I have just finished a running trip through the coastal length of Maharashtra, starting from Sindhudurgh district at the southern tip and coming up to Mumbai in the North of the state, running about 15-20 kilometres average on a day, and talking at schools and colleges on way.
I was motivated by the Australian Ultra Marathon runner Patrick Farmer, who is running the Spirit of India run from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, clocking 80 kilometres every day. His purpose is to strengthen India-Australia ties and to raise funds for women’s education in India. It seemed to me a God-sent opportunity to join him in his run in Maharashtra and meet rural Marathi girls and boys – to talk to them in a relaxed way about things that never or rarely get talked about in our homes, fields, schools, colleges and workplaces, but which happen everywhere and to everyone.
One of them is good, desirable and should be welcomed and celebrated. The other thing is terrible, undesirable and should not be tolerated at all. Both things happen to me even now. One is menstruation and the other is sexual harassment. Both will happen to my daughters soon, and both are considered to be the girls’ (or boys’) burden and shame, sometimes accompanied by unnecessary guilt. Both hamper their physical freedom, their mental development and confidence, and their relationship with and experience of their own bodies.
Girls especially live in their own body as its prisoner; they mostly feel shame rather than pride while relating to their bodies. The body becomes an encumbrance rather than a reflection of a young girl’s soul, and they do not experience a healthy and happy mind-body connection. The embarrassment over menstruation takes away from experiencing joy of growing up and embracing womanhood.
And boys – most don’t even know what puberty is and the fact that they also experience physical and mental changes associated with it is mostly unknown to them!
I spoke to young girls and boy about all the above and more. I tried to impress upon them that our society owes more support to our girls coming into womanhood as they play the vital role of bearing the children of the next generation. But societies almost everywhere rather do the opposite – by designating them as impure, by keeping them out of kitchens and temples when they menstruate, telling them they are impure when they bleed.
I told them of an instance from my life, when in a small town Jalgaon convent school where we were studying, a teacher from my sister’s class came running to my class teacher saying that I needed to take my sister home because she had stained her skirt, or else they would have to call off the entire class for the day! I asked them if they also felt the hurt, confusion and guilt that my little sister must have felt, and if they felt there was any valid reason for these taboos and restrictions.
I am unfortunately not sure that these young ones would be spared of negative experiences of growing up, unless we take more responsibility and interest in creating a supportive and egalitarian framework for our adolescents at a societal and policy level. We probably have a long way to go before our girls take pride in the gift of womanhood that comes with menstruation, before they feel the power of being able to bring forth life, an ability that is the female’s alone. We need to enable conversations and to break taboos around these issues.
Going by my daughter’s reluctance to talk despite having “cool” parents, it’s obvious to me that these taboos will be quite strong to break.
The least I can do to is to start this conversation among young girls and boys, to make them more sympathetic to their own as well as women’s bodies. To make them aware of their body’s integral function in their self-image, of the inviolability of their body by any other person – known or unknown – either through touch, gaze or talk. To tell them that until society makes it easier for them, they have all have the right to hit back in defence and not internalise any guilt.
Many of the students and teachers I met found it odd when I talked of puberty and menstruation, and demonstrated self-defence techniques to kids along with my daughter. They felt shy when I showed them a comic book on menstruation to be given to their libraries. They laughed when I told them how they could jab their fingers in the eyes or throats of their attackers, using them as weapons. But I had to tell them this was no laughing matter, self-defence can be integral to their confidenhce, their bodily and mental integrity.
And what better way to explain than to get them to experience the freedom of their bodies, to make them run in their towns and villages, as free as little children or birds? I really hope it helped those happy faces.
(Devyani Khobragade is a diplomat and works for the Indian Foreign Service.)
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