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Why You Owe It To 120 Million Adolescent Girls To Talk About Menstruation

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By Arundati Muralidharan:

Students cheer as they take part in "One Billion Rising" campaign in a street in Chandigarh, India, February 2, 2016. One Billion Rising is a global coordinated campaign aimed to call for an end to violence against women and girls, according to its organisers. REUTERS/Ajay Verma - RTX252OG
Image credit: Reuters/Ajay Verma.

Let’s talk menstruation!

Here’s why. India is home to around 120 million adolescent girls — that’s roughly 10% of the population. A girl menstruates on an average for five days a month, 12 months a year, and the cycle carries on till she reaches menopause in 30-40 years. Periods are normal and healthy, yet many girls across rural and urban India struggle to manage this monthly occurrence.

The statistics are stark and dismal: 88 percent girls and women who menstruate use unsafe materials; 66 percent of girls are unaware of menstruation before their first period; 70 percent mothers think periods are dirty; 66 percent girls and women manage periods without toilets. Handling a normal physiological event is hugely complex, influenced by socio-cultural norms and the larger political environment that shape how girls experience their periods, what they can do while menstruating, what they can use to absorb menstrual blood and how they dispose the material, whether and from whom they can seek information and help, and even whether they stay in school or not.

When a girl faces obstacles in managing her menses in a healthy way, she is at risk for infection, her self-esteem and self-confidence suffer, she may remain absent from school during her period, or worse still, drop out of school altogether upon reaching puberty. Over time, these negative effects add up, preventing a young girl from achieving her full potential and having a healthy, productive life. So, what are we, as professionals, doing to help girls have healthy and safe periods?

Let us break down what it takes for a girl to manage her periods in a healthy way that respects and upholds her dignity, and privacy. We need ‘hardware’, ‘software’, and a conducive environment that supports these elements while empowering girls. Software includes information about favourable social norms and healthy attitudes towards menstruation. A girl needs to know why she has periods and what is happening to her body when she menstruates. She needs to be aware of the range of safe and hygienic menstrual absorbents available — both reusable and disposable. Negative and harmful menstruation related social norms and taboos can perpetrate a culture of silence and negative attitudes and should be addressed to ease long-term repercussions.

The hardware includes adequate water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) facilities (including disposal systems), and safe and hygienic materials to absorb menstrual blood. When girls have access to adequate hardware they can use clean menstrual absorbents and can wash up with clean water, and change the cloth or pad as many times as required in a safe and private space. A supportive environment is essential if girls are to use and benefit from the software and hardware available to them.

This enabling environment is complex, encompassing a multitude of influencers who affect the girl directly and indirectly. Menstruation is private, but most girls are constantly negotiating societal norms and public policy that impinge on them. Parents, siblings, community members, including men and boys, have a strong impact on how girls perceive and manage their periods. Teachers, health care providers, and others who come in contact with girls through schools, health centres also shape her experiences.

These influencers come from the same communities as an adolescent girl, experience similar sets of constraints related to periods, and play a pivotal role in perpetuating a culture of silence and shame around this issue. At a slightly removed, though no less critical level, are government/policy makers, NGOs, and donor agencies. Their decisions on policies and programmes impacts whether girls will have access to and can afford the information, materials, facilities, and support needed for healthy periods. For instance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s clarion call for all schools to have girls’ toilets has led to intensive efforts across the country to equip schools with such facilities.

So far, the WASH sector has taken the lead on Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM). More recently, entrepreneurs have been innovating menstrual products, and the education sector has come on board as schools are a great platform to reach girls. These efforts are commendable, bringing attention to a much-ignored issue. Action, however, has centred to a great extent on hardware, which though necessary, is by itself insufficient to promote MHM.

Girls will continue to struggle with menstruation till they lack information, and deep set, harmful social norms remain unaddressed. The health and women empowerment sectors can play a critical role in addressing these aspects and enabling girls to make informed decisions.

Menstruation matters to our girls, and it should matter to everyone, everywhere. We experience it and we shape its experience. As influencers, development professionals, and policy makers, we must take action now. Period.

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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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