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.
Cameron in Nuneaton. Photo: Getty
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Why fewer of us want a long-term relationship ... with a political party

In 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010. So what does the rise of swing voters mean for British politics?

For decades political parties have competed furiously for one of the great prizes of British politics: the affections of the swing voter. It wasn’t that long ago that there were relatively few political swingers: until the 1990s, fewer than a quarter of voters would switch parties from one election to the next.

Yet that once relatively rare breed is becoming increasingly common, which means party campaigners are going to have to come up with new tactical thinking. The British Election Study survey panels, conducted episodically over the last fifty years, are unique in that they are able to track the same voters from one election to the next, unlike more conventional opinion polls that only look at a snapshot of voters at a given time. Using these studies, you can identify the percentage of voters who switch their vote from one party to another between each pair of elections since 1966 when such data was first collected.

In 1966 only around 13 per cent of voters had changed their minds since the previous election in 1964. Since then, the proportion of swingers has been steadily increasing, and by 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010.

The increase in swing voters is pretty consistent. The only exceptions are between February and October 1974, when (understandably) fewer voters changed their minds in eight months than switched in the preceding four years, and between 1997 and 2001, when the electoral dominance of New Labour under Tony Blair held back the tide for a time. These two exceptions aside, the increase has been constant election-on-election.

A lot of vote shifting can go on even between elections where the overall result remains stable. In 2001, for example, more people switched votes than in any election before 1997, with a surprising level of turmoil beneath the surface stability. While these largely cancelled out on that occasion, it set the stage for more dramatic changes in the parties’ votes later on.

So British voters now seem more likely than ever to jump from party to party. But who exactly are these swingers? Are they disillusioned former party loyalists? Or have British voters simply stopped getting into a serious relationship with the parties in the first place? We can get some insight into this using data from the yearly British Social Attitudes Survey, looking at the number of respondents who say that they do not identify with any of the political parties (party identifiers tend to switch much less often) when they are asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?’ and then ‘Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?’ if they say no to the first question. The graph below combines data from 1984 to 2013. Each line represents people who were born in a different year. Higher lines mean that there are more people who do not identify with a political party. So, for instance, voters born in 1955 started with very low levels of non-identification (22 per cent), which have gradually risen to 44 per cent in the latest survey. Most of the lines on the graph go up over time, which shows that almost all generations are falling out of love with the parties.

However, an acquired taste in swinging among the older generations is dwarfed by the promiscuous younger generations – shown by the dashed lines – most of whom never form an attachment to a party at all. Each generation in the data has been less committed to the parties than the previous generation was at the same age, with around 60 per cent of the youngest generation – those born since 1985 – expressing no attachment to any political party.

Since most of this change has been a generational shift, it may be a long road back for the parties. Loyalty to parties is often handed down in families, with children inheriting their parents’ commitment to a party. Now that this process has broken down, and younger generations have lost their attachment to parties, they may in turn pass on this political detachment to their children.

The majority of younger voters have simply never grown up with the idea of getting into a long-term relationship with a political party, so they may never settle down. Many Labour MPs were outraged when it turned out that lots of the new members who joined up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn had voted for the Green Party just a few months before, but this may simply reflect the political approach of a generation who see parties as needing to earn their vote each time rather than commanding lasting, even unconditional loyalty.

If Britain’s newfound taste for swinging isn’t going to disappear any time soon, what does it mean for party competition? In the past most people had settled partisan views, which seldom changed. General elections could be won by attracting the relatively small group of voters who hadn’t made up their minds and could very easily vote for either of the two main parties, so political parties based their strategies around mobilising their core voters and targeting the few waverers. While they worried about traditional loyalists not turning up to the polls, the parties could be assured of their supporters’ votes as long as they got them to the voting booth.

Nowadays, swing voters are no longer a small section of the electorate who are being pulled back and forth by the parties, but a substantial chunk of all voters. This helps to explain why politicians have been so surprised by the sudden rise of new parties competing for groups previously thought to be reliable supporters. The new parties that have entered British politics have also allowed voters to express their views on issues that don’t fall neatly into traditional left– right politics such as immigration (UKIP) or Scottish independence (the SNP). This in turn has posed a dilemma for the traditional parties, who are pulled in multiple directions trying to stop their voters being tempted away.

This may just be the start. If the number of swing voters stays this high, the parties will have to get used to defending themselves on multiple fronts.

This is an extract from More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford.