NEW DELHI — Faheem Rahman clutched his stomach tight and winced in pain. When after a couple of minutes he could not bear it any more, he shrieked, throwing his head back.
Rahman, a 26-year-old restaurateur in the southern Indian state of Kerala, did not fully grasp what he was signing up for when he agreed to have the wires clamped below his navel. But now he knows, at least a little, the pain that his mother and sisters deal with every month when they have their periods.
“It was a horrible experience,” Rahman said. “I could not concentrate on anything around me for as long as the cramps lasted.”
The simulation was part of a new campaign that aims to tackle long-standing taboos around menstruation in India and raise awareness of more effective hygiene products that can better protect women’s health.
In many Indian families, women are barred from the kitchen while menstruating or in some communities shunted to “menstruation huts” with leaky roofs and no toilets. At a temple in Kerala, tradition bars all women of childbearing age from entering, which led to an intervention by the country’s highest court and violent pushback from right-wing groups.
Such stigmas have left Indians, particularly men, less educated about menstruation.
And in a country with one of the world’s largest populations of young people, over half of women and girls ages 15-24 were still using cloth for protection during their periods, potentially exposing them to infections, a 2015-2016 government report found.
The campaign in the Ernakulam district of Kerala, called the Cup of Life, encourages women to use menstrual cups instead of cloth or sanitary napkins. The small devices, made of latex rubber or silicone, are cost-effective and reusable, solving the disposal problem that other products create.
Its organizers also hope the campaign will help to start a conversation about how menstruation does not make a woman “dirty,” how there is no need to feel shame about the monthly cramps and hide them from family members and how virginity is a damaging social construct.
Dr. Akhil Manuel, an official with the doctors’ association in the coastal city of Kochi, said he had come up with the idea of promoting menstrual cups a couple of years ago as hygienic and environmentally friendly. But just pointing out the advantages of them wasn’t enough, he said.
“You also have to break social taboos,” he said, “how to normalize social conversations around virginity and menstruation in a conservative society like ours so that girls are not considered ‘untouchables’ when they are menstruating.”
In a joint effort by the Indian Medical Association and the local member of Parliament, 1,000 men and women were trained to spread the word on menstrual cups. A group of women, ranging from the very young to the old, spread out on metro trains across Ernakulam to talk to people about menstruation.
To take the conversation to men, Sandra Sunny, an aspiring lawyer in Kochi, designed the #feelthepain concept for the campaign. She said a friend who is a doctor suggested using physiotherapy tools to simulate the cramps in men. An electric current passes through the simulator, which initially feels like a vibration. As the intensity is increased on the machine, the intensity of the “cramps” does, too.
“I had seen many videos on YouTube where the same method was used on men abroad,” she said. “I thought to myself, why can’t we do it here also?”
As the campaign spread from fancy malls to colleges, videos on social media showed men crying out in pain while strapped to the simulator. Women laughed.
To increase awareness, Sunny also helped set up an art installation, with a take on Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam,” in which one hand is holding a menstrual cup.
On a single day this week, 100,000 of the cups were distributed free in Ernakulam. In a district with 900,000 to 1.2 million menstruating-age females, it is a start, Manuel said.
The campaign intends to do follow-up work over the next four months to ensure the success of the cups. In addition to helping prevent infections, the cups are more environmentally friendly than sanitary napkins, with a life cycle of up to 10 years.
Manuel said he saw promise when a young man grabbed some cups to take home, calling it the “best gift he could give his mother.”
Rahman, the restaurateur, said he was a changed man after his single bout with the simulator.
“I have so much more respect for my mother, for my sisters,” he said. “It’s hard for them; that much I know.”