“I just didn’t understand what was happening. Maybe I got hurt? Maybe I had cancer? When I saw the blood, I didn’t know what to do.”
That's what my mother thought when she got her first period – as a teenager. Almost 50 years later, the little girls I meet on my field visits still think along the same lines, for we refuse to talk about periods, assuming that there is a blanket ban on it.
For adolescents menstruating in Florida, the blanket ban may actually become a reality. At a time when we need more schools and educational institutions to teach young adults about menstruation, a bill sponsored by Republican Representative Stan McClain proposes to ban students from learning about it.
The bill will not only prohibit young children, experiencing their menstrual cycles for the first time, from discussing it – but will also end up stripping them of their dignity.
This bill comes to support a GOP-backed legislation which requires schools to teach that a person’s sexual identity is determined biologically by birth.
The First Time I Heard About 'Periods'
A 2021 UNICEF report had found that 71 percent adolescent girls in India remain unaware of menstruation until they get their first period.
Like most people, I was first introduced to the topic in my eighth grade biology class, with the chapter 'Reproduction.'
My school thought that the best way to introduce the concept of periods to teenagers was to separate girls and boys, sit them down, and simply tell them that they are going to undergo this process soon.
No mention of how to use sanitary napkins, no mention of hormonal changes, no mention of conditions like PCOS, and absolutely no mention of how to deal with the stigma that comes along with periods.
Boys were 'curious' about the exclusive class for girl students. Every time they saw a pad wrapped in a newspaper or a stain on our white uniform, there would be whispers.
Those who started menstruating became more and more reserved, and it was discussed only during closed-door conversations. Even uttering the word 'period' was a rarity – all in 2010s. Just like my mother had experienced several years ago.
The Joy Of Bleeding Freely
After I graduated, I went to a women's college where people simply spoke about periods – there were open conversations about stigma, and pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS), there were no whispers to ask for a sanitary pad, or no need to hide that a person was menstruating.
I could bleed freely, without constant thoughts of it – thanks to the safe space. That was when I knew that this safe space has to be expanded to people outside the four walls of the college.
In the last two years of training 500+ menstruators and non-menstruators, and after several sanitary napkin distributing drives later, it is impossible to ignore the silence of shame, and how much we are depriving young menstruators of knowledge and support.
The Florida Bill, if passed, will set a dangerous precedent in countries like India, where individuals and some government-based curriculums are striving to have this conversation, to make it easier for those who are bleeding to seek support.
If not for anything else, to simply keep these menstruating girls in school.
Why Florida Bill Is Dangerous If Replicated In India
A UNICEF study shows over 20 million girls in India drop out of schools once they start menstruating. Another study by NGO Dasra reveals how one in five girls are vulnerable to drop out of school when they attain the menstruating age.
Not normalising menstruation process, not speaking about it, not educating people about it will only end up increasing these numbers.
There are a variety of reasons why this happens:
Lack of sanitation in schools
Long distances that girls have to travel to get to school
But the most prominent reason is the stigma of menstruation. Parents fear that girls may become sexually active or become more vulnerable to sexual violence, if they go to school once they start menstruating.
Equally dangerous are the the period practises associated with menstruating in India. In the areas I work, girls are still told that they should not touch pickle jars while menstruating. They are told that a person who is menstruating should not touch anything new, as it will be ruined.
Having no space to talk about these will only perpetuate these notions, and strengthen them – putting these girls at a disadvantage.
If Girls Don't Talk About Periods...
The solution to this is better sanitation facilities, affordable sanitary napkins but also public discourse on menstruation – whether you like it or not. If girls don’t get to talk about periods, or don't hear others talking about it in schools, they will never learn to accept their bodies for what it is.
With every session period educators like me hold on ground, we want young girls to realise that bleeding doesn’t make them weak or different. We want to empower them to manage their periods effectively including (and not limited to) menstrual cycle tracking, and understanding the changes that may occur in their bodies.
Not to mention, silencing young girls from mention periods may also bury health concerns which they may face during early menstruation, which could be fatal in some cases.
According to a survey, 28 percent of menstruators said that they were put in isolation during their periods in India, and 32.6 percent of women have “deliberately made excuses to avoid admitting that they are menstruating”.
I am not saying anything that hasn't been said before. But when unscientific proposals get highlighted in first-world countries, that has the potential to be replicated in other countries, there's not enough number of times we can say this – Menstruation is just a biological process.
The secrecy and the shame around it must end.
Next time you read about a state passing a legislation on silencing young girls, ask yourself, is it the state of mind that’s dirty, or periods?
(Aanya Wig is a gender rights activist and the founder of Girl Up Rise. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)