Aug 23, 2010

A woman speaks of her most intimate companion like never before.


Everyone is sympathetic towards a pregnant woman. But in my opinion, pregnancy is only a 10-month torment which might happen once or twice in a woman’s life. On the other hand, the torment a woman goes through each month when she is not pregnant is a life sentence.

Freedom, Stayfree, Whisper – advertisements of these sanitary napkins show carefree women who wake up fresh and happy in the mornings. I see young girls from poor families stare longingly at these sanitary napkins in medical shops. I never experienced this type of longing as a young girl because I didn’t even know the existence of sanitary napkins when I started having my period.

Delayed periods is actually a boon that poverty bestows on poor girls. I was 16 when my period started. Those days we had just one meal a day. Even that wasn’t an assured one! It was my last year at school, around the half-yearly exams. My family organised a small celebration for me. It was exciting, but I couldn’t fully understand what was going on.

I had no pain for the first six months. Then, during menstruation, I started to experience heavy flow of blood. I had to walk for about two kilometres to reach school; there was no money to pay for the bus ticket. Only a few scraps of old cloth were folded and kept in place to hold the blood flow all day. I had to keep folding in and folding out the wet and dry parts of the cloth.

By the time I returned home walking, the blood-stained cloth scratched and caused bloody rashes between the thighs.

Thankfully, I studied in a girls’ school. As for the toilets in a government school, is there any need to elaborate on their conditions? There was no water and the recess break was just ten minutes within which all the girls in the class had to use the toilet. I used to be scared to ask for the teacher’s permission to use the toilet during the classes. By the time I returned home walking, the blood-stained cloth had scratched and caused bloody rashes between the thighs.

At home, the toilet was always closed. We lived in a huge compound where one toilet was shared by 10 families. There were no taps in the toilet and we had to carry water twice or thrice. During my period, I wanted to use the toilet in the night as well. The owner’s son, a scoundrel, dared touch my breasts in the dark. I couldn’t ask my mother to go with me because my siblings (brother and sister) were still being breastfed. Asking my father to accompany me was possible but I was embarrassed.


Ladies toilet in Tapola

Ladies toilet in Tapola, India

Photo credit: Yellow Waris

I joined ITI after school. Pain around the hip bone started. It was as if a sharp object was being pierced through

my hips. In the stomach, the intense pain extended till the urethra, accompanied by heaviness of the head and intense drowsiness. In addition, there were frequent bouts of vomiting, heavy flow of blood for more than four days, and nausea. I didn’t feel like eating and in fact, used to be unable to eat. I craved a soda or a cool drink but that was a huge luxury we couldn’t afford. I used to lie down and scream amma, amma and roll on the ground in pain. The screaming and rolling would go down after swallowing a paralgon tablet, and I lapsed into a tired half-sleep. When the four days for over, it was real freedom!

I visited the ESI (Employee State Insurance) hospital with my mother. The doctor said that there was no medicine for this ache and the pain would be gone after marriage. Since I thought marriage was just exchanging garlands, I wondered why I shouldn’t wear them right away and get rid of the pain. That was the level of knowledge I had then and I was too uncomfortable to ask my mother about it. With time, the pain became worse. Although the ITI was only for girls, there were male lecturers for some classes. Once, between classes, before the next lecturer came, I went to the toilet quickly to change the cloth. The cloth fell down; the lecturer must have seen it. That day, I died of humiliation and shame.

It must have been 1977-78 when I read about sanitary napkins in the weekly magazines. I asked my friend Sharada about them. She was one of the rich girls in our class. She said that sanitary napkins were held in place by an elastic belt. I couldn’t ask for money at home. The polytechnic was about seven kilometres away from home and one had to change two buses to reach the polytechnic. At home, they usually gave me enough money only for one bus (25 paise). I walked the entire distance and saved money. When I got the sanitary pad, it looked so beautiful and neat. I used it once and brought it home safely in a packet. I was wondering why I hadn’t thought of this earlier. I started washing the napkin with soap; it fell to pieces.

I was completely unaware of the idea of use-and-throw. And the price of one day’s freedom was a several-kilometre-long walk! Even today when I think of it, it hurts.

After my studies, I got a job in an electrical shop for a salary of Rs 100 per month. My siblings would now get at least one meal for sure. I was at peace. My work was from 9:00 in the morning to 8:00 in the night. The shop was about five kilometres away from home. I used the bus during the first 10 days of the month and walked the rest of the days. A close friend also started working in that shop. Her presence gave me a lot of confidence. We would longingly wait for the shop owner to order tea twice a day, morning and evening. When we actually got the tea depended on the owner’s mood. Especially during my period, I craved that one tea desperately.



At times, stock-taking would happen on the days when I had my periods. We had to climb on a ladder, remove the things from the top shelves, dust them, and then list them. My friend and I would do this together. The pain would be excruciating. One day, my friend gathered some guts and told the owner to assign stock-taking to men. Well, her family didn’t depend on her salary unlike mine. For me, just the thought of my siblings would silence me at such times.