Time for change: Talking openly about menstruation, marriage and maternity in India.

Improving life for women means overcoming damaging misconceptions and taboos about gender issues, telling stories and talking openly, says Shishu Ranjan.

International Women’s Day started with a gathering over a century ago on 8th March 1911. It’s a global day to celebrate the achievements of women in society, politics, economics & culture. It is  a day to call for gender equality across the globe. This year as a Youth Accountability Advocate I was involved in an International Women’s Day event with Restless Development and the Citizens Foundation, an organisation working on various issues related to girl’s education and menstrual hygiene in Jharkhand & other states.

“The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organisation but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.”

Gloria Steinem

The “Lahu Ke Bol – Bleed Proud” open mic session was an open space for stories of menstruation and menstruation hygiene. Some performed poems, others expressed themselves through narration or comedy. We heard positive stories where embarrassment was expelled by community support or good teachers and we heard stories of shame and discomfort. Men shared their own stories of the ways in which they had become aware of menstruation. The event was roughly 50:50, men and women. We felt this was important as we must collaborate to sensitise all of society on Women’s sexual reproductive health and rights, including menstruation if we want to overcome damaging misconceptions and taboos. 

Some of the participants, guests and organisers at the “Lahu Ke Bol – Bleed Proud” Open Mic session.

In that spirit I wanted to use this opportunity to bring attention to the dangers posed by the continuing silence and inaction around gender issues; from period stigma, to child marriage and lack of sexual and reproductive health rights and services. This is Tanjila’s story, a real story told to me by a woman in one of the sessions I ran on gender issues with men and women in my district (her name has been changed to protect her anonymity). 

Tanjila’s Story

I am Tanjila Khatun. I am 37 years old, and my husband is 41. I belong to a small village in Jharkhand, India. There are 6 members in our family; me, my husband, our three daughters and one son. My family depends on agriculture for rice & vegetables but for other clothes, edible oils, pulses and everything else we depend on daily wages. 

During the rainy season, we work in the rice field. My husband migrates during the off season. He moves to Kolkata and works as a construction worker earning ₹400-₹500 (INR) per day.

I was 12 or 13 years when I hit puberty. When my mahwari (period) started; I was unaware of such kinds of changes in my body. During the 1980s we were not allowed to study. None of my brothers even had a formal education. We are from an orthodox rural Muslim family, and people didn’t talk about things like periods openly – not even young people talk about these things. 

I talked to my mother about it, she taught me about periods and provided me with some pieces of clothes torn from old petticoats and sarees. I started using it. I used to clean up in the nearby pond, in the field water when I used to go to the latrine in the field, because we had no toilet or washroom in our home.

I got married at the age of 14 to a 17 year old boy but due to some issues related to my family and dowry, I was divorced just 1 year after our marriage. I got married again at the age of 16 this time to a 20 year old man. I still had no inside washroom and continued to wash my menstrual clothes in the dirty pond and field water. During the summer season, when the ponds and fields were dry, this was difficult. Even now, we dry clothes inside sarees or petticoats inside dark rooms so that nobody sees them.

I got pregnant after just one year of marriage and gave birth to a baby girl at the age of less than 18. By 27 I was pregnant for the fifth time. 

In 2009 or 2010, I don’t remember completely, during the third month of my pregnancy, I felt unwell, my uterus and vagina started to hurt. I visited a doctor and was sent for an ultrasound and was told that the baby had died and offered me a dilatation and curettage. She was trained and famous for Gynecology. But we preferred to consult a local doctor just a kilometre away from my village.

In the process of aborting my baby my uterus, gastrointestinal organs bladder and urinary pipe were all damaged. The doctor had left cotton inside my uterus. I was totally zoned out and went into a coma as the bleeding started, my stomach filled with water and swelled. The doctor went out of contact and left his clinic for fear of my family’s outrage. 

I had been carried to Giridih, 60km away from my village to a specialist gynecologist. She refused to treat me and told my family that I would not survive. I was carried to Ranchi, 200 km away from Giridih and was admitted to Alam Hospital. The team of doctors investigated and finally decided that they were going to remove my uterus and treat all the damages of the gastrointestinal part.

The main issue was money. Even the abortion procedure had been unaffordable. My parents took a loan from a local moneylender with a 60% annual interest rate. We are still paying for that loan, it has been 11 years. I was in the hospital for over a month and it took twice that to recover. We spent almost 2 entire years earnings on the treatment. 

Even after 11 years, I am not able to do heavy work like carrying loads and I still feel pain in my stomach. Every month I still have to spend a fifth of my earnings consulting a doctor. 

This was my story. My daughter is 19 now, two years older than I was when I had her, and she already has a one year old. She is a bright girl and I am proud to have given her the chance to study. She is the first Muslim girl in my village who passed class 10th. People often say that if a girl will not be married before 18 then she will struggle to find marriage, so we prepared for her marriage when she was 17. 

Ten months later she was due to give birth. We asked for a cesarean delivery but were denied. So we travelled to a bigger hospital where she was taken into Theater. She delivered successfully but ten days later the stitches broke down, and she was infected. The stitches which were supposed to cure in 15 days but took one and a half months. She is still 19 and faces unbearable pain.

This is my story, my daughter’s and the story of many women and girls in many villages. In my village, all girls are married before they’re 18, all girls get pregnant before they’re 18. That’s why my Government must spread better awareness on the negative effects of early Child marriage, Sexual Reproductive & Health.

Shishu Ranjan

Shishu Ranjan

Shishu Ranjan teaches Chemistry in a University in Ranchi, after earning an M.Sc in Chemistry from the same institution. He is currently pursuing an M.A. in Rural Development from IGNOU(Distance Learning) and is working with Restless Development (Student Partnership Worldwide India Project Trust) on Youth Led Advocacy program on SDG 5 Gender Equality of Bill & Melinda Gates foundation. He represented young people of India in the International Conference on Family planning 2018 held in Kigali, Rwanda and is a Youth Action Fellow of Youth Ki Awaaz #PeriodPaath campaign. He writes on various online blogs platforms and has a love for writing poetry.

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Time for change: Talking openly about menstruation, marriage and maternity in India.

by Shishu Ranjan Reading time: 5 min
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