Periods and menstruation might strike most as a rather odd topic to write about. This is especially so because I am male, and therefore do not suffer from the worse of its effects — bleeding, painful cramps, and the like. I am thus not very well appraised of its first-hand effects. However, the travel fellowship has made me much more aware than about how periods and menstruation play into the daily lives of friends, and about he communities and societies that they inhabit. Indeed, much of this post was inspired by the experiences I’ve had while travelling with two ladies, both of whom were unabashed with regaling me with tales of their hardships. It is also inspired by the brilliant work we witnessed at EcoFemme — an NGO that not only produces and sells reusable sanitary pads to rural communities, but also addresses the stigma many of these women face in the face of traditional Indian society.
As perhaps hinted at before, travelling as a solo male is a prized convenience. I do not suffer from menstrual cramps as I try to walk kilometres on the streets, nor do I have to put up with bleeding as I navigate incredibly bumpy bike rides toward my accommodation. Each of my friends had suffered to an extent — longer or shorter, depending on the duration of their periods. These were real challenges that I neglected, before this trip, to think about. Yet, there was nothing much I could do to relieve their pain. Theirs was a private experience that I had no primary epistemic access to. I merely sympathised by continuing to chow down scoop after scoop of ice-cream, offering them a cup of tea or coffee, or perhaps the random hot towel ever awhile.
Missed scoops of ice-cream, or the pain of riding over pothole-ridden roads are hardly comparable to the stigma and discrimination that many rural Indian villagers face however. I write this after getting off a Skype call with my friend in Kerala, India. She complains about how she was unfairly chided by several village elders for going to the temple today — all because she was having her period. She goes on to tell me about the rather conservative, and even, misguided notion that periods are supposedly “dirty” and considered an illness by many of her village elders. Fortunately for her, she has a caring husband and mother-in-law who are not tolerant of such outdated notions. I recall their wedding rather fondly, about the time when she completed her polytechnic education.
However, her experience is a rarity. As the EcoFemme representative shares, periods are still hardly understood by many women in rural communities in India. Thus, many of their initiatives as an NGO revolve around volunteers travelling to such villages to educate the women about their bodies. These initiatives have a profound effect. Firstly, the women understand that menstruation is a perfectly natural phenomenon that is nothing to be ashamed of. Secondly, they are better able to manage their periods. My friend shares stories of women who stopped going to school because their clothes would keep getting soaked. Having a sanitary pad would alleviate many of these issues, and help them continue with their education. The EcoFemme representative also shares how many of these women live around large communities of men, and were constantly shamed for having their periods. They would have to leave the village to simply find a private spot to change before returning. And this would happen multiple times a day. This both baffled, and shocked me.
Fortunately, EcoFemme has an army of volunteers from various states around India who constantly do such outreach programmes. These are trained volunteers of course. They only have to come down to Auroville or Pondicherry to attend a short two-day course. They are then dispatched to the villages to educate the women.
Aside from education, EcoFemme’s initiative also revolves around the production and distribution of reusable sanitary pads. Each of them is stuffed with layers of cotton. This helps women in rural communities better manage their period, but also cuts on the large amount of waste that would be generated if disposable sanitary pads were issued. Logistics also become a lot easier when one merely has to wash, rather than continuously buy sanitary pads where they are scarcely available. Even if they were, they might serve as being too prohibitively expensive for the allowances that they are given.
I thought that their most remarkable innovation was in the red, foldable style pads, designed to look surreptitious on a clothing line so as not to bring them embarrassment when they hung them to dry. I thought that this was an ingenious blend of industrial design combined with cultural norms and sensitivities.
EcoFemme is only one of the many NGOs that operate out of Auroville. I decided to write about EcoFemme because of their amazing work, but also because I realise how relevant many of these experiences are for friends that I know and love. My hope is that, even in Singapore, that talking about something as natural as one’s period ceases to be a stigma. Rather, it should be discussed in the same comfort as one would discuss a visit to the restroom — for periods are just natural bodily functions.