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Disturbed By Period Shaming, I Found A Way To Fight The Taboos

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By Meghan Norean: 

One day, back in grade VI, I arrived in the classroom to find that all the boys had disappeared. Was it that evolution had finally decided that females were the superior sex and rid the earth of all males? No, it was just time for us to learn about menstruation.

I don’t remember much about that class, but what I do remember is feeling shame. I wondered why they were afraid to have the boys in the same room. Why had I never heard the word ‘menstruation’ before? Why hadn’t anyone in my family told me about it? I felt ashamed of my period even before I had it. When the day finally came, and I saw that red stain on my underwear, I knew exactly what I had to do – not tell anyone.

My mother caught on soon enough, given that her tampon stash was slowly dwindling. But, in keeping with the tradition of limiting menstruation to its shameful place of secrecy, she bought enough for both of us and didn’t say a word to anyone about it. We both just carried on ‘normally’, as though we didn’t bleed for five days every month.

It wasn’t until seven years later that I discovered a more liberating way of dealing with my period – by using a little white silicone cup. My menstrual cup was my constant, comforting companion for many years. I raved about it to all my friends (and successfully got most of them to use it too!). I couldn’t believe I had wasted seven years using tampons and now they were all just sitting in a landfill.

A Similar Culture Of Silence In India

It was when I moved to India in 2010 that I learned to truly appreciate the value of the menstrual cup. I was shocked at the amount of trash I saw every day and even more so when I realised that this trash was largely made up of used disposable pads – lying on train tracks, in the lakes, in the corner of public bathrooms. Ironically, though, the subject itself seemed a taboo here too.

I still remember my first encounter with the strange culture surrounding menstruation and menstruating women in India. I was in a village for a friend’s wedding, and a few of us had stopped at the medicine shop to buy sanitary pads. The man behind the counter grabbed a pack of pads and shoved them into a black plastic bag as quickly as he could, as if he was smuggling something illegal.

What surprised me, even more, was that at the pre-wedding puja, the friend who was menstruating was nowhere to be seen. When I found out that women on their periods could not be part of religious ceremonies in India; it struck me as odd that I could participate in the festivities simply because I was lucky enough not to be bleeding that day.

It was almost as if the society was trying to erase the fact that menstruation exists. This culture of silence, of period shaming and filling the earth with trash was extremely frustrating, to say the least. I knew I had to do something about it, but what?

Honing And Realising A Mighty Dream

I began to research menstrual practices in India and found that girls were dropping out or missing school because of their period. How could it be that something out of our control, so natural, was hindering so many girls’ education?

So, I took my menstrual cup around to some of the girls in my community and asked them if they would ever use it. As soon as I took the cup out of its pouch, their eyes widened, and their jaws dropped.

“You want me to put that – where?!”, they asked horrified.

Disappointed, but not disheartened, I returned to my research and found out about reusable cloth pads. I sewed some out of spare fabric I had and took my homemade pads to those girls again. They were willing to try it and share it.

Slowly things were coming together. Many women in my community knew how to sew, but were getting paid very little for their work. I began to dream of a place where women from the ‘basti’ (slum) would get fair wages to sew cloth pads. These cloth pads would be sold, and all profits would help fund menstrual education programs around India.

These programs, in turn, would help facilitate the ending of the silence around menstruation and the period shaming. At the same time, the earth would be relieved of millions of disposable pads that otherwise would be destined to sit in landfills. Overall, I hoped to better the environment, the community, and women’s education in one go.

That dream became a reality at the beginning of 2015, with the launch of Shomota, which means ‘equality’ in Bengali. A social enterprise that aims at boosting gender equality in the Indian education system and propelling overall women’s empowerment. Shomota also aims to positively impact the environment and eradicate taboos around menstruation.

Born out of a desire to stop period shaming and ensuring every girl and woman knows that her body is valued just the way it is, Shomota operates in India through its website and welcomes your solidarity. If you’d like to express your support, help spread the word and purchase Shomota’s products to promote an empowering, cleaner and greener way of dealing with menstruation.

About the author: Meghan Norean is the co-founder of Shomota Women Care Pvt. Ltd. based out of Kolkata, India.

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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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