I grew up in Bangalore, India in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a period of rapid growth and development in the country. As the “Silicon Valley of India”, Bangalore’s booming IT industry attracted foreign investment and brought about intense economic and social change. As a child, I was always told I was lucky to witness these changes. Our world was getting better and India was going to be a superpower soon! To my young mind, these were promising ideas but I could never imagine them into reality. If our world was getting better, why was the slum right in front of my school expanding every day? Why did more children come begging for money at my car window and why did they seem to be less healthy every day? I was unable to connect these dots. At the age of 14, I immigrated to Ottawa, Canada, where I experienced a whirlwind of change and culture shock. People spoke differently, dressed differently and most noticeably, they had different attitudes to every day topics. I could write hundreds of blogs and it would not be enough to describe the changes I experienced, so let me focus on a topic that I am a passionate advocate of: health education.
Growing up in Bangalore, health education was something I didn’t even know existed. 11-year-old me would not have been able to understand the difference between health education and simple biology – surely, there couldn’t be a great difference? I shared this perspective with most of my peers and it had much to do with the social environment we grew up in, at home and at school. Health education and any topic related to menstruation, sexual intercourse or reproductive diseases were topics of taboo, and any related discussions were shunned. Consequently, we never quite understood these topics. The closest thing to health education that I remember receiving at school was in the fourth grade, when my elementary school teachers held a health workshop for girls. All I recall taking from this workshop was to go to the bathroom often during the day. There was no mention about menstruation, hygiene, or anything that could possibly prevent me from or protect me during a situation of sexual assault, for example.
Fast forward to Grade 10 in Canada, I had to take a mandatory gym class that functioned as a health class once a week. In this health class, we covered a broad range of sexual health topics but primarily focused on abstinence, safe sex and consent. I recall asking one of my friends why we never talked about menstruation, when we talked about things like safe sex that seemed more explicit to me. To my surprise, she said that they were taught about menstruation back in Grade 5, before many girls even got their first period. They were taught all they needed to know about the menstrual cycle and menstrual hygiene years ago, what would be the point to discuss it now? My only thought at that response was, why didn’t I learn about this in Grade 5 at school?! Why was I taught about menstruation at home behind closed doors? That was when I truly understood the meaning of the word ‘stigma’. The period is just one of many sexual health topics that is heavily stigmatized in India. Numerous Indian societies still consider menstruating girls to be impure and they are treated poorly during their menstrual cycle. This problem is magnified in rural areas, where homes have a separate outhouse specifically for a woman to live in during her period so that she doesn’t ‘contaminate’ the rest of the household. I was aware of these traditions while I lived in India but I just accepted it as another facet of our diverse Indian culture. But during that health class in Grade 10, I was furious with myself for being so naïve. This was a critical turning point for me as it opened my eyes to the impact of education on health choices. The lack of health education in India allows the stigma around sexual health to prevail and prevents individuals from questioning insalubrious practices. It also has an inter-generational effect as parents pass on these principles to their children. As a result, children are left unprepared for health risks they may encounter later on in life and they may choose to remain silent about reproductive disease symptoms to avoid castigation from society.
Until recently, I was so focused on picking out the faults in the Indian attitude to sexual health that I failed to recognize any flaws with the attitude towards health education at home, here in Canada. However, a recent update to the Ontario Ministry of Education’s sexual education curriculum made me realize another harsh reality. The curriculum changes included discussing the idea of consent in Grade 2, seminars about puberty moving from Grade 5 to Grade 4, discussions around gender identity in Grade 3 and several others. I was surprised to find out that thousands of parents protested these changes, deeming them to be too inappropriate and unnecessary. Inappropriate? A school is a place for learning. Educating children about sexual health is just as important, if not more, as teaching math or history. Unnecessary? The average age that girls attain menarche is between 8-13 and it is crucial that they learn about puberty before their first period. An example of a curriculum change that parents were fuming about is the discussion of anal and oral intercourse in Grade 7. While this topic is certainly explicit for a 12 year-old, children have access to topics like these within seconds on the Internet. It is undeniably better for children to learn about it at school than on a questionable website online. Parents need to grasp the importance of cultivating positive attitudes toward sexual health in their children so that they are more open about their sexual health and make positive health choices.
The sad truth is that sexual health stigma is inherent in the 21st-century adult mindset anywhere in the world. While it can be more extreme in places like India, we should not overlook the fact that it exists everywhere. Reflecting back on my minimal exposure to health education in my childhood, it motivates me to promote awareness about sexual health and take action to fight the stigma. I am particularly passionate about menstrual hygiene issues for girls who have received no education about puberty. There is a blanket of silence around menstrual hygiene management due to which girls are not aware about the health risks associated with poor menstrual hygiene. I believe that creating forums for discussion about these issues will aid young girls to be more open about their menstrual and sexual health, which will implicitly help better their overall health. So here is my humble plea - to all you girls out there hiding your menstrual issues by shying away from open discussion, or trying your best to conceal the fact that you are menstruating by hiding a pad or tampon, open up! Its time to bring the period out of the shadows and recognize it for what it is – a biological phenomenon that is just as natural as breathing and seeing. If we women shy away from acknowledging this fact, how can we expect society as a whole to remove the stigma around it?
I recently graduated from the University of Ottawa, majoring in Biomedical Sciences with a minor in Global Studies. I wish to pursue a career through which I can contribute to reducing global health inequities. Too many people today consider access to health care as a privilege – I want to change that view. Access to quality healthcare is a basic human right.