This is a fictional account of how damaging can menstrual taboos and silence about reproductive health be for both men and women, and how men can support and encourage women and families to understand menstruation better and join hands to empower #PeriodPride.
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In the small village Rohera near Rohtak, Manveer was the youngest of his five older sisters, well technically one of them- Mamta, his twin just two minutes older than him. She was the only daughter of the house his father and grandmother were kind too, because she had brought along a brother, an heir of the family.
While they were very young, all the older girls were married hurriedly, one after the other. Manveer was not very close to any of them and spent some time with them only on Rakshabandhan.
By the time Manveer and Mamta were ten years old, they were the only kids left around the house. The older sisters, three of them now had kids of their own and visited occasionally during the festivals.
The youngest of the four – Asha, however came more often, beaten and thrown out by her in-laws, as even after two years of marriage she had no kids. Manveer felt bad for her, he wanted to ‘protect’ her as he promised on Rakshabandhan every year. He wished he knew where babies could be brought from and he could bring her one.
Just days before their eleventh birthday, they were told Asha had died; she had jumped into the village well. He went with his father and uncles for her last rites and thought finally she was free of the humiliation and pain of not having children. Every one said women must have children; those who didn’t were useless to their families and society.
A few days later, his mother prohibited Mamta to play with him in the fields or go out alone for toilet. He argued a lot as to why he could and she couldn’t but his usually condescending mother only told him, “She is a big girl now and will soon be married off, so he should learn to stay away from her.”
Mamta stopped going to school also and would now work more around the house all the time, wear ‘chunni’ all the time and often complain of stomach aches. He could see her in pain sitting in a corner of the courtyard but during the ‘secret’ pains he was not allowed to sit near her and was told to avoid talking to her.
Soon Manveer found new friends in High School and just as the case was with all his other sisters grew distant from Mamta. It was their 15th birthday and now just like big cities and films, he used to cut a cake and have a cold drinks and burger party for his friends, all boys of course.
Mamta was not allowed to come out and interact with any outside boys and men. As he sat flaunting his new mobile phone to his friends, he noticed her quickly slip into the newly made toilet in the house.
Minutes later, there was blood in the drain that ran out of the toilet at the edge of the courtyard. Manveer rushed to the toilet and asked Mamta if she was alright, he presumed she had fallen and hurt herself badly.
All his friends were sniggering meanwhile and the oldest of them Dinesh, pulled him away and told him she was okay, maybe having her ‘monthly woman problem’.
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Manveer knew a little about sex and how women had genitals (breasts and vagina) different than his own but he didn’t know anything about a ‘woman problem’. Dinesh was there expert on all issue related to women and sex. He even had videos of village girls bathing, or using the fields to defecate and proudly shared them around.
Dinesh told him that girls were ‘dirty’ every month for a few days and bled from ‘down there’ for a few days, only after they started bleeding every month, they could be ‘impregnated’ by a man.Dinesh was also constantly making fun of him and his sister’s stupidity and ignorance. He even made some crude jokes about Mamta’s body, Manveer didn’t like it but Dinesh was older and stronger and was kind of leader of the pack so he couldn’t retaliate.
Later as he returned home ‘ashamed’ and angry he told his mother how Mamta had made a spectacle of him in front of his friends, didn’t she know that the drain was open and didn’t she have any shame exposing her ‘dirtiness’ to boys.
His mother was very angered and as he sat outside with a glass of milk he was happy as she hit Mamta repeatedly with an iron tong. Ever since that day Mamta never looked at him directly, she would try to avoid him and stay out of his way at all times.
Soon after his Matriculation, he was sent to a hostel in the city and now he only rarely saw her. Family members were trying to get a good match for her is all he heard about her.
Then one day in winters the same year, his warden hurriedly sent him home citing an emergency. As he reached home he knew someone had died, maybe his old grandmother. The dead body was kept on the brick floor, it was Mamta’s.
He was told she died of typhoid. It had been ten days; he was eagerly awaiting his return to the hostel after the thirteenth day rituals when he found Mamta’s mobile phone in one of the drawers of his room in the house. It was one of his old phones that he had given to her, so that at times he could call on that to speak to his mother.
He switched it on out of curiosity. No messages, no call details. No photos. Only one video, he opened it. It was dark and shaky, some girl inside a dimly lit toilet, half-naked, it was Mamta removing a blood soaked rag from her underwear and replacing it with a clean one.
The video was only a minute long, he played it again and again and couldn’t understand why or what of it, but it filled him with anger and disgust. The angle was definitely from a hole in the roof across the outer wall.
So someone had made this and had sent it to Mamta? Why? He tried calling the number from which had been received but it was switched off. There were no answers for the curious questions in his mind, he could not tell such a shameful thing to his parents. He felt humiliated and violated, just like his sister.
Could it be Dinesh? But he had died due to a drug overdose months ago. After worrying about it for a couple of weeks though he went back to his hectic routine and forgot all about it.
Years later, just a week before his marriage as he was arranging his personals in his cupboard in that ancestral house, he stumbled on a tin box full of childhood stuff. In there he also found a faded big foam and glitter flower-shaped golden Rakhi, the last Mamta had tied to him. He held it tightly remembering her and there it was a small strip of paper taped under it. Mamta’s suicide note – it had brief broken sentences about her wishes for his long life, her agony, the blackmail, the shame, the frustration of silence, there were no names but a lot of claustrophobia between the lines.
Manveer quit his job with an MNC immediately after, he had found his life’s purpose. He initiated a start-up that made low cost sanitary napkins for village girls and was dedicated to menstruation awareness. He named the two programs ASHA and MAMTA.
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Every time a young village girl spoke confidently about periods, without shame, he felt his sister lived again. His enterprise was committed to ensure awareness that during menstruation women and girls must not be excluded from using water and sanitation facilities safely and without shame, must be able to participate fully in social, educational, productive, and religious activities and never be ‘ashamed’ about their bodies.
His workshops included young boys too as he believed that often in their lack of awareness it was boys like he himself once was made girls feel ashamed. Even if they wanted to talk about menstruation, they were prohibited to discuss menstrual issues with their mothers or sisters or their fathers and older men. As a result they had half-baked knowledge and used crude terms for it, teased girls and often acted insensitively or completely indifferent.
Now he was married and had a little girl and a little boy of his own. He was far better informed now and knew that they will be better siblings to each other than he was to his sisters. He knew and always said in all his workshops –
“Periods are not a woman’s problem; they are man and woman pride, the symbol of birth, the sign of the human ability to reproduce.”
He was one of the strongest voices now in the field of menstruation awareness and wanted more and more men and boys to join him in facilitating women and girls to exercise their reproductive health rights with joy, without any apprehension, stigma or taboo.
ASHA and MAMTA were flourishing, without fear, without shame.
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