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Breaking the Mental Barrier

To my mind, menstrual health and hygiene was still a taboo topic in our society and while we spent initial days in creating age and gender specific modules (for the workshops), the challenge of emerging out from my comfort zone somehow concerned me. I remember an instance from our first session with community workers where my role was more of an observer. Since I was a novice, Dr Kapur conducted most part of the session. She was seamless in her efforts and didn’t shy a bit to vocalize her thoughts in their local vernacular. Being an observer of Dr Kapur’s vigor and a witness of the immense energy and enthusiasm displayed by the women participants during that session, I experienced a paradigmatic shift in my thought process. I realized that our efforts can be immensely impactful by adding power and value in the lives of the women. Eventually, it became much more than a mere project for me as I found myself being extremely associated and committed to the cause.

As I started taking individual sessions with young girls from class VI onwards, I recognized that most of them did not even know about menstruation. Many of them were hesitant to even ask questions that they have repressed in their minds since months and years, which they never let out fearing shame and humiliation. With young girls, the earliest challenge was to make them feel positive about their bodies and the processes related with it. I attempted to disassociate the notion of embarrassment and humiliation with menstruation.

Amidst the sessions with young girls, I often wondered that why didn’t their teachers enabled them with appropriate knowledge pertaining to all the physical and emotional changes related to puberty and menstruation. To my disbelief, when we conducted sessions with the female teachers, I realized that many of them lacked knowledge relating to even the basic anatomy of the female reproductive system. Most of them, with half-baked knowledge, believed in myths that were being perpetuated from generation to generation. Approximately half of them were still using old cloth or cotton during their menstruation.

Soon we realized that the challenge was not to design and impart ‘world class’ modules but to make simple and comprehensible modules that offered practical and cost effective solutions to the everyday problems that girls and women face. Spending days with them, we were familiar with their socio-economic constraints; hence we focused more on contextualizing their issues rather than building a content domain, which was jargon-loaded and costly. The nature of the workshops was interactive to accommodate the experiences as well as the surplus of queries that the participants came up with. For the participants who wished anonymity, could write their queries on chits and those were discussed during the Q/A part of the session. Anonymity was more of a concern for the younger participants as they were still struggling to overcome years of socialisation into shame and embarrassment associated with their bodies. They were encouraged to challenge the prolonging myths and adopt healthy menstrual practices, which are backed by scientific evidence.

With an objective of breaking barriers, Dr Kapur conducted sessions with male teachers pertaining to their sexual health and hygiene. We noticed that men folk were not comfortable sharing their experiences, nor did they appear for the follow up sessions. However, female teachers and community workers regularly followed up and showed earnest willingness to be a part of more such knowledge and activity based programs. We provided continuous encouragement to the male teachers, and at the same time respected their choice of not continuing with the follow up sessions. I sincerely hope that one day, we are able to break this barrier and perhaps with some dedicated efforts directed towards the men folk particularly, we can bring them to the open forums of discussion pertaining to their sexual health and hygiene.

An Unbreakable Bond with Fellow Women

Somewhere between facilitating my participants towards healthy sexual practices and menstrual health, we developed an everlasting bond. Crossing the barriers of socio-economic status, educational backgrounds, residential setting, and even age, we all grew really fond of each other. Every woman treated me like her sister. They were so much filled with love that not even a single day passed when they let us go back home, without eating lunch from the school’s common kitchen. I remember one of the community workers who also worked as the kitchen staff, Georgina Didi, coming with a glass of chilled water every half an hour. If I didn’t want water, she used to say ‘bahut garmi hai, pani peene se acha rahega’ and used to keep the glass on the table. I was personally so humbled by that experience and the unconditional love and faith that were showered upon me. Till date, I consider it to be the most providential experiences of my life.

Apart from the generous amount of love and care that I received, I made some unforgettable memories and gained some valuable lessons. That was the time; I started reflecting on every single day that I spent there. With growing time, I felt more responsible for the people with whom I was working. To give my best, I was relentlessly dedicated to improve myself with each passing day. I was engrossed with improving the content, resources, material, as well as my personal style of conduction, vernacular, body language etc. What seemed as a challenge to me on Day 1, adopting the colloquial style of vernacular, was effortlessly integrated in my workshops. Within a few days, I was well aware of all the appropriate ‘Hindi’ words that made the communication, of the content, effortless. This helped me a lot in all the later workshops that I conducted with different organisations.

