Charita was 11 when she had her first menstrual period. She was at home preparing for her final exams and panicked when she found herself bleeding.
“My first reaction was to panic,” recalled Charita (name changed to protect identity), a migrant worker in Delhi. “I thought I had contracted some serious illness and I was going to die. What would happen to my exams? Should I ask my father to take me to the doctor?” Charita had called out to her mother in panic.
”My mother did not come,” Charita said. Instead, the old woman who lived next door did. “After bustling about and getting me to bathe, she took me to a room near the cowshed, asked me to sit on a wooden plank, which had already been prepared for me and asked me not to move from there,” she said.
Charita was given some food and water and left alone. It was evening before she saw her mother.
“Instead of comforting me and taking me home, my mother told me that I was a big girl now and that I should stop playing with children in the neighbourhood,” she said.
Charita’s story is neither strange nor singular in rural and urban India. Ignorance and superstition deprive young girls of crucial information on menstruation and the importance of menstrual hygiene.
Around 60% of women diagnosed with common reproductive tract infections reported poor menstrual hygiene, according to a 2012 United Nations Population Fund study. Only 15% of women use commercial sanitary protection, while 85% use home-made products, according to a 2015 study on menstrual hygiene practices. The interviews for this study revealed that these products range from cloth to make-do pads stuffed with ash, husk or even sand.
Affordability could be a factor that determines menstrual hygiene practices. But there is also a lot of shame, misconception and lack of education surrounding the use of sanitary pads.
Only 36% of women in India use sanitary pads, according to the National Family Health Survey. “How can we let everyone know that we have been menstruating?” is the common refrain.
Vaginitis and urinary tract infections were twice as prevalent among women who used cloth during menstruation than those who used sanitary pads.
“My mother taught me to find old clothes to use for absorbing the menstrual blood.” Charita, and millions of other women like her, do not have access to sanitary pads. In fact, most of them do not even know how to use a sanitary pad.
Thanks to Shakti Pads, Charita does not have to hide when she is on her period anymore.
“I don’t feel shame like I used to. I am free to do my work and I don’t have to hide to discard my soiled clothes,” she smiles, and giggles sheepishly.