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Unhygienic Menstrual Conditions Taking Lives While We Do Nothing About It

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By Abhijit Bhomia:

Shahana, an eleven year old girl lived in a remote village. She was a student of grade IV. She used rags for managing her menstrual blood. One day after school she came home, changed the soaked rag, washed and dried it under a bean tree for reuse. A harmful insect settled on the rag. Without noticing the insect’s presence, she used this rag the next day. Unfortunately the insect entered her body through the vagina. She felt a serious stomach pain and was taken to hospital. After a week she died.

Who is responsible for her death? Her parents, her teachers or the SOCIETY? Society plays a vital role in the rise and downfall of a civilization. In rural areas, people still believe in old traditions and often land in trouble. The government has to share an equal amount of blame as it is responsible for not reaching out to the villages and spread awareness amongst villagers.

The above mentioned case of Shahana is testimony to the negligence of the government and of the village men who curb women’s space. This case is just one in millions and there are many which are left unnoticed and unheard.

Yes, I am talking about the problem faced by women in rural areas while they menstruate.

A normal woman spends around six to seven years of her life menstruating and she should have proper knowledge about menstruation cycle. A woman has to be careful while in her menstrual period and keep in mind her menstrual hygiene. If she is using a cloth then she should wash it with clean water and dry it at an appropriate and should not use it when it is damp. One more problem is the sanitation facility, girls skip their school while menstruation because of poor sanitation.

Women and girls need to change their sanitary napkins three or four times a day during the period of menstruation especially in the first three days. The vast majority of women and girls use rags- usually torn from old saris, instead of sanitary towels/napkin. Rags are washed and used several times. There is no private place to change and clean the rags and often no safe water and soap to wash them properly. A culture of shame and taboo forces them to seek for well hidden places even in their homes to dry the rags. These places are often damp, dark and unhealthy.

This practice is responsible for a significant proportion of illness and infection associated with female reproductive health. Rags that are unclean, cause urinary and vaginal infection and very often serious infections are left untreated.

It brings shiver to my spine telling you that women in rural areas use ash, sand and even plastic as sanitary pads. The young girls are shy of changing their pads and even if they do then they don’t have a place to dispose them. Such is the condition, it can only get worse if nothing is done. The patriarchy of our society further complicates the problem, if nothing else.

Menstrual hygiene is one of the most important yet neglected issues in rural India. What the girls and women suffer at the hands of embarrassment and shame is unimaginable. Immediate action is required on this front, of course many NGOs are making efforts to solve such a problem which is not even talked about, but then we need mass support and government initiatives at the same time.

All of this is linked to our high levels of maternal mortality, which can only be brought down by ameliorating sanitation and hygiene for women in rural areas. Sanitary napkins, which are best designed and suited for menstruation, should be made available at affordable prices to women, it is a necessity.

Awareness campaigns for menstrual hygiene along with an active participation from these women themselves, in voicing their problems and solving them mutually with women community action, is the immediate need of the hour.

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  1. Shraddha Sankhe

    I believe more than creating awareness on this issue, we need action. It is not a Law and Order problem that needs to be addressed in the Assembly. Simply put, if people save their one buck each day(instead of offering alms to beggars on traffic signal- out of sympathy) and buy a beggar-girl a pack of sanitary napkins-we can call ourselves a lot more sensitive.

    Speaking of rural areas, NGOs may do their work. What can you and I do? We can start off with first discovering the harsh reality of water scarcity. Add that with a social stigma-sitting isolated for ‘those’ 4 days of the month-“don’t touch food, pickles and spices” and psychological guilt felt by little girls and older women.

    No, let us not blame Government for being ignorant. May the rural society first grow up. Government policies will happen. Rural areas first need an open mind before they’re offered concrete Public Health and Sanitation programs. The latter won’t work if the women themselves consider themselves-‘disadvantaged’.

  2. Saurabh Mohan Sharma

    Have you ever noticed a sanitary napkin’s advertisement on TV? I doubt if some rural women could even understand what the advertisement is about. It may sound absurd but perhaps we need to come out more openly about it just like Condoms and contraceptive Pills.
    Although there isn’t any provision of cheap sanitary napkins to rural women but our National Rural Health Policy does have a program for creating maximum awareness about Menstrual hygiene through the Accredited Social Health Activists in villages. But along with that government and NGOs should encourage more and more Public participation into this so that women in rural areas don’t have to suffer because of lack of awareness about personal hygiene and uncomfort during the menses.

  3. Atiya

    Its an old mail. But GOONJ takes up similar initiatives. Anybody who feels for the subject, please feel free to pitch in.

    “Life has changed. I never knew this small cloth has such a big value in my life. Right from the beginning my mother told me it’s my sin which comes out as blood. I used to wonder- am I such a bad person that every month I commit so many mistakes?” Bano can talk endlessly on how the small piece of cloth in the shape of sanitary pad has changed her life.

    Not just the physical comfort and the feeling of well being, it’s about basic dignity of Bano and millions of women like her who are forced to use things like sand, ash, jute gunny bags, pieces of paper, rugs, rags anything which can absorb- in the name of a basic need called sanitary pad.

    Face it, it is a highly taboo and closed subject or issue. I remember when few years ago we started opening the subject and initiated dialogues in public- in rural areas, urban slums, corporates, schools- anywhere and everywhere it brought on a distinct discomfort followed by shock among the people. They felt connected with the reality but highly disconnected with the fact that everyone took such a major issue for granted.

    Today GOONJ produces about 2,00,000 napkins a month and we can see ripples. The subject is opening; more people are getting into talking and doing something about this. The central government announced plans of reaching pads to 150 districts, the implementation is yet to be seen and we need to see how it unfolds but leave apart the merits and demerits for a moment, we are happy that at least people have started thinking about this most ignored need of women on a policy level..


    With best


    Anshu Gupta (Ashoka Fellow)
    Founder Director
    Tel.- 011- 26972351, 41401216


  4. Abhijit Bhomia

    I agree with you and your thoughts but if a rural society has to grow then it needs awareness about certain facts and certain things which are happening around them and which are essentials of life. This can only happen when people like you and me have a larger platform to provide support and a larger platform is only possible with the help of the government and the NGOs. You and me cannot do something BIG single handedly which affects the masses, but we can surely contribute in our own ways.

    And you have mentioned that rural areas need an open mind,how can they be open minded if we do not spread awareness among them, they just need guidance and awareness and then everything will be in its place.

  5. Arvind

    HI Abhijit, can you share where this unfortunate incident (Shahana’s case) happened? I am doing research on menstruation hygiene. If anyone has any info regarding the diseases and reproduction problems caused due to unhygienic menstruation conditions then plz share. Thank you

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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