Like many girls in her country, Narayani Khadka was forbidden from sleeping in the house, entering the kitchen, or interacting with male family members while she was menstruating.
I remember being a child and seeing my dad come home with two blue packets. Inexplicably, he hid them carefully inside the cupboard. Curious, I asked him about those packets, and he replied, “It’s your brother’s diapers.” I didn’t question it then, and it wasn’t until I was older that I realized he was hiding my mother’s sanitary pads. At the time, she could not freely buy pads from a male shopkeeper; menstruation and anything related to it was not talked about openly.
I myself was completely unaware of menstruation until some of my classmates began having their periods. They also didn’t talk about it, but their absences from school for 13 long days gave it away. In my country of Nepal, during their first periods, girls must spend 13 days inside a room without seeing male members of their families. They are even restricted from seeing sunlight and touching anyone.
After 13 days away, my classmates would return and continue class. Then, after another month or so, they would again be absent for five to six days. This was a clear hint that they were having their second menstruation. When girls menstruate a second time, they must spend another five days or so inside a room, alone.
In Western Nepal, women must spend their menstruating days in very small cow sheds or huts, which have no ventilation. They are forbidden from eating dairy products, and they do not have access to sanitary pads. Many women lose their lives in the huts due to suffocation, cold, infection, snake bites, attacks by wild beasts, and so on. No matter whether she belongs to a teacher’s family, a politician’s family, or a poor farmer’s family, she must stay in the hut. This practice is known as “Chaupadi Pratha.”
I was 12 years old when I got my first period. When I told my mom about the blood in my underclothing, she immediately sent me to my neighbor’s house. There were not any male members in their home. I spent that day alone. In the afternoon, my mom and my cousin sisters arrived. They took me back home, and I saw they had managed a space for me in our store room.
The room was messy and cold, and there were sacks full of paddy and wheat. Because it was a cold December night, they had kept some straw on the cold floor. On top of the straw was a mattress topped with blankets. There were big curtains to keep sunlight from entering the room.
This was the room in which I was to spend the next 12 days.
During that time, only female members visited me. For the first two days, I kind of liked it because I didn’t have to go to school. But soon I started suffocating inside that dark and dirty room, and I began to miss my school.
My mother brought food to me. She used to put the plate on the floor without touching me. The worst thing was eating in there. I was given a basin to wash my hands and brush my teeth. I used the basin to urinate in. I would spend my days reading story books and writing poems. My playmates would visit me after they went to school. I remember peeking through the curtain waiting for them to arrive home, finish their homework, and come to see me.
In the early morning or late at night, my mother would take me to the toilet outside the house. I was taken out to bathe every other day. It was very difficult for a mischievous kid like me to stay locked inside a single room. It used to stink, and I hated it in there. Still, I had to complete my 12-day hideout. I waited for those long days to be over, fueled by excitement about the gifts I would receive at the end of this superstitious ritual. In Nepal, on the 13th day following the first menstruation, male members of the family provide gifts and cash to the girl.
Finally the day came when I was to be allowed to leave the room, and I was woken up by my mom early in the morning. She had boiled hot water for me to bathe. I was showered with gifts and cash from family. I looked in the mirror for the first time after I had my first period and I remember I looked fairer.
After 12 days in hideout, basking in the sun felt amazing. I felt free and alive outside of that cold and dark room. When I went back to school, my female class teacher and my female friends knew the reason for my absence. And the boys in the class knew too. They giggled at my face.
After about nine months, I menstruated for the second time. It was bedtime when I told my mom. I panicked this time because I saw a fair amount of blood in my urine. My mom gave me some pads, and she again set up the bed in the store room. Back in the room, I was sweating and I couldn’t sleep out of fear. I could hear strange sounds; they could have been made by the rats. I called my mom, and she took me to her room, where I slept. But in the morning, I was sent back to the stinky store room.
This time it wasn’t easy. The flow was heavy, and I experienced very sharp and strange pains in my lower stomach. Mom told me that painkillers are not good for health, so my cousin sisters prepared me a syrup. The syrup was made by boiling mint leaves and cumin seeds together and adding salt to it. It worked for me, and I felt better. I still use this syrup today.
That second time in the room, I was scared and in pain, but I managed to get through those long four days.
After my second menstruation I began menstruating regularly. During my period days, I was not allowed to sleep in my room. I was not even allowed to enter into the yard, water plants, or touch the trees. I couldn’t celebrate festivals during my period.
Even now, when I have my period I ask family members to get me lunch or snacks whenever I become hungry. I ask for water, if I am thirsty. Girls are restricted from entering into the kitchen during menstruation. When I run out of water and I am home alone, I wait for my family members or someone else to pass by so that I can ask them to get it for me. It feels humiliating to ask for food, water, and other basics again and again. And I even feel that others become irritated at having to provide me these necessary things so monotonously.
Historically, these practices were designed to ensure women could rest during their periods and have a break from heavy work. Now, things have been interpreted differently. Rather than a natural biological process, periods are connected with sin and impurity in our culture.
Today, we have made some progress. Instead of having to use homemade cotton pads, sanitary pads are easily available in stores. Still, there are taboos and rituals that we must fight against.
Myself, I do not ask men to buy sanitary pads for me. I do not ask for plastic bags or sheets of paper to wrap my sanitary pads in. I do not hide the fact that I menstruate. I write poems against these sorts of taboos and defective practices, and I focus on the respect and dignity of women.
I talk with my brother about the pain and discomfort and mood swings associated with periods so that he knows how a woman feels during her period days.
I was born in the most developed city of Nepal, in an educated family, and I had a very bitter experience of my first menstruation. Instead of taking it as a matter of physical growth, I was made to look at it as a matter of shame.
I have raised my voice and spoken to my family about the true nature of these practices. Change starts with individuals and makes its way through families. From there, change ascends and ascends until entire societies are transformed.
Today, I can stay in my own room when I have my period. I water the tomatoes in my yard, and I pluck the guavas from our tree. In the past, this was forbidden; it was believed the crop yield would be damaged if the plant was touched by a menstruating girl.
Gradually, things are getting easier and change is happening. I even believe I could enter into the kitchen, sit down next to my brother, and eat a meal with him while having my period.
For me, I resolve that my period will never again be a matter of shame and trouble: My period will be my source of pride.
This story originally appeared on WorldPulse.com, a social networking platform connecting women worldwide for change. Read more stories about menstruation on World Pulse.