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Girls In Rural Telangana Are Boldly Talking About Taboos Like Menstruation

By Malini Gopalakrishnan

Among all those who’ve taken to ink to communicate their angst, I doubt that anyone has been able to illustrate the anguish of marginalisation in the society like Toni Morrison.

October 11 was observed as International Day of the Girl Child world over. However, it is Morrison’s immortal words that I recall in its wake — “This soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear, and when the land kills of its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live. We are wrong of course, but it doesn’t matter. It’s too late.”

I think those words are ever-so-loaded in the context of the world live in today; perhaps the world would not need a call for hurrah-ing girls had the world been better to them in the first place.

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Manasa P. was in class nine when she first came to VOICE Camp. Originally from Bommakal, a small village in Telangana, Manasa was enrolled in a government residential school. She lives with her mother; her father died a few years back. When she’s not at school, Manasa is busy attending to household chores. Her mother is not educated and has to work in the field to support them both.

“It is not easy being a girl in my village. Many girls of my age are already married. When parents want to get their daughters married off, it is very hard to stop them. Girls do not get to decide their own futures. Or that is what I thought; I didn’t think I could take charge of my life or future either!” says Manasa.

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But Manasa’s life took a drastic turn when she came to a camp organised by VOICE 4 Girls, a Hyderabad-based NGO working towards empowering marginalised adolescent girls with critical information and life skills.

So when, some ‘akkas’ from VOICE 4 Girls came and spoke to Manasa and her friends about menstruation, gender equality, human rights, etc. She said, “I started feeling confident – about myself and my future after attending the camp. I have learnt that boys and girls are equal and deserve the same opportunities. I want to grow up and become an astronaut and maybe discover new planets! I know that to do this, I need to work very hard and not let anyone stop me.”

After attending the camp, Manasa also went on to attend VOICE’s Sakhi (friend) Camp, where she learnt how she could go back to her school and community and teach younger girls what she has learnt. “I like being a leader,” she quips. She added, “girls love learning about these things through the activity-based VOICE camp! After teaching the girls in my school, I wanted to reach out to the girls in my village also.”

Manasa went back to Bommakal and spoke to people in the village about the importance of educating girls and delaying their marriage. She also wrote a book called “Naa Laksham” (My Aim) in Telugu for the girls in her community, telling them what she learnt at camp.

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Manasa is, but one example of the kind of potential a ravenous mind has – given the right tools and information! There are more than 113 million adolescent girls in India; a majority of these girls lose their childhood, education and basic human rights to poverty, ignorance, abuse, early marriage and discrimination at the hands of regressive and patriarchal norms.

Even today, the birth of a girl is bad news across echelons in society. Growing up, these girls feel no ownership of their lives, their bodies or their futures. Statistics show, a whopping 40% of girls don’t graduate class 10, and 47% are married before they turn 18! The result is a perpetuating cycle of poverty, ignorance and discrimination.

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But what if, a girl entering adolescence is mentored? What if, she is given information about her body, health, safety and rights? What if she is shown that she is special; that if she can be confident and stand up for herself, she can reimagine her future? What if she is able to negotiate with her family to continue to stay in school and delay marriage till she is an adult? Wouldn’t she then be able to break out of the cycle she is trapped in?

Yes. That’s the change VOICE 4 Girls is aspiring to achieve. By organising activity-based camps at government and low-cost residential schools, where trained college students teach adolescent girls about vital aspects of their life and bodies along with some life skills and basic communicative English.

To this end, VOICE is also looking to raise funds for 25 camps which would directly reach out to more than 600 girls like Manasa. Help us reach our goal. Let, “It is not easy being a girl” not be said by the Manasa(s) of tomorrow.

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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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