Ability To Change How My Students Think Of Taboos Like ‘Menstruation’, Is #WhyITeach

By Manisha Satyarthi:

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Manisha in the classroom with students.

My mother often teases me about how, when I was a kid, I would quietly place stones in the balcony, give them each a name and teach them all evening (all while my parents took their afternoon nap)! Silly as it sounds, I really, really enjoyed this little role play and understood why only many years later. The journey to this realisation was long but in retrospect, totally worth it.

In school, I was an above average student. By virtue of this, I studied science and eventually opted for Biotechnology. A Master’s in Human Genetics followed. During my dissertation on tuberculosis (TB) patients of the Sahariya tribe in Madhya Pradesh, I discovered that despite advanced research on TB, awareness about the disease was really low. I realised that disseminating already available information and creating awareness at the grassroots level was critical.

So, instead of opting for a lab-based, research-oriented Ph.D. programme or working for a private firm, I pursued ‘Development Communication’ at Jamia Millia Islamia. Here, I learned the ropes of effective grassroots communication. I followed this up with a Gandhi Fellowship that really gave me the space to analyse how loopholes at the grassroots are the actual cause of failures – be it in health or education.

During my posting in Nawalgarh, Rajasthan, I worked closely with five headmasters of rural government schools, in the area of leadership skills. I also got a chance to teach the school children. The headmasters were rigid about traditional methods of learning, so, it took me a few months to convince them to try innovative methods of teaching and managing the school.

The experience led me to two conclusions – that ‘collaborative education and learning’ are the roots of development, and that I really enjoyed teaching, which explains why I enjoyed my childhood role play so much!

Delving Into The ‘Whys’

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Manisha with her students.

Around this time, I also heard about a pedagogy known as ‘peer learning’, practised by the Avanti Learning Centre to teach Science and Mathematics to school students. This fascinated me to the core. I felt that, maybe, here I would finally get a platform to encourage intellectual and conceptual brainstorming sessions among adolescents, not only on science practices but ethical ones, too. This is because I genuinely believe that when you give a chance to kids to brainstorm, they come up with unbiased and sustainable solutions.

When Avanti offered me a full-time opportunity to teach at Amatir Kanya Gurukul, a residential school for girls in Bachgawan Gamdi, Kurukshetra, Haryana, I was excited to teach young girls from semi-urban areas. I relocated to Kurukshetra, around 160 km from Delhi.

When I first entered the school premises, I was terrified to see the kids chanting every morning at 5 a.m.; I have always been nocturnal and a late riser! I could sense that I would also need to follow the strict schedule of waking up, eating, working and sleeping at a fixed time. But trust me, my kids were so enthusiastic that even with a hectic schedule I never felt like cancelling classes and would often deliver marathon classes of four hours at a stretch. Initially, students stumbled around their science concepts but with the engaging pedagogy of our classroom, they started asking impeccable questions on the ‘Whys’ of things. They started brainstorming, and their confidence slowly built up.

Education Is Not Only About Textbooks

I was teaching Biology to Class 9, 10 and 11 students, and when I started on the chapter ‘How do we reproduce?’, I realised that talking about menstruation and sex education was considered taboo. So, one day I asked everyone to say out aloud: “I am proud of menstruating, I am proud of being a woman!” They repeated very hesitantly. But after one week of repeating this exercise every day, they started clarifying their doubts on the subject! I gave them handouts that dispelled myths. We discussed how menstrual and maternal health is ignored in our country and a lot more. We even talked about certain government programmes and how they could be easily implemented within one’s locality.

Interestingly, I also taught at DPS, Kurukshetra, a co-ed where I aimed to sensitise the boys about menstruation. As boys, they should also know what changes occur in a girl’s body so that their curiosity doesn’t lead them to have false perceptions. I feel that my sessions with them made them more empathetic to women’s health issues.
They also helped students develop a sense of trust in me and they would not hesitate to discuss both academic and personal queries.

I noticed that a girl with heavy cycles would just sit in her room after class. One day, when I went to her room to assure her that she could have medicines if she was in pain, she told me that it was not the pain, which troubled her but that she felt ashamed of staining her salwar. I pacified her and convinced her that no one would mock her. She should sit boldly in the study hall! After that, she never ever felt ashamed again. In fact, her friends used to tease her saying, “Arre yaar sabko to hota hai ye. Lag gya to kya hua? Kam se kam ye to pata lag gaya tu pregnant nahin hai!” (This happens to everyone. So what if there’s a stain? At least we get to know you are not pregnant!)

As time went by, the girls started questioning certain practices which they had been following blindly. They started reflecting on the reasons for these practices, other than the fact that their family and society considered it important. For me, that was a success – that there was improvement not just academically, but also personally and emotionally. I genuinely believe that when you teach, you aren’t only working on young minds but hearts; this is what helps a young person grow holistically. For this reason, I consider the transformation in my students to be the best thing that has ever happened to me.

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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.

Read more about his campaign.

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.

Read more about her campaign.

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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

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.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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