May 17, 2010


EVERYONE IS SYMPATHETIC of a pregnant woman. But in my opinion, pregnancy is only a 10-month torment which might happen once or twice in a woman’s life. On the other hand, the torment a woman goes through each month when she is not pregnant is a life sentence. Freedom, Stayfree, Whisper–advertisements of these sanitary napkins show carefree women who wake up fresh and happy in the mornings while I see young girls from poor families stare longingly at these sanitary napkins in medical shops. I never experienced this longing as a young girl because I didn’t even know the existence of sanitary napkins when I started my period.

Delayed periods is actually a boon that poverty bestows on poor girls. I was 16 when my periods started. Those days we had just one meal a day. Even that wasn’t an assured one! It was my last year at school, around the half-yearly exams. My family organized a small celebration for me. It was exciting, but I couldn’t fully understand what was going on. I had no pain for the first six  months. Then, during menstruation, I started to experience heavy flow of blood. I had to walk for about two km to reach school; there was no money to pay for the bus ticket. Only a few scraps of old cloth were folded and kept in place to hold the blood flow all day. I had to keep folding in and folding out the wet and dry parts of the cloth.

Thankfully, I studied in a girl’s school. As for the toilets in a government school, is there any need to elaborate on their conditions? There was no water and the recess break was just ten minutes within which all the girls in the class had to use the toilet. I used to be scared to ask for the teacher’s permission to use the toilet during the classes. By the time I returned home walking, the blood-stained cloth scratched and caused bloody rashes between the thighs.

At home, the toilet was always closed. We lived in a huge compound where one toilet was shared by ten families. There were no taps in the toilet and we had to carry water twice or thrice. During my period, I wanted to use the toilet in the night as well. The owner’s son, a scoundrel, dared touch my breasts in the dark. I couldn’t ask my mother to go with me because my siblings (brother and sister) were still being breastfed. Asking my father to accompany me was possible but I was embarrassed.

I joined ITI after school. Pain around the hip bone started. It was as if a sharp object was being pierced through my hips. In the stomach, the intense pain extended till the urethra, accompanied by heaviness of the head and intense drowsiness. In addition, there were frequent bouts of vomiting, heavy flow of blood for more than four days, and nausea. I didn’t feel like eating and in fact, used to be unable to eat. I craved a soda or a cool drink but that was a huge luxury we couldn’t afford. I used to lie down and scream amma, amma and roll on the ground in pain. The screaming and rolling would go down after swallowing a paralgon tablet, and I lapsed into a tired half-sleep. When the four days for over, it was real freedom!

I visited the ESI (Employee State Insurance) hospital with my mother. The doctor said that there was no medicine for this ache and the pain would be gone after marriage. Since I thought marriage was just exchanging garlands, I wondered why I shouldn’t wear them right away and get rid of the pain. That was the level of knowledge I had then and I was too uncomfortable to ask my mother about it. With time, the pain became worse. Although the ITI was only for girls, there were male lecturers for some classes. Once, between classes, before the next lecturer came, I went to the toilet quickly to change the cloth. The cloth fell down; the lecturer must have seen it. That day, I died of humiliation and shame.

It must have been 1977-78 when I read about sanitary napkins in the weekly magazines. I asked my friend Sharada about them. She was one of the rich girls in our class. She said that sanitary napkins were held in place by an elastic belt. I couldn’t ask for money at home. The polytechnic was about seven km away from home and one had to change two buses to reach the polytechnic. At home, they usually gave me enough money only for one bus (25 paise). I walked the entire distance and saved money. When I got the sanitary pad, it looked so beautiful and neat. I used it once and brought it home safely in a packet. I was wondering why I hadn’t thought of this earlier. I started washing the napkin with soap; it fell to pieces.

I was completely unaware of the idea of use-and-throw. And the price of one day’s freedom was a several-kilometer-long walk! Even today when I think of it, it hurts.

