No matter where in the world you come from getting your first period is a traumatic, confusing and downright weird time in any girl’s life. Even in the most prepared of situations, nothing can completely ready you for that moment when you become… a ‘woman’.
For those of you who have experienced your first period cast your mind back to that fateful day. For those of you who have never or will never experience it try and empathise with me all the same.
If you’ve successfully imagined yourself in that place you’ll be feeling a bit vulnerable, a bit shocked, maybe even slightly disgusted. You’ll be daring yourself to ask a whole list of questions, ‘how long will this last?’, ‘is it always going to hurt this bad?’ or simply ‘what the hell is happening to me?!’.
Now imagine that while you’re feeling all of these things you’re made to wear your best sari (not the pyjamas you wanted to curl up in) and people are throwing you a huge party. Your maternal uncle leeds the proceedings; he showers you with gifts and cake. You are fed nutritious foods which are meant to strengthen your pelvic muscles and bones, and for the duration of your period no one touches you at all.
In most communities across India a variation of this practice happens. While this is a happy occasion for most Indian families, the girls themselves can be left feeling powerless over the development of their own bodies because they are left out of the proceedings and have very little explained to them.
In the most extreme renditions of the tradition the girl will be treated as if she has a contagious disease. She will be stopped from taking part in religious ceremonies, going to school and other everyday activities. She will be forced to use different cooking equipment and her family will not touch her, even her mother, and she could be made to stay outside in a palm leaf hut for the duration of her period. If you’d like to know more then here’s a great video explaining the rituals in detail.
In one study conducted by UNICEF it was concluded that almost half of young girls in India know nothing about menstruation before it happens to them. “Many girls think that they are dying or have a horrible disease the first time they menstruate, as the pain and blood causes confusion and worry” - UNICEF blog
As the girls of My Name is Kumar grow older, inevitably they will experience their first period. In fact, Mahalakshmi had hers just last week.
We celebrated with a party, with special food and Maha wore her special dress. It’s important that we respect the cultural practices of the communities we work in – and why shouldn’t a girl celebrate the arrival of her menstrual cycle! But, we must be careful to explain the process to Mahalakshmi so that she understands the development of her own body and is empowered by it instead of being left feeling confused. We can also use Maha's experience as an example to the other My Name is Kumar girls so that they know what to expect themselves.
We’ll make sure she has clean pads to wear and we’ll teach her that when her period comes she shouldn’t feel ashamed or excluded.