In India, A Manual And Movement To Talk Openly About Menstruation

Breaking the taboo over menstruation
Breaking the taboo over menstruation
Anisha Menezes*


CHENNAI — "What is this?," my curious seven year old asked, picking up a pack of sanitary napkins, as I found just the right position to take a picture to accompany an article on a menstrual hygiene movement in Chennai.

I paused for a minute, and replied, "These are like thin diapers that girls wear for around one week every month."

I was caught off guard, and mentally kicked myself for the diaper reference. He looked suitably impressed with the design on the package and inspected the pads as well. We don't have cable TV so he hasn't been treated to the "happy period" advertisements with girls frolicking in white outfits, or sanitary napkins looking more suited to soaking up ink than body fluids.

So, this was my chance. I took out a pad and said, "You know how I don't feel my best sometime during the month? Well, on those days, I have my period. It's when the tissue in my baby pouch aka the uterus is shed."

He has seen pregnant women in the family, so is familiar with the term uterus.

We never really talked about periods openly at my all-girls school, or among friends.

It's not easy explaining the inner workings of a uterus to kids under 10. So I started small — with the baby pouch in my belly that prepares for an embryo every month (embryo, like the ones they've studied in science). But when there is no baby inside, the uterus has to shed the tissue, and so adolescent girls and women have to use a pad, tampon or a menstrual cup to collect that body fluid. I explained related conditions like stomach cramps, body pain, general discomfort and changes in mood.

My son now understands when I have a body ache around my period and even gives me space on his lap to take a nap if I'm visibly in pain. It's a relief, compared to the hushed "Aunt Flo" or "Mother Nature" references we made when I was in school. Back then, purchasing pads was an adventure in itself. Wrapped in newspaper and then covered in a black plastic bag, they'd be passed gingerly across a shop counter. I'm sure contraband was available with less shame.

It feels like a lifetime ago, when I hit puberty. My father, a doctor, would throw around medical jargon at the dinner table, and biology was his pet subject. So I had heard of ovaries, uteruses and the like before I hit menarche.

I remember the day it happened, all women do. My mother came over, handed me a packet of sanitary napkins, and explained what was happening to my body and what would follow. My grandmother, who lived with us at the time, was a repository of wisdom and warmth. She told me how this was something normal, that all girls go through it and that I should talk to dad and mom if I was in pain or uncomfortable.

Health workers distributing free sanitary pads — Photo: Abhisek Saha/SOPA Images/ZUMA

It was a very matter-of-fact talk. But we never really talked about periods openly at my all-girls school, or among friends. We only knew to say something if we spotted a stain on a skirt, and would quickly pass a sweater to wrap around it.

I wish I had access to something like the Menstrupedia manual back then. It's an informative and age-appropriate comic, handed out at schools across the country now.

I discovered it only recently. It introduces the concept of menstruation with the right biology, yet with empathy and a sense of curiosity that sits well when you approach a nine or 10 year old. The manual, translated into 15 Indian and foreign languages, has found traction among parents and educators alike. I highly recommend it to anyone gearing up for "the talk."

The time is ripe for such conversations. In 2018, Period. End Of Sentence., a short film on the culture around menstruation in India, won the Academy Award for best documentary (short subject) and Pad Man in Bollywood dramatized the story of the ‘Menstrual Man," Arunachalam Muruganantham.

Just this month, Zomato announced paid period leave for its employees. There is thankfully more visibility for conditions like endometriosis and PCOS/PCOD (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome/Disorder) as young celebrities like Sara Ali Khan open up about their struggles. And on the Humans of Bombay site, a recent post brought into focus the story of Rutuchakra, a movement started by a teenager in 2018 to address conversations around menstrual hygiene.

We still have miles to go to normalize the conversation around menstruation, across the yawning rural-urban chasm. But simple conversations at home, with children across the gender spectrum, go a long way.

*Anisha Menezes is a freelance writer based in Chennai. She is an art enthusiast and is passionate about environmental causes.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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