After my studies, I got a job in an electrical shop for a salary of Rs 100 per month. My siblings would now get at least one meal for sure. I was at peace. My work was from 9:00 in the morning to 8:00 in the night. The shop was about five km away from home. I used the bus during the first 10 days of the month and walk the rest of the days. A close friend also started working in that shop. Her presence gave me a lot of confidence. We would longingly wait for the shop owner to order tea twice a day, morning and evening. When we actually got the tea depended on the owner’s mood. Especially during my period, I craved that one tea desperately.

At times, stock taking would happen on the days when I had my periods. We had to climb on a ladder, remove the things from the top shelves, dust them, and then list them. My friend and I would do this together. The pain would be excruciating. One day, my friend gathered some guts and told the owner to assign stock-taking to men. Well, her family didn’t depend on her salary unlike mine. For me, just the thought of my siblings would silence me at such times.

The shop owners had actually rented out a big house. The toilet in that house did not have a ceiling. One could easily peep into the toilet from neighboring terraces, shops and houses. There was scarcity of water as well. If the second day of my period fell on a Sunday, I did not have to take leave. At other times, I took leave and the owner questioned me angrily. My sense of self never let me cry before him. I controlled my tears and worked. One day, the wife of one the owners came to the shop. She was a compassionate person though she came from a rich family. Seeing me looking extremely tired, she asked, “why are you looking so ill?” I replied, “what to do, I wish I could die, but I am unable to.” I was 20 at that time. She felt very bad.

Then, one day, she took me to a female doctor, who prescribed some medicines. But they were of no use. The doctor said that there were no medicines other than painkillers and that using other medicines could lead to side effects. She said, “after marriage, the pain will be gone.” Given my family situation, I did not need marriage then. Earlier, I had heard that the pain would go if the uterus was removed. I asked the doctor if removing the uterus was an option. The doctor smiled pensively and said, “it cannot be done at this age, my dear.” I didn’t see any doctor after that day, and the owner also stopped scolding me if I took leave.

After a few days, I got a better job. However, it wasn’t good enough to for me to afford napkins. Instead of the cloth, I started using rolls and rolls of cotton. Even if the pain continued, the abrasions around the thighs reduced greatly. That was a great joy.

After I got married, my husband’s eyes filled with tears seeing me in such pain. That eased my pain greatly. In fact, I even felt proud. In the second month, he was slightly upset. In the third month, he left for a movie. When asked, he said, “what do I do when you are under so much pain? At least, I’ll go and watch a movie.” I was numb with grief. Of course, he can’t take away my pain. But if he was under such pain, would I look around for joy?

During menstruation, I also used to vomit in the night. Before marriage, my mother, brother or sister used to massage my back as I vomited and give me warm water to drink. It was a great relief. One night, after marriage, I woke up my husband and ran to the bathroom to vomit. As I vomited, I realized that there was no one to massage my back. I returned to bed to see my husband sleeping. I was horrified but consoled myself saying that perhaps he didn’t hear me call. When I asked him, he said, “you were just vomiting; why should I wake up for that?” It hurt badly.

He’s actually not a male chauvinist. He treated my family as if they were his family. He never beat me. But he hurt me with his scathing words, just like any regular man. I am not sure whether the incident I just described would affect men. In all probability, they will think that I am making a big deal out small things. But it’s funny that men, who need their wives to take care of them even for a headache, call women the weaker sex!

Male readers and even some female readers might find this piece boring. Today’s middle class women enjoy ‘freedom’ and so they can afford to be ‘carefree’ as well. But, even today, these things are still a huge problem for women from poor families. I don’t know whether this is a woman’s problem or the poor person’s problem.

When women take off on certain days, the sarcastic smiles of their male colleagues, their talk about how women use this as an excuse to not work, managers who remind women about responsibility at work, women who suffer all this in silence, being unable to voice their problems to their managers, etc…these are things that even women from middle class households suffer every day.

I recently read in the newspaper that about 65% of households in India do not have proper toilet facilities. Both in the villages and the cities, women must finish excretion early in the morning and wait until nightfall. Severe pain affects some unlucky women like me. However, blood flow and tiredness during those days are things that all women go through. These days, I take leave when the pain is unbearable. Moreover, my office has proper toilet facilities. Indeed, life has changed quite a lot for me. But it hasn’t changed for house maids, salesgirls who must remain standing the whole day, girls who study in corporation schools, etc. I think they aren’t as naïve as I used to be. They must be aware that there’s ‘freedom’ for women, and that that ‘freedom’ is beyond their reach.

