Re-discovering menstruation in India

9 min read
Menstrual hygiene management in Chhitoor
Image: WaterAid/Rohit Kumar

Experiences of Hemakshi Gordy, a young intern from an urban, first world country decoding the many facets of menstruation in India through her summer project at WaterAid India.

The other day, a friend of mine asked me for a pad during school in Maryland, USA. She whispered as she asked, despite there being no need to whisper. Embarrassment sat heavy in the shadows of her eyes and her forced smile. When I took a pad out of my bag and handed it to her, she hurried to hide it under her sweatshirt and whispered her thanks. I wish I could say other girls act differently when asking for and receiving a pad. I wish I could say that I act differently.

I have always wondered: If menstruation is a source of occasional discomfort, inconvenience, and embarrassment for me and many of my friends, what must girls and women experience if they lack many of the things I may take for granted? What would my life be like if shame and taboo polluted the very air I breathe, just because I am female and menstruate; if I didn’t have access to clean and safe products to use or an easy way to dispose of them; if I didn’t know menstruation existed until the first time it happened? I couldn’t imagine it, yet this is the reality for many girls and women across the world. It is for this reason that I interned with WaterAid India and chose to focus on menstrual health and hygiene.

On July 21, two days after my arrival in India, the Indian government made the decision to exempt menstrual pads from the country’s new tax system, the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Another two days later, I began my internship with the media and communications team at WaterAid India. In the beginning of the first week, I sat down with the team, and we decided that my main project was going to be a video titled ‘Decoding GST’ about the implications of this seemingly straightforward tax exemption of menstrual pads.

The film making process

Before diving in, I familiarized myself with menstrual hygiene management and the problems faced by girls and women in India. I read through WaterAid’s materials on menstrual hygiene management, from which I learned, among other things, about the types of taboos around menstruation and their impact on girls and women, the importance of access for women and girls to a variety of products, and the problems surrounding menstrual product disposal. I also read through case studies about experiences of menstruation. I remember one in particular, which described how in some places, menstruating girls and women are not allowed to touch male relatives and are forced to stay and sleep in a separate structure away from the house. I was most shocked when the case study revealed that this taboo against touch was conveniently “forgotten” by the men while the women were staying in this separate structure. As I learned about these problems and suffering and injustice, I grew passionate and angry and had the feeling that I wanted to jump out of my chair and do something. This feeling persisted throughout the process, and I strove to channel it into my work.

After research came the part of film making I find most exhilarating: interviews. I was given the amazing opportunity to learn more about the nuances of the tax exemption of pads from professionals whose jobs involved and were impacted by it. The interviews were both exciting and enlightening, as I conversed with interviewees about issues I could understand because of the research I had done.

Producing a video out of these interviews proved to be more challenging than I had anticipated; however, my unique perspective gave me an advantage. While I was familiar with the issue, I had a good idea of what people who were not familiar with the issue may struggle to understand, since I had just gone through the process of learning all about it. Still, organizing information in an interesting way was difficult. I had to hook the audience in the beginning, explain the GST system quickly but clearly, and lay out the possible impacts of the tax exemption in a logical order. In the end, I organized my video as a sequence of questions on text slides, followed by clips from the interviews that served to answer the questions.

New insights: workplace and culture

Interning at WaterAid India was different from my previous experiences in a number of ways. I was working in an office for the first time in my life. I collaborated with professionals rather than fellow students. I had to figure out how to manage my time at the office, since my work wasn’t blocked out for me the way it is during the school day. I learned the hard way that it is impossible to work all eight hours of the workday, or even all seven hours excluding lunch, and that it is not sustainable to try.

