Menstruation matters: Ending period shame
Periods. While they are among the signs that a female body is functioning healthily, “that time of the month” is more typically greeted with sighs at the hassle, and for many, dread at the cramping and other painful effects of menstruation.
But one afternoon, in the sunny courtyard of a school in rural Alwar, Rajasthan, the mood around periods is one of excitement.
A sea of students chat and giggle as they gather around two women from Project Baala, a social enterprise, who have come to conduct a talk to demystify menstruation.
“Whose periods have started? Whose periods have not started? Who has stomach pain?” asks Aradhana Gupta, co-founder of Project Baala, as a wave of raised hands greet her in response.
At the end of the session, Aradhana and Rishita Aggarwal, a Project Baala volunteer, distribute reusable sanitary pads to the girls, who receive them with cheers.
The awareness and affordability gap
The opportunity to learn and openly ask questions about periods is a precious one in this rural part of India, where myths and taboos around menstruation abound, while sanitary options are scarce.
In India, about 50 per cent of women use cloth during menstruation, which is not classified as hygienic protection, according to the National Family Health Survey India (2019-21).
Period poverty is a serious concern, with many menstruators from low-income households turning to homemade solutions because commercial sanitary products are not affordable to them. This in turn increases their risk of developing health issues like reproductive and urinary tract infections.
And then there are the taboos. “Impure”, “unclean”, “Do not enter temples” and “Do not wash your hair” are just some of some of the no-nos repeated to girls all over India.
“My mother has told me that during menstruation, we shouldn’t eat sour food,” says Khushi, a student from Alwar. “I cannot step inside the kitchen. I am not allowed any activity.”
Even those with more cosmopolitan upbringings are not immune to such attitudes. “If I have massive cramps, the first instinct would be ‘I have a bad headache.’ That’s what I tell the world,” shares Soumya Dabriwal, co-founder of Project Baala. “There’s so much shame associated with it.”
The result is a feeling of fear and disgust around periods, affecting girls’ self-worth as they come to associate their bodies and identities with negativity, and further hinders them from talking about health concerns when they arise.
‘Baala Bosses’ show the way
Project Baala was founded to provide anyone who menstruates with affordable and sustainable menstrual pads while normalising conversations about periods. A pad cannot solve the problems around periods, but it can start conversations and challenge mindsets, says Soumya.
Project Baala (“Baala” means “girls” in Hindi) works with partners who can sponsor the costs of outreach and distribution drives at schools in India. Aradhana and Soumya train volunteers like Rishita — dubbed “Baala Bosses” — to help conduct these talks and pass on the message of health and empowerment.
It has held over 1,100 workshops all over India, and given out 350,000 reusable pads as of June 2022.
And it is now extending its impact by employing women from rural areas to sell Baala pads as a low-cost option. This creates an income stream for women in areas where livelihood opportunities are limited, while continuing to spread awareness of menstrual hygiene.
Sita Sharma is Project Baala’s first associate from Alwar. “Menstruation is a woman’s identity. What is there to hide about periods?” she says, noting that her husband and sons have become comfortable when she mentions her periods.
She employs the same no-holds-barred charm when sharing about Project Baala with women in her village. “If you feel these pads can change your life, then you must take a step towards that change. Only you can pave that change for your daughters,” she says during one sharing session.
Says Soumya: “That’s what we are trying to create. These ripples of change across the country. Where we are empowering women to take their own decisions, their own choices, on their health, on their hygiene.”