I was 12 when I first started menstruating, 14 when I first went home early from school so that no one sees my bloodstains, and 19 when my period pain got so intolerable that I wanted to die.
Dysmenorrhea, the clinical term for painful menstruation interferes with the daily life of around one in every five women. But it’s funny how we still don’t wanna talk about it. It was not until recently that I started to realise how patriarchy dictates even the kind of menstrual products we use and if we can openly start a discourse on it.
“Increase Your Tolerance Level”
At first, I was confused: there’s a medicine for almost everything except COVID and cancer maybe. You get a headache and you take a pill, it goes away. Your muscles in the back are stiff, you put on a balm and you instantly feel better. Then why is it that when it comes to period cramps, you are just supposed to take a random painkiller and put a heating pad and cry in your bed until it goes away on its own?
And I ask this very sincerely. At first, I believed that maybe I am wrong, so I went to see a doctor. And let me tell you a funny story here: I am sitting there, moaning in pain in front of my doctor. I got my ultrasounds done and everything’s fine. And so I ask the doctor so what now? And she says and I quote “you just have to increase your tolerance level”. I mean–? You have a fever or a headache, do they tell you to increase your tolerance level? And after that, so many doctors and so many prescriptions: and yet all seemed to say “just count your days and suffer in pain”. The sarcasm is the only way left to deal with those sleepless nights and unbearable pain which is “almost as bad as a heart attack”. At present, we have 1.2 million doctors across an estimated 69,000 public and private hospitals in India; and ye there is little to no research on period pain, or even, menstruation, in general.
Shush, you are not allowed to talk about it!
To make matters worse, you are not only supposed to go through all that pain while bleeding 24×7, but you’re also supposed to stay quiet about it. All this wokeness and preaching and I still haven’t once mentioned the word “period” to my own father. I just can’t. In academic and workspaces, we use the term “stomach ache” which soon transformed, for the millennials, as “bad time of the month”. Once I got the guts to text “I’m on my period” to my senior after not showing up for my internship for two days in a row. And I was left on seen-zone. In a country where the word, in itself, is a taboo, how can we even begin to start researching about it?
From the medicines, we take to the menstrual products we use: everything is dictated by patriarchy. “Once I was sterilizing my menstrual cup in boiling water, and one of my neighbours came in and asked what was it that I was doing. I explained what a menstrual cup is and how it works, and before I could finish, she started shouting. ‘Oh my god, what are you doing, stupid girl!’ She created a huge scene and said that I’d lose my virginity if I continue using the cup. But before I could explain any further, she went away,” told Sanskriti, a 19-year-old while narrating her experience.
Are You Privileged Enough To Menstruate?
It was only in 2018, after years of protests and campaigning that the tax on sanitary pads in India was uplifted which was set at 12% under the Goods and Services Act. It was argued that this would enable more girls to continue school as periods become one of the primary reasons for girls to drop out of school. But is that enough?
The Whisper XXL pack which gets me through two cycles is marked at Rs. 400. If menstruating is not a luxury, why purchasing it is? I remember one of our house-helps recently asked my mother if she had any spare clothes for her to use. At first, I didn’t understand what she was talking about but later, I got to know that she has never had the privilege of purchasing sanitary pads. Free sanitary pads are still a far-fetched dream in this country.
What’s safe and what’s not
But even if we do get free sanitary pads, is that it? Time and again, researchers have raised their concern about the grave threat that sanitary pads pose to women’s health and the environment. If used for prolonged periods, they can cause infections and even cancer, for that matter.
So, even if we increase the production and distribution of sanitary pads, raising awareness about its use and the dangers it poses is on whole another level. I remember hearing about this from a friend first before I did my own research. And I was like: why is no one talking about this?! If a cigarette packet can say “smoking causes throat cancer”, why can’t Whisper write “sanitary pads cause ovarian cancer” on its packet?
We should be outraged about the utter disregard for women’s health when it comes to menstruation: from the manufacturing of menstrual products to the availability of medicines. Instead, we still choose to talk about “it” in hushed voices and behind closed doors, inventing synonyms and innuendos for ‘menstruation’ and ‘periods’ and for what? Because we are embarrassed by our own vaginas? And this is just the tip of the iceberg, just one woman’s experience. There are countless others who can’t even afford to come and speak up about this. If you’re reading this, it does not matter if you menstruate or not. It’s about the very process that enables life to continue and if you are not speaking up, you are a part of the problem.