This Kerala youth initiative aims to make schools a safe space to discuss menstruation

Red Cycle, a youth initiative, has been conducting sessions at schools and colleges to create conversations around menstruation.
This Kerala youth initiative aims to make schools a safe space to discuss menstruation
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The question perplexed the organisers. They – a bunch of young men and women – were talking about menstruation in an attempt to remove the many stigmas attached to it, in a college in Kerala’s Ponnani. They had defined menstruation as a process that makes a girl into a woman, capable of bearing children. However, the question asked by one of the students made them rethink their definition.

The teenager asked them to look at her chest. Without knowing what to do, they said nothing and let her speak on. The student said that she hadn’t got her first period till she was 17, she didn’t have the features that are attributed to a female body, the breasts stayed undeveloped. She was asked many uncomfortable questions about her body and gender. She asked the organisers if her late menarche meant that she was not a woman until that point.

The organisers – a youth collective called Red Cycle – had no answers for her. They have been conducting sessions at schools, colleges and other institutions to begin a conversation around menstruation. It was a space where the audience and the organisers told their stories to each other. But after the young woman’s question in Ponnani, they realised that they had to make some changes in the conversation.

It has kept changing, evolving through the years, says Arjun Unnikrishnan of Red Cycle, who is now busy with a new campaign they have launched - 'Uteri of Kerala Unite'.

The July to July campaign is aimed at having the study of menstruation included in school curriculum as early as in Class 6 when most girls have their menarche. “We’re trying to have the schools reduce their dependability on external sources like Red Cycle or the product-driven organisations that conduct one session and leave. The students need a constant support system that can be and should be provided at school,” says Arjun.

Arjun at a session

But either because of an inherent awkwardness or the fear of being unable to answer questions, many teachers do not often prefer to do this. Often menstruation is reduced to a lesson in class that has to be hurriedly ended just so that the students can write about it for an exam.

Many schools that Red Cycle visits are not even comfortable with the idea of having boys sit for the session. Red Cycle members insist that they need them all for the session. They have found that it doesn’t create uncomfortable situations like schools fear – that the boys will be annoyed or tease the girls. By the end of the class, they get comfortable enough to approach the organisers with questions.

Says Shradha Shreejaya, another active member of the group, “I’ve conducted sessions for boys and girls, almost always in different groups, since most institutions aren’t comfortable having them sit together for the same session. While girls mostly want to know more about why they experience mood changes and how to shift to newer (sustainable) products, boys have similar questions and concerns since they witness every girl/woman in their life go through these 5-7 days in absolute silence yet visible discomfort.”

She finds it strange that instead of facilitating such conversations between girls and boys (‘and of course, it’s not merely a sexual context!’), they have to talk to them separately.

There is a myth, Arjun notes, that children at urban schools don’t need these sessions, that they’re more aware, that it’s kids in rural areas and tribal hamlets who would benefit from it.

“So wrong. My experience has been the opposite. While we’ve seen poor awareness among even high school students in urban schools, at rural or tribal areas they speak with awareness, explaining the scientific process,” Arjun says.

He also feels that the conversations should not be limited to the menstrual phase, but the whole menstrual cycle.

Shradha at a session

For many, this could be an issue of privacy, about not wanting to talk about their bodily functions in public. Shradha says that while that should be respected, it is also quite clear that lack of awareness can lead to other issues.

“Being completely ignorant about menstruation, which is so closely attached to how we function and live, can create unpleasant experiences at home (for example, no place to dry cloth pads), communities (having to hide stains when you start your period unexpectedly), institutions (no clean toilets) and system (competitive pricing for unregulated, cheap quality disposable pads). So these sessions help girls to understand why silence is unhelpful if they want access to better and easier ways to navigate menstruation. This campaign is our attempt to start young, and open up safe spaces within our immediate communities; not just a one-time intervention, but normalised like every other aspect of our life,” Shradha says.

The new campaign will involve collecting materials and holding talks with all the stakeholders till they can achieve the aim of incorporating ‘a safe space’ within the school, where children will always have a reliable person (mostly a teacher) that they trust to approach for their menstrual problems or doubts.

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