Last month, I was at the medical shop buying sanitary napkins. There was some drainage work happening on the road. I saw a 16-year-old girl carrying the pebbles to be mixed with the concrete. She was dark and beautiful. She was wearing a faded polyester skirt; perhaps bought for her puberty function. I remembered wearing such a new skirt at my puberty function. Filling the container with pebbles, she looked around to see if someone would help her lift it. There was no one. She didn’t even ask anyone. Gnashing her teeth, she lifted the container herself. A sharp pain shot through me. I remembered the days of stock-taking in that electrical shop. That young girl returned to refill the container. I felt a little proud at that sight.

(This article was first published in

35 comments to Napkin

  • gitanjali

    i emphathize with all women during suffering every month. No one really understands.

  • sunita

    Thanks for posting this piece. Are there any organizations working on making sanitary products available to women who can’t afford them? If you know of any, can you please post them here? Thank you.

  • Shilpa Malhotra

    @sunita: Yes sunita, there are NGO’s running these kind of campaigns. Whisper provides free sanitary napkins to the girl children in delhi govt schools but lack of knowledge prevents them in adapting to these new and hygienic ways.

  • Mohor Roy

    Thanks for posting this piece.Indeed a very intersesting read.Endurance, thy name is woman.

  • […] after painful month Posted on May 18, 2010 by starsinmeyes I felt so so terrible reading this article on Ultraviolet, about a poor young Indian girl’s struggle with hygiene and pain during her menstrual […]

  • This is such a powerful piece. I moan about my period every month, even though I can pick and choose the most comfortable sanitary napkin. It sucks that this is still an issue for girls!

  • Thanks Dear Comrades for publishing the article
    You could find the original here

  • pal

    This was such a moving article. I have always envied women who do not have menstrual cramps/pain. but after reading your story, I realise how lucky I have been! I hope awareness spreads, and more people have access to good toilet facilities and hopefully, sanitary napkins too. I mean, its such a basic necessity….!!

  • Rathi

    Good job done by Sankari and Anu Roy.The pain and agony of women!! Those four, five days of my period, I think about having “Hysterectomy” done. There is no such word to express the PMS and the roller coaster mood swings.

    I can imagine how these poor socio, economic factors/conditions make this(period) even worse for women in India.

  • Bride’s comment tends us to think of the Two Indias, where in one India, even a most cheap sanitary napkin is a luxury for many. starsinmeyes also touches the same note but with much more better and sharp words.

    There’s so much we take for granted…sanitary napkins being one of them.

    Yes. we realize our affordability and of our safe cocoons, when we read the painful lines of sankari. But, i think, it would be simplistic if one holds on to that momentary guilt alone. I think one being unaware of the conditions of women like sankari, is not because of any personal inability to grasp the reality but a class phenomenon. If we read this article to one dalit manual scavenger woman in Tamilnadu, she may ask why we make so much fuss out of it and may politely utter that, it’s common and not something unknown. I think alienation from the downtrodden classes is the reason for our breathtaking shock and tears. I don’t think that this alienation will be an exception in one’s point of view and i would wonder if one says it won’t reflect in a person’s entire perspective on women’s liberation.

  • apu

    This was such a touching and saddening post. Thousands of such women cannot even take hygiene and dignity for granted.

  • Hyder Ali

    Thanks Dear Comrades for publishing the article

  • Anuroy

    The issue here is not just about menstruation, rather about a more nuanced, deeper, and sinister system that subjugates women from working classes in unique ways. The article touches upon several areas: poverty, women’s health, availability of basic toilet facilities, working conditions for women, etc. The one thing that is common to the subjugation that women face in all these areas is class. Perhaps, we need to think along these lines, if we ever were to actually work out a real solution; and not just a stop gap arrangement, such as cheap napkins for poor people. As if the poor people and rich people are designed differently!

