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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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution