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4 Days, 100 Haiku Entries: How Calicut Medical College Students Smashed Menstrual Taboos

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Editor’s note: Over 92% of women in India experience some form of harassment, yet, we hesitate to speak up. To help create safe spaces for conversations around these experiences, Youth Ki Awaaz and Breakthrough India have come together to encourage more individuals to speak out and support one another. The piece below is a part of this collaboration. We ask people everywhere to come, #StandWithMe. 

“How many of you will be comfortable with walking across the college garden with an uncovered packet of sanitary napkins in your hand?” asked Karthika, a final year student at the Calicut Medical College. As she posed this question to the members of the literary club, I knew no hands would go up. It was our monthly literary club meeting and Karthika was trying to invite attention to the taboo that is menstruation and garner support for the Happy to Bleed movement. I smiled sceptically.

My two years at Calicut Medical College had taught me that despite being budding doctors, most students here had prehistoric mindsets. This was especially true when it came to gender issues. There were boys who refrained from examining female patients. There were girls who meticulously covered their sanitary napkins in black covers and considered their own body, a dirty secret. All my previous attempts to conduct an open discussion in support of the Happy to Bleed movement had been futile and most of the girls were comfortable with the shrouds of silence that surrounded female sexuality.

When Karthika repeated the question, I could sense the disappointment in her words. The girls in the meeting room were silent, most of them coyly staring at their laps or mobile phones. I knew it was time to break the silence. “It is a fact that all the textbook knowledge we have gobbled up has not prevented us from treating female bodies as dirty and unspeakable,” I said. I talked about a large number of women who suffer silently from health problems just because menstruation is a taboo topic. Most of us had seen women using dirty rags during their periods and girls with little scientific knowledge about their bodies. “If medicos don’t speak out against this, who else will?” asked Karthika again and this time her question received several nods of agreement.

“So what are we going to do,” Maiz, a junior of mine, asked enthusiastically. We brainstormed for ideas. Some of the suggestions which came up in the meeting included conducting awareness classes for the public, poster making, essay competitions etc. However, we needed something that would really reach out and make a difference. James suggested conducting a micro tale competition. “Let us weave our protest, agony and hope into micro tales,” he said and plans were laid out to conduct a micro tale competition titled ‘Haiku’. As soon as the posters were put out, entries flowed in, wiping away all my pessimism and apprehension.

The first tale we received was from Gowtham, who talked of the taboo associated with menstruation as crucifixion. Another person, Anuna, sent in a small poem about the red stains that adorn her skirt every month. One Anjana wrote about the paranoid girl who checks the back of her skirt every now and then. The micro tales contained a myriad of emotions, ranging from happiness to anger and hope. The posters were shared on social media by students of other colleges as well. Haiku soon became a national level competition, with many participants from Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore and even France.

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In four days, we received more than a hundred entries. Writer and activist, Dr. Asma judged the competition, selecting five winners. “It is indeed a bold attempt,” she commented as she announced the names of the winners. Nikita Azad, Arjun Unnikrishnan and numerous other social activists from across India voiced their support for Haiku. Our proudest moment was when we compiled all the micro tales into a book. Each page in that book conveys a different emotion and a different viewpoint.

Every time I feel unsure of myself, I clutch the Haiku book close to my heart, and remind myself of all the difference that a single act of courage can make. Flipping through the micro tales makes me feel hopeful and energetic. The book was quite a big moment for us but the most important achievement of Haiku would be that we made menstruation a topic of open discussion in the college. I think of my 15-year-old self who underwent a flood of negative emotions when she saw blood on her skirt for the first time. I think of all the restrictions that were imposed on me the moment I stepped into womanhood. Somehow, now I had found the courage to pick myself up and fight back. The micro tales tell me to continue doing the same; to argue, to rebel and to make a difference.

If you’d like to share your own experiences – from dealing with everyday sexism and gender stereotyping, to period shaming, harassment and abuse , do share your stories using #StandWithMe, and help take this important conversation forward.

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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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