    As rathi says, it’s bad enough that nature has been unfair to women, it’s only worse that the socio-economic factors contribute their bit. The socio-economic factor is nothing but the class society.

    The article establishes the fact that Sankari’s story is not an isolated one; it is the story of several million women of this country! And, that’s outrageous, especially because we supposedly live in a democracy that is running at a break neck speed to become a super power!

  • Just to respond to Thippu’s comment above, I do agree that there is a class issue at work here. But I feel that it’s not just alienation from the downtrodden in general – I admit I am less aware of the problems of rural women but I wouldn’t say that I am alienated from the concerns of urban economically-backward women altogether. After all, in big cities our lives cross at so many points. It’s not even that I was unaware that some women use cloths while women like me have an array of choices. It was the details of the hardships faced as a result of using the same cloth over and over that touched me, as also the hardship of going to school or working when in severe pain. It is these details that we don’t hear so often, because as you pointed out with your example of a Dalit woman in Tamil Nadu, it is just considered normal. But the fact is that it is not normal! Whether it is a young girl in a village fainting from the pain or an executive in a city passing out in the middle of a business meeting, why are we always told to grin and bear it? I’ve only recently discovered that the pain may be attributable to causes that can be treated and if left untreated could cause infertility which renders the whole “get married and your problem will be solved” idea fallacious. Again, I’m acknowledging that the economically-backward classes have it much much worse, but my point is that in this situation it is not just economics but the idea that there is always silence and shame surrounding menstruation and that’s why problems relating to it get sidelined.

  • Anu, firstly thank you for sending us this piece. You are right to point out that it addresses many issues beyond the physical condition of menstruation. I think the piece is written and translated excellently and conveys that.

    I think the physical is also an important point of engagement though. As Bride points out, the diminishing of women’s physical / gynac issues is something that often cuts across class. So eliminating poverty will not automatically ensure that women are better treated in these ways, will it? I think it’s important to highlight that menstruation is a possibly debilitating condition, that it has real physical effects, and that women should not and need not be ashamed to say that it does. Cheap sanitary napkins is not the point, but it is certainly one of the things to consider. Also labour laws that allow menstruation cramps as cause for leave? I’m just saying that sometimes the little things are not to be scoffed at, even while fighting the big fight.

  • Of course, the realities around cheap sanitary napkins have to be looked at–disposal, water and so on. On a related note, this article on toilets via Mridula Koshy.

  • Anu

    Anindita, firstly, thanks for your kind words about the translation. 🙂

    Secondly, the point about diminishing of a woman’s physical issues cutting across class. I just want to make a point here: diminishing happens across class, but the degree varies exponentially, and if I may add, diminishing thro’ class assumes alarming proportions. Nextly, this whole idea of shame or even the idea of pollution associated with menstruation is very ‘class’ thing. 🙂 I am just thinking aloud; is just de-shaming and cheap napkins the way out? Aren’t we looking at solution, docked safely in our classy little pockets? 🙂

    Finally, I am not scoffing at cheap napkins, rather making a very stern point there; these stop-gap arrangements actually blunt a longer-term (and a real) solution and in fact, serve as shock absorbers. In this context, Bride’s words, “It is these details that we don’t hear so often, because as you pointed out with your example of a Dalit woman in Tamil Nadu, it is just considered normal. But the fact is that it is not normal!” speak of a real anger and outrage at the system; the system that has somehow normalized this agonizing existence for the majority, so that a small minority can live the ‘normal’ life.

  • Deepan Kannan

    A very good translation! This piece brings to surface the fact that we choose to ignore and remain silent about the issues of women with respect to hygiene and wellness, especially when it is relevant to working class women. No doubt, right now, the voices are getting stronger for the importance of the health and hygiene for women. But, the question is are we even talking about women from marginalised class? Haven’t those voices always been mainstream and classy! When was the last time we saw a campaign or ad that addresses the issue of a woman belonging to the working class! This artcile makes it clear about the conditions of working class women, the lack of affordability and proper sanitary facilities in public places.