My experience at WaterAid India was also new to me in a cultural context. My mother is Indian and my father is American, and I have grown up spending most of my time in America. I go to India to visit my family every summer; however, working there was an entirely new way for me to interact with the Indian half of my heritage. I noticed several cultural differences I hadn’t paid attention to before. For instance, time is treated differently in India. Less emphasis is placed on punctuality in India than in America, to the point where there is a name for the phenomenon: Indian Stretchable Time, or IST. I struggled with this at first because I tend to be impatient, but I found that the Indian attitude towards time allowed for more flexibility and less stress—without sacrificing passion and productivity. Furthermore, I have often felt that some of the more rigid aspects of American culture limit me when I try to connect with people whom I don’t know a lot about, because many Americans consider it rude to ask a lot of questions. On the other hand, my colleagues at WaterAid and I had no problem getting to know each other in a short period of time because in Indian culture it is considered friendly to ask people many questions.

New insights: branding and copyright

In addition, this was the first time I had to seriously consider branding. I discovered at WaterAid that everything about a product, whether it’s toothpaste or a television channel, is designed deliberately to develop a company’s image. I also learned that branding, when done right, has a purpose and isn’t just superficial or about aesthetics. I read WaterAid’s guidelines and realized that their core beliefs played a major role in shaping branding. I applied this to my video in my choices of colors, titles, music, font, end plate, tone, and more.

This was also my first encounter with copyright law as part of an organization. Every video I had made in the past was for an educational purpose, so I could use most footage and photos on the Internet as long as I cited them correctly in the credits. My video with WaterAid, however, was for a non-profit organisation, so I had to take my own photos and footage. At first I viewed this as an obstacle, but once I began I realized that the process in itself was raising awareness and fighting taboo among the people around me. For instance, I recruited my brother to help me get slow-motion footage of pads falling through the air. At first, he jokingly put his socks on his hands before touching the pads, but then he seriously set about helping me and asked me various questions about pads and periods, which I was happy to answer. In addition, I had to photograph various menstrual products in the office. This forced me to ask colleagues if they could provide me with products to photograph, and to carry these menstrual products around the office. I decided that instead of trying to hide them in shame, I wanted to carry them around with pride. I was pleased to note that many of my colleagues, both female and male, noticed what I was photographing. Some even asked me about it, which gave me the opportunity to spread even more awareness about menstrual hygiene management and the implications of the tax exemption.

Visiting Kirti Nagar, an urban slum

My experience and growth at WaterAid extended beyond my main project, the “Decoding GST” video. I had the opportunity to travel to a slum in a remote area of Delhi, an urban slum called Kirti Nagar, where I sat in on a community meeting and took photographs. Despite my limited command of Hindi, I was able to understand and learn a great deal. For me, access to clean and pure water is as simple as turning on one of the many sink faucets in my house. But before WaterAid’s intervention, the people I met in Kirti Nagar had to walk a significant distance, stand in line, and carry home large containers of water that was often unclean. WaterAid’s intervention involved building a system of taps within the slum to increase and facilitate the community’s access to cleaner water, and the purpose of our trip was to check up on this and other water facilities. I got to see WaterAid’s work firsthand and interact with people whose lives are very different from my own. I’ll never forget one little girl I met. She was perhaps two years old. She had big brown eyes. She sat with her mother during the meeting, gazing up at the other women in the room and at me with the kind and unbridled curiosity only children can manage. When we went outside to take pictures at the handwashing station, her mother took her hands between her own and washed them the way my mother used to do for me when the tap water in public restrooms was too hot for my little hands. The child and her mother were among the people who walked me and my colleague to our Uber at the end of our visit. Crossing the dusty road, I looked down to see that the girl was barefoot. I don’t know if she had shoes at all. I don’t know when her mother will be able to buy her shoes. And when she has her first period, I don’t know what menstrual products her mother will be able to provide for her. I recognize that my work at WaterAid most likely won’t have a direct impact on that child’s life, yet I hope that my photographs of Kirti Nagar and my video, 'Decoding GST' help to raise awareness, start conversations, and contribute to the fight for change.


Hemakshi Gordy - an intern on her summer project at WaterAid India