When Neelam started her period, she thought she was dying like her mother

The subject of periods and menstruation is even more taboo for India's girls than defecation - many have no idea what is happening when the bleeding starts.

Neelam is 14 years old. She has a narrow, pretty face. Her hair is long and black. Her uniform has been torn and repaired. Unusually for an Indian schoolgirl – at least the ones I have met – she has bare legs. Neelam goes to school in a place a dozen kilometres outside Gwalior, in Madhya Pradesh, India. I have met hundreds of schoolchildren over the years. I have attended dozens of sanitation-related training sessions in dozens of schools. I have heard dozens of hygiene-related songs that children have learned by heart and sing charmingly. I don't remember many names or individual faces. But Neelam will stay in my mind for a long time and this is why.

I have been thinking, researching, writing and talking about sanitation since 2006. Six years of shit, toilets, sewage, faeces, excrement, poop, squits, loosies, diarrhoea. I have loved it and it is a privilege, and with 2.5 billion people still without a toilet, I will keep doing it and highlighting it for as long as I am useful. Two weeks ago, I joined the Great Wash Yatra, a sanitation and hygiene themed carnival that will travel for 2,000km across rural India, from Maharashtra to Bihar, hoping to engage people about the deadliness of diarrhoea and the importance of handwashing with fun and games. I knew India’s doleful sanitation statistics already: of a population of over a billion, nearly 700 million still have no toilet, and defecate on roadsides, in bushes, wherever they can.

But until coming on the Great Wash Yatra, I had not thought hard about an aspect of sanitation that is even more taboo than talking shit: Periods. Blood. Chumming, as they say in urban India. Even so I am an expert in it; every woman is. Every woman whether in a developing or developed country, whether there is "Always" available or always no decent sanitary protection (pad, towel, or cloth) available, has stories about their menstruation. Mine: a girl sitting down under a tree at school when we were 13 or so, and her skirt rode up and the rest of us whispering “she’s started”. Another, earlier memory: a teacher at my boarding school when I was nine telling us about periods but calling them “the visitors”. A friend’s 12-year-old daughter, having her second ever period, who didn't know that she should change her sanitary pad, and who had blood-soaked socks by the end of the day. I am guessing that every woman has thought hard about wearing white trousers during their period; that every one has at least one humiliating experience of leaking through her pants, maybe onto upholstery. I have (it was in an Indian restaurant in Paris, 10 years ago, and it still profoundly embarrasses me). I have ingested probably tons of painkillers over the years; used hot-water bottles for cramps thousands of times; had to avoid high bridges during the couple of days every month when my hormones turn against me, viciously, and oblivion seems a relief from the inexplicable anger, depression that is overwhelming.

But even so, even when I was 13, I knew what periods were. I knew what to expect.

At a school near the Yatra carnival site, about 60 of Neelam’s classmates gathered in a classroom. They sat neatly on the floor, some of them on scraps of hessian bags. Unusually, they wore a mixture of uniforms. The regular school uniform was a red kurta (long tunic), white trousers, and a white dupatta (scarf). But other girls were in their own clothes, others in blue and checked outfits. They were quiet and attentive. I think they are used to outsiders coming and telling them things they are supposed to do. Wash hands. Don’t toilet outside. Be cleaner, healthier, better.

In this case, the visitor cames from the menstrual hygiene team attached to the Great Wash Yatra. They run the MHM (Menstrual Hygiene Management) lab, set up by the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), where girls and women can come – no men allowed – and talk about periods, and be surveyed, and get a cloth sanitary towel kit with instructions on how to make hygienic sanitary towels from the Indian NGO. It is needed. WSSCC's facts about menstrual hygiene in India are saddening and shocking.

For instance:

Only 12 per cent of young girls and women have access to and use sanitary napkins 200 million have a poor understanding of menstrual hygiene and linked health care 23 per cent of India’s girls drop out of school after reaching puberty.

I’ll rephrase that: a quarter of the class at Neelam’s school will drop out because they don’t have a private place to change their sanitary cloths, and they will never go back.

Urmila, from the MHM team, was leading the visit. It was in Hindi and I didn’t have an interpreter, so I just noted the English words that were used in and amongst:

"Gift from god"

"Body parts"

"Underkit"

"Operation"

"Bedsheet"

"Cotton"

Urmila drew a picture on the board first. Then, as she explained afterwards, she told them that menstruation was normal. It was not dirty. It was not taboo. It was not sinful. It was a part of being a woman and it was a gift from god. She asked a skinny little girl to stand up, and stood next to her to show how a woman’s body changes: the hip flaring, the breasts, the size and shape. The morphology of women. Periods are part of life.

This may be obvious to you and me. Neelam showed me why it was not obvious to her. Afterwards, Urmila and another menstrual hygiene trainer carried out an MHM survey. They methodically went through a questionnaire in a classroom, one schoolgirl after another sitting in front answering questions like: do you drop out of school when you have your period? (Yes.) What do you use when you bleed? (old cloth, sand wrapped in cloth, old saris, dirty rags). What do you do with the cloth when you have used it? (Throw it into a field and hope no one sees.) Are you restricted in any way? (Yes.) Restricted in what way? When the Indian NGO gathered a list of what menstruating women and girls are not supposed to do, it read:

See birds.

Sit on the threshold.

Go near a newborn baby.

Touch stored food.

See men before bathing.

Touch plants.

Keep flowers.

Go to the temple.

Go out at noon.

Let lizards eat leftover blood tissues.

Serve food.

Talk with boys.

The girls were shy. I don’t know if they were telling the whole truth, because only one admitted to not having a toilet, which seems improbable in deeply rural Uttar Pradesh. Then Neelam came in. I was sitting next to Urmila but saying nothing. The other girls had not looked at me or acknowledged me. But as Neelam answered Urmila’s questions, she kept looking over at me. She included me visually in the conversation. And she talked more. She was expansive, articulate. She was expressive with her hands, and so graceful. Halfway through the survey, she looked at me again and said to Urmila that she wanted to know who I was, and where I came from. In the unequal setting of visiting outsider and survey subject, this frank curiosity and presumption of equality is striking. But Neelam was confident and charming. I sat up then and listened harder and she told her story. She was clearly poor from her patched clothing. Her story was horrific. Her story is not uncommon.  

Neelam’s mother died when she was five. Her father is an agricultural labourer. He never remarried. Neelam’s elder sister tried to take over the role of the mother of the household, but it was hard, “when she was trying to cook but still crying with us.” Neelam described her mother’s cause of death as “something rotten in the breast,” so probably breast cancer. She had no close aunties or female relatives.

This August, she got stomach pains. She had eaten some street food, so she thought the pains were due to that. Nothing unusual. But the pains continued in her abdomen, for hours and hours. Finally she went to the bathroom, and there she saw blood. And she was terrified. She was truly scared, because she knew what it was. It meant that she had what her mother had, and it meant that she was dying. Really. She had reached the age of 14 without knowing that one day she would bleed and it would be normal. So there she was in the bathroom, crying with fright, enough for her sister-in-law to hear. Neelam’s brother had married recently and young: his new bride was only 19, and Neelam didn't much get on with her, because she didn't think her brother should have married so young. There was some frostiness between them. But of all the family, it was this new sister-in-law who came to the door of the bathroom and said, "What’s wrong? What is this noise?" And Neelam told her she was bleeding, and that she was dying. And her sister-in-law said, "No. You are normal. This is what happens to women. Don’t worry." Neelam’s hands were so expressive at this point, because she was saying this: "I thought I was dying like my mother, but because of that now I realise I have a mother again."

Neelam's experience is not special: when I met a group of 12-year-olds this morning at another school, not one had been told what to expect. Every single one thought they were horribly injured or worse when the blood came. Every single one thought it was entirely normal to be told that if they touched pickles while they had their period, the pickles would go rotten. Their mothers hadn’t talked to them because their mothers had not talked to them, because this normal healthy blood is unspeakable. The MHM team has heard of women who get infections from using cloth that is not properly dried, or dirty. Some end up having their uterus removed. But having met this lively, lovely girl, I bet Neelam talks to her daughters about it, so they know what to expect, so their periods are not terror and taboo, so they touch the pickles without fear.

Rose George is a journalist and writer. She tweets @rosegeorge3

Neelam, a 14-year-old schoolgirl from Madhya Pradesh, India.
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Want to send a positive Brexit message to Europe? Back Arsene Wenger for England manager

Boris Johnson could make a gesture of goodwill. 