    • //When was the last time we saw a campaign or ad that addresses the issue of a woman belonging to the working class!//

      Precisely Deepan. Readers can recollect all the sanitary napkin ads..whisper, stayfree etc.,

  • Very well translated. The essence of the original version stays intact.

  • Anu,
    A very well and proper translation work, u kept the original message intact, congratulation and if possible try to translate Nanjil Nadan’s article about the Girls toilet facility in schools, that article came on Aanandha vikadan and it got published as a book also(Thethum Nandrum)…

    I feel its a social issue and every body are part of this problem and so its everybody’s duty to fix this issue…

  • Dear friends

    Indeed a fabulous piece! This is a fact that still many women in India are not availing the facility of using napkins during their periods. I have recently married and my in-laws belong to a small town in UP. I was really shocked to see that some of the relatives there use thick cotton cloth instead of a sanitary napkin. On asking, the girl told me, “napkin is for modern people, we are traditional.”
    She was not allowed to complain about the pains even to her mother.
    Enlightenment is a far cry in such families..

  • This story touched my heart. I am also working for Menstrual Hygiene Management. In Rural India many of the women do not aware about sanitary Napkin, even they do not understand the advertise telecast on TV.

  • As you know… infertility is not always a women’s issue, some men are also diagnosed with very low semen counts (like in my case – it was my husband) that categorise them as infertile but the good thing is we were able to treat it and have have kids…

  • LOL

    The book “Half the Sky” by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn is a good primer on marginalized women’s issues all over the world, and one of the topics that they discussed was this issue of distributing sanitary napkins-they wrote that FemCare, the arm of Proctor & Gamble that makes Tampax tampons and Always sanitary napkins, started its own project to distribute free napkins in Africa, but then ran into unexpected challenges (like the lack of toilets where girls could change their pads, and cultural taboos about blood and resistance to disposing of used napkins in the garbage), that led them to have to build toilets and even distribute incinerators.
    Ditricuting pads is a also a strategy used by some NGO’s to make sure girls don’t miss school during their menstrual periods.
    Why doesn’t this website address marginalized women’s issues more often? I’d love to see more articles on this site concerning issues that affect marginalized/working-class women and girls in India, not just middle and upper class ones…

  • Zulfi

    I am touched by this piece and will admit how ignorant i am about some very real issues poor women face. I don’t think it is impossible to go beyond disection of humanity into men and women or poor men and poor women, and be able to just see eveyone as fellow beings…i guess if one can truly see that, then so many of us will not be able to sit still and will do what best we can. But till then…..

    Since i work in the so called ‘development’ sector, i am quite surprised at the type of issues related to women that people in this sector usually address; usually economic onces, for others we use big words “empowerment’, ‘rights’, and if you look beyond the jargon, at the real substance of what is done, it is difficult to shake the feeling that the ‘upper class’ and its worldview, the ‘professional developmentwala’ and her/his concerns, name, frame, and decide what is important. SO many women in this sector claim pride of place on the discourse that ‘we as women understand issues of women’; but do you really, as a rule? Is this really why you are there? Is your identify of ‘class’ or ‘upper cast’, to be forgoten, and not likely to guide decision and viewing ‘lense’? How much is all this about about seruring jucy jobs; gain social success, driven by individual ambition and desire of comfort….just like most fellow professional ‘men’ around you?

    I really wish we had a system of actually having the same women who suffer, from porr urban and rural backgrounds placed in decision making roles, defining priorities, given the resources and institutional space to act. Sure we will need sensitive ‘uper class’ women and men to partner with them…the vanguard ins any social change.
    Decentralization and devolution is likely to work for our governance challenges, it will also work for addressing the real chalenges of women…and for almost the same reasons!

  • nadi

    it was so good reading the article and all the comments

  • poorvi sardar

    alarming state of affairs- but of course there are angels in hell too..
    While some men scoff at genuine women issues here is a man whose is responsible for providing ín sankaris’s words ‘real freedom’

  • mini

    I loved the story.Excellent. Thanks.

  • karuvaki

    This is an excellent piece of writing and brought tears into my eyes!

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