23% of India’s Girls Drop Out of School at Puberty; Period Bullying Is One Reason Why
“I stained my white skirt, and the boy sitting behind me saw it. He announced to the whole class that I had stained my skirt and it was really embarrassing. I had to ask my friend for a sweatshirt, tie it around and go to the washroom. It was gross,” recalls Akshita, a Mumbai 16-year-old, of an incident from years earlier when she was in grade 6.
“Since then, I was very scared showing up to school on days I had my period and had to wear the white uniform,” she says. “I used to make excuses to skip it.”
Akshita is not alone. “Many girls stay home to avoid being teased,” reads a 2018 UNICEF article titled “How Good Menstrual Hygiene Keeps Girls in School.” This form of teasing, also known as period bullying, is when peers, typically boys, or teachers mock and scold girls for things related to menstruation such as leaking, staining, or asking more frequently for permission to go to the toilet.
It’s a global problem; as per a 2018 YouGov survey across U.K. secondary schools, more than nine out of 10 girls worry about attending school because they fear they will be shamed. In India, research firm Nielsen estimates that at least 23% of girls drop out of school altogether, upon reaching puberty, for menstrual-related reasons including period bullying.
In the initial years of menstruation, girls often lack accurate information about their periods, which may cause confusion and embarrassment. Ridicule from peers and educators can compound these feelings. Therefore, involving the whole community in a better understanding of menstruation is necessary. “Communities are more successful at questioning taboos and reducing stigma …,” the UNICEF article reads.
“I have a sister, and when she used to be irritable, my mother used to tell me she’s not well. I wish she had taught me more.”Ryan D’Costa, 19
The involvement of boys is the first step toward achieving a period-supportive community, says psychologist Dr. Nirmala Shetty, who runs her own practice in Mumbai. “If boys are ignorant about periods, mocking will come naturally to them,” she says.
But parents and schools don’t take into account that boys need to be made aware of this natural bodily process, too, she says. “While schools do period education classes only for girls, at homes, mothers pass on knowledge about periods only to daughters and don’t think it’s important for sons to know anything about it,” she adds.
Ryan D’Costa, now 19, and in a Mumbai-based college, speaks to the effects of this limited knowledge. “When I was in school, I remember that it was common for young boys, including me, to feel awkward about talking about periods with girls. Associating a girl’s bad mood with her periods was quite common because that’s all we knew about what happens to girls when they are on their period,” he says. “I have a sister, and when she used to be irritable, my mother used to tell me she’s not well. I wish she had taught me more.”
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So, the real need is to teach boys and girls about menstruation together. “The key lies in inclusive sex — and within it, period — education especially,” says Dr. Rashmi Tripathi, a counselor who works with Mumbai-based Youth Support Counselling Clinic. “Being taught separately conditions girls to be embarrassed or to be secretive about their period.”
Another way to bring an end to period bullying, says Dr. Anju Shah, is to do away with euphemisms during period education. “When we are educating about periods, girls and boys are not really shown what a period is. It is never shown as blood, but blue liquid,” says Dr. Shah, a counselor associated with a number of Mumbai schools. “They have feathers and flowers soaking the liquid and things are always spoken around the topic, rather than directly. … Cartoons or sketches that are as close to real life situations as possible will help them in knowing and understanding the subject better.”
This kind of familiarity will dispel the discomfort behind period bullying, Dr. Tripathi says. “When we are uncomfortable with a situation, using humor is the most basic human response,” she says. “So it’s understandable why boys make fun of girls on their period without realizing that it has consequences, especially at a time when [girls] are themselves learning about it.”
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But boys are only one part of the community around menstruating girls. With period stigma alive and well even at home, many girls during puberty turn to a teacher they look up to for menstrual knowledge and help. Mentors, administrators and teachers are also critical to creating an educational environment supportive of menstruation; too often, they fail to do so. In March 2017, the warden of a North Indian school allegedly forced 70 girls to strip naked to find out who was menstruating and presumably responsible for blood specks in the bathroom. When it is an educator who period shames, the effect on girls can be dire. In August 2017, a 13-year old girl committed suicide after being period shamed by her female teacher for revealing a period stain.
“Historically women’s health and women’s issues have been hidden or traditionally not spoken about and teachers try to propagate this too when instead they should be teaching students to talk about it openly,” says Dr. Shah. “Girls should be able to take their problems to their teacher instead of fearing being reprimanded, mocked or being scolded for it.”
Menstrual equity has always been a difficult topic to talk about. Education offers a way out of the silence. Addressing period bullying and expanding menstrual knowledge among teachers, who can then set an example for and teach male students, is the clearest way to support girls when they need it the most. “For [period bullying to end], we’ll need open dialogues, where we as a society talk about periods among all genders to block the harmful stigmas centered around menstruation that infiltrate not only our educational institutions but keep many girls away from school threatening their future,” adds Dr. Shah.