"Tomorrow is my gunyu cholo, you have to come,” my eight year old granddaughter ordered me. I was both happy and sad at the same time. I was happy because it was her big day and she was very excited about it. I was sad because all of a sudden, my innocent little natini had grown up and was standing on the threshold of womanhood, waiting to enter the complicated world of young women. Soon her innocence and carefree nature will be replaced by shades of shyness and restrain.
Next morning on seeing me, she came rushing and said, “Today is my gunyu cholo.” “Do you know what gunyu cholo means?” I asked her. She shook her head. I told her ‘gunyu cholo’ meant ‘sari and blouse’ and that the ceremony was a coming of age ceremony for girls and just to tease her I added, “Now you are ready for marriage.” I could see a hint of annoyance and shyness in her face as she grumbled and ran away. I looked at her and thought, pretty soon she will start menstruating and her mother will have to field questions like, ‘Ma, am I going to die? What is happening to me?’ And finally, ‘Ma why is it this way?’
These are questions many young Nepali girls would like to ask when they start menstruating for the first time, but do not have enough courage to raise the topic or are often silenced when they do. In our society, despite all the progress of the 21st century, women and girls are still uncomfortable talking about menstruation. In some areas, it is still a taboo. As a teenager, I had to be satisfied when I was told that this happened to all women and that we are ‘sick’ for a certain time period. I always asked my mother why women became ‘untouchables’ for five days a month, but never got an answer.
I, however, was at the receiving end of these questions for the first time forty years ago in Banares when one of my father’s friends sent his ten year old daughter to stay in our house for a month, because she had started to menstruate for the first time. I had no clue why Mayury was at our house. I was told she was spending a one-month “seclusion” period. When I found out that ‘seclusion’ was more a fulfillment of a ‘requirement’ of the society, I was annoyed and shocked because I had not faced that situation when I had attained puberty. That was when I understood why my mother kept telling me “if someone asks, tell them you spent your ‘seclusion’ time at your mama ghar.”
I still remember the day Mayury decided to ask her questions. “Didi why am I here? Why can’t I meet my other relatives? Why am I being punished? Am I going to die?” For Mayury, I was a college going science student with all the answers to her questions. I was not sure about her other questions but I was pretty sure that she was not going to die and that she was not being punished. So I told her as much. Upon hearing that, her face broke into a big smile. I felt happy that she was at least asking questions. I had allowed my queries to be quelled by the standard ‘that’s the way it is’ reply. But I wasn’t going to let this happen anymore.
I told Mayury that women were secluded because they were not very clean during that period of the month. Women as such, did not know effective ways of menstruation management. That made a lot of sense to her and she was satisfied. Next day, I told her that her house did not have enough space to keep her away from her brothers, who might bother her with questions she might find difficult to respond to and that was why she was here. With a laugh she said, “I myself don’t know the answers, how could I respond to their questions?” She even went ahead and thanked her mom for saving her from the embarrassment. That was when my counseling sessions to her started, because she was shedding her inhibitions and was becoming bold enough to ask even the most embarrassing questions by her standards.
In our society, despite all the progress, women and girls are uncomfortable talking and answering queries on menstruation. In some areas, it is still a taboo.
Each day she had new questions and I tried my best to answer them. Some questions were simple logical ones while others were tough. One such question was regarding the bleeding that happens each month. She was happy to know there was nothing ‘impure’ about the blood and it was all a biological function, with immense significance. Understanding this fact made her much more comfortable and as a result, she started asking even more questions.
Most of her questions were related to menstruation management, body changes and emotional changes during puberty. Those sessions were both fun and informative and we really treasured the time spent together. Looking back, I am glad that I was able to satisfy the queries of at least one young girl, who otherwise, would have been told to keep quiet. And since then, I have had several opportunities to answer the question, “Why is it this way?”
Next time a young girl poses such questions, I hope mothers, sisters and teachers will be well prepared to do their best and give them the right answers that will make life a lot easier for the confused teenager.
The author is an educationist and children’s writer