It's one of those days. You are on a period, and it is heavy and painful. You are not feeling one hundred percent and you don't want to go into work. But you have an important meeting and cannot possibly miss it. You drag yourself out of bed, down a few painkillers and rush into work. Minutes before the meeting you discover that you have stained your dress. The day couldn't get worse. No wonder periods are called "the curse!"
Sounds familiar? Welcome to the world of over 355 million menstruating women in India.
Why do women have periods?
Imagine a life without periods—no bleeding, no pain, no sanitary napkins and no tampons... freedom! Before you get too carried away with that utopian thought, though, have you ever wondered why women menstruate? Well, because we are special of course!
Ladies the next time you moan about your periods remember it is your monthly reminder that you are capable of having a baby!
Every month the womb prepares for a possible pregnancy and when this does not happen it sheds the lining of the womb which results in a period. This usually happens once a month; the normal cycle varies from 21 to 35 days and the bleeding can last from two to seven days (with an average of five days). So, having a regular period most often indicates that a woman is ovulating every month. So ladies the next time you moan about your periods remember it is your monthly reminder that you are capable of having a baby!
Some women may experience variations in their cycles.
Bleeding may be heavy (changing five or more fully soaked pads per day), painful or irregular. These variations may be a result of a hormone imbalance, growths (non-cancerous) in the uterus called fibroids or polyps or occasionally in an older woman a sign of cancer. Most commonly, heavy and prolonged periods can cause low blood count, otherwise known as anaemia. This can cause tiredness, weakness and an inability to perform day-to-day activities optimally. About 60% of the women who consult me do so because they have a menstrual problem. And about 40% of them have a low blood count. So if you have problems with your periods don't just "put up with them" but go and see your gynaecologist. You owe it to yourself to be healthy.
Menstruation through the ages
Although women have always menstruated, there is only sporadic mention of this for thousands of years. Through the ages, menstruation has never been discussed openly. It has been associated in turn with witches, magic, shame and taboo. And it is not surprising that even today most women in our country do not talk freely about it. In some communities in India women, during a period are not allowed to enter places of worship, cook food or participate in socio cultural activities. All this and more perpetrates the myth that menstruation is impure and the body is cursed during this time. This is rather contradictory given that, if a girl does not have periods she would be considered infertile and therefore cursed! So you are damned if you don't and condemned if you do!
Have you ever wondered what women did before the sanitary pad or the tampon was invented. It is believed (although this has not been proven) that the clever Egyptians and Greeks used papyrus and lint wrapped around a stick to use as a tampon. Some over time used "rags" and the rest just bled through their clothes and continued to wear the same dress for the length of their period! So much for menstrual hygiene!
Many of you probably do not know that a large percentage of girls in the developing world do not attend school during their periods.
The modern sanitary napkin was not invented until the late 19th century and the tampon came into being only in the early 20th century. But many women in the developing world continue to use cloth or rags as they cannot afford menstrual hygiene products.
The 28th of May is recognised as Menstrual Hygiene Day. Many of you probably do not know that a large percentage of girls in the developing world do not attend school during their periods. This is due to lack of access to sanitary napkins, toilets, sanitation and adequate privacy. In rural schools, female teachers, during their periods, perform less efficiently for similar lack of infrastructure and tend to take leave or go home early. In recent times, fortunately, there have been several NGOs involved in spreading awareness and helping women manage their periods with dignity. Meanwhile, even in the cities and metros, access to clean toilets is a luxury. Not all work places may be "period friendly" and stepping out of the comfort of one's home during this time continues to be a challenge for most women.
Menarche and menopause mark the start and the end of periods in a woman's lifetime. In many cultures the onset of the first period is announced and celebrated. And yet it is the same period that condemns her to a life of "impurity" and isolation for those few days.
I would like to leave you with a few lines from Gloria Steinem's essay "If Men Could Menstruate":
"What would happen... if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not? The answer is clear—menstruation would become an enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event: Men would brag about how long and how much. Boys would mark the onset of menses, that longed-for proof of manhood, with religious ritual and stag parties. Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea to help stamp out monthly discomforts. Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free. (Of course, some men would still pay for the prestige of commercial brands such as John Wayne Tampons, Muhammad Ali's Rope-a-dope Pads, Joe Namath Jock Shields—"For Those Light Bachelor Days," and Robert "Baretta" Blake Maxi-Pads.)"