Do what you Preach

During my journey of being a facilitator of sexual health and hygiene, one of the main self-rewards was to come to an acceptance that no matter how well read we consider ourselves to be, we are still prone to commit basic and common hygiene mistakes. Hygiene has nothing to do with our class, status, education or anything else that we may falsely think we are privileged to have. It is a set of basic habits that needs to be inculcated at an early age in order to reap its benefits till the end of our lives. I introduced many hygiene habits related to my sexual and menstrual health in my daily life. Right from washing myself the correct way, to abstaining from using all the chemical products being sold with a promise to maintain a healthy pH balance of vagina; I tried to incorporate everything that I was teaching. I also downloaded an app in my phone to track my menstrual cycles and all the information related to it like length of my cycle, intensity of menstrual cramps, moods etc. For the participants, they were encouraged to use old calendars to calculate the length of their menstrual cycles and keep a record. Those who had access to mobile phones were taught to use the mobile apps to maintain their menstrual records.

One of the most significant changes in my menstrual health regime was to switch to a menstrual cup instead of sanitary pads. Admittedly, I was quite reluctant in the beginning but considering its nature of being environment friendly, hassle free and cost effective; I decided to take the plunge. Once I was satisfied with the menstrual cup and I was sure that its pros weigh more than the cons, I started encouraging the idea of using a menstrual cup among the participants. Initially, most of them are reluctant, but once we explain the benefits of using a cup they are willing to give it a ‘try’. Not only this, I believe that each one of us who has benefitted from a menstrual cup should encourage at least their domestic helpers to start using a cup instead of old cloth, cotton or sanitary pads. (Just to provide an insight, most of the women reuse their old cloth without washing and drying it properly. During informal conversations, many of them shared that because of ‘shame’ they do not dry the menstrual cloth in the open under sun and just dump it under some clothes. Without proper drying, the cloth will manifest bacteria and infections, hence causing too many health issues for the woman.)

Some Quick Tips for Only Female (and Male) Readers

Sexual and menstrual health is not ‘gender specific’. I don’t think I need to emphasize on the relevance of the role that a man can play to ensure the sexual health of all the females in his family. Conversations regarding menstrual health should include men and be discussed without any feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment. Though menstrual hygiene should be commonly talked about, there is absolutely no way that the significance of a gynaecologist should be underrated. Given below are a few times when every woman must consider seeing her gynaecologist. Male readers are requested to make sure that the women around them are aware about these points.

A visit to your gynaecologist in every six months should be a part of your sexual health routine.

Menstrual cycle of 21-35 days is usually considered normal; anything lesser or beyond this must be discussed with the doctor. Sometimes due to stress, weather change, sudden change in physical activity can cause early or delayed menstruation. If this continues for two cycles, please visit a doctor.

Too much cramping before or during your menstrual health, which is not being reduced by pain relieving techniques like hot water bottle, consuming hot liquids, some yoga postures, and even medication. Please take medication prescribed by your gynaecologist only. Do not self prescribe medications.

A woman usually bleeds anywhere between 2 to 7 days, anything lesser or more should be discussed with the gynaecologist. In case of immense blood flow i.e. using one sanitary pad every 1-2 hours, one must book an appointment with their doctor.

White discharge is a common phenomenon in all the women. It is an indicator of the menstrual health. However, it you notice these four symptoms, please consider going to a gynaecologist –

1. Quantity – if the quantity of the discharge is enough to soak a panty liner or sanitary pad

2. Smell – if there is a foul smell emanating from the discharge

3. Color – Usually, it will be off white, milky white or pale yellow. If it is bluish, greenish, greyish or pinkish, consider visiting your gynaecologist at the earliest. It may indicate some vaginal infection that needs medical attention.

4. Texture – Usually the texture is smooth, slippery or sticky, but if the texture is graded or rough please consider paying a visit to your doctor

Be the Change Makers

From what I have learned from my experience of working at several organizations, we all are capable of bringing positive changes in others’ lives. By conducting various workshops for young girls and women, I believe in empowering them to make informed choices and further join hands as a peer educator in spreading awareness to others at home, college or other networks.

Acknowledging that awareness is not a landmark but a long journey, let’s take a first step by psycho-educating ourselves, our girls and other women in our network, into issues pertaining to their own sexuality and about maintaining their sexual health and hygiene. Promoting a dialogue and maintaining a nonjudgmental stance about sexual health and hygiene can be a milestone in creating a supportive environment where girls and women are empowered to make informed and healthy choices pertaining to their sexual health and sexuality in general.

After 2016, I conducted workshops on Sexual Health and Hygiene with several other organisations. Sharing a picture of the workshop that I conducted in March 2018 with women of Sudhar Camp, Kalkaji. It was an initiative by the Outreach Program Committee of Ramanujan College, University of Delhi (where I work as an Assistant Professor in Dept of Applied Psychology).


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