and the causes of its natural processes.
Let us teach the girls to be unashamed and unembarrassed by the mechanics of their bodies. Let us teach the boys not to shame the girls about their bodies, nor make jokes in Math class about Mensuration and Menstruation! Let us make sanitary napkins freely available in schools. Let us make education and conversation around menstruation common, normal and part of curricula.
Like this commendable initiative called ‘Touch the Pickle’ and a school programme run by the same brand which creates awareness and conversations around periods and breaking stereotypes, myths and taboos that surround menstruation in our country. Let such initiatives proliferate.
But first as adults, teachers and parents, or potential parents let us ourselves accept unabashedly that periods are normal, natural and nothing to be ashamed about, nor a dark secret to be hidden nor something bad, shameful or embarrassing.
Periods are not a reason to skip school, bunk classes, stop playing sports or sit at home alone. Periods are not a crime, nor are they taboo. They can be discussed. Even on the dinner table!
But most importantly, let us teach our girl child and boy child both, that the period stain is neither a monster to be feared or ashamed of, nor a disgraceful flaw to be scoffed at or mocked; it is just what it looks like, a little red blot that will eventually get washed away.