It is hard not to feel some sympathy for Sam Allardyce, who coveted the England job for so many years, before losing it after playing just a single match. Yet Allardyce has only himself to blame and the Football Association were right to move quickly to end his tenure.

There are many candidates for the job. The experience of Alan Pardew and the potential of Eddie Howe make them strong contenders. The FA's reported interest in Ralf Rangner sent most of us scurrying to Google to find out who the little known Leipzig manager is. But the standout contender is Arsenal's French boss Arsene Wenger, 

Would England fans accept a foreign manager? The experience of Sven Goran-Eriksson suggests so, especially when the results are good. Nobody complained about having a Swede in charge the night that England won 5-1 in Munich, though Sven's sides never won the glittering prizes, the Swede proving perhaps too rigidly English in his commitment to the 4-4-2 formation.

Fabio Capello's brief stint was less successful. He never seemed happy in the English game, preferring to give interviews in Italian. That perhaps contributed to his abrupt departure, falling out with his FA bosses after he seemed unable to understand why allegations of racial abuse by the England captain had to be taken seriously by the governing body.

Arsene Wenger could not be more different. Almost unknown when he arrived to "Arsene Who?" headlines two decades ago, he became as much part of North London folklore as all-time great Arsenal and Spurs bosses, Herbert Chapman or Bill Nicholson, his own Invicibles once dominating the premier league without losing a game all season. There has been more frustration since the move from Highbury to the Emirates, but Wenger's track record means he ranks among the greatest managers of the last hundred years - and he could surely do a job for England.

Arsene is a European Anglophile. While the media debate whether or not the FA Cup has lost its place in our hearts, Wenger has no doubt that its magic still matters, which may be why his Arsenal sides have kept on winning it so often. Wenger manages a multinational team but England's football traditions have certainly got under his skin. The Arsenal boss has changed his mind about emulating the continental innovation of a winter break. "I would cry if you changed that", he has said, citing his love of Boxing Day football as part of the popular tradition of English football.

Obviously, the FA must make this decision on football grounds. It is an important one to get right. Fifty years of hurt still haven't stopped us dreaming, but losing to Iceland this summer while watching Wales march to the semi-finals certainly tested any lingering optimism. Wenger was as gutted as anybody. "This is my second country. I was absolutely on my knees when we lost to Iceland. I couldn't believe it" he said.

The man to turn things around must clearly be chosen on merit. But I wonder if our new Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson - albeit more of a rugger man himself - might be tempted to quietly  suggest in the corridors of footballing power that the appointment could play an unlikely role in helping to get the mood music in place which would help to secure the best Brexit deal for Britain, and for Europe too.

Johnson does have one serious bit of unfinished business from the referendum campaign: to persuade his new boss Theresa May that the commitments made to European nationals in Britain must be honoured in full.  The government should speed up its response and put that guarantee in place. 

Nor should that commitment to 3m of our neighbours and friends be made grudgingly.

So Boris should also come out and back Arsene for the England job, as a very good symbolic way to show that we will continue to celebrate the Europeans here who contribute so much to our society.

British negotiators will be watching the twists and turns of the battle for the Elysee Palace, to see whether Alain Juppe, Nicolas Sarkozy end up as President. It is a reminder that other countries face domestic pressures over the negotiations to come too. So the political negotiations will be tough - but we should make sure our social and cultural relations with Europe remain warm.

More than half of Britons voted to leave the political structures of the European Union in June. Most voters on both sides of the referendum had little love of the Brussels institutions, or indeed any understanding of what they do.

But how can we ensure that our European neighbours and friends understand and hear that this was no rejection of them - and that so many of the ways that we engage with our fellow Europeans rom family ties to foreign holidays, the European contributions to making our society that bit better - the baguettes and cappuccinos, cultural links and sporting heroes remain as much loved as ever.

We will see that this weekend when nobody in the golf clubs will be asking who voted Remain and who voted Leave as we cheer on our European team - seven Brits playing in the twelve-strong side, alongside their Spanish, Belgian, German, Irish and Swedish team-mates.

And now another important opportunity to get that message across suddenly presents itself.

Wenger for England. What better post-Brexit commitment to a new Entente Cordiale could we possibly make?

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.