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This Is Why Menstrual Hygiene In India Is Bleeding

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This story is a part of Youth Ki Awaaz’s campaign #IAmNotDown to spread awareness on menstrual hygiene and start a conversation on how sanitary pads can be made more affordable. If you have an opinion on how we can improve access to menstrual hygiene products, write to us here.

Location: A medical store.

Time: 7 pm.

When the pharmacies in the evening are already crowded with people of varied ages and backgrounds, for a girl, buying a pack of sanitary pads might be worse than the menstrual cramps she has to endure for the customary four days of the month. Already down with the pain, imagine her situation when she awkwardly, in her timid voice, asks the salesman, “Bhaiyya ek whi***r ka pack dena.” (Please give me a pack of sanitary napkins).  The other customers, who were lazily waiting for their turn till now, instantly look up in her direction. And the ‘bechari‘ girl is left to deal with the embarrassment of her ‘chaar din‘ now being public knowledge when she tries so vehemently to hide it from her own family. It’s a huge task to wait another minute till the salesman wraps the already packed pads into another newspaper or a black carry bag and hands it to her.

Such is the irony of our traditional Indian conditioning – the girl is made to feel ashamed about the one entirely natural process of her body, which is actually responsible for human creation. Ask any random teenage girl from any part of the country – chances are, a majority of them are either unaware or misinformed about the monthly menstruation cycle. While we have bold women like Aditi Mittal cracking jokes about the hypocrisy around periods, the amount of ignorance that is rampant, especially outside privileged urban circles, is a sign of deep concern.

The Theory

It will be difficult to find a teenage girl who knows in detail the process of her monthly periods. And expecting her to know the entire female anatomy and its relation to reproduction would be like expecting a century from a debut match. But the fun part is, in spite of having chapters in science textbooks in the eighth standard explaining all these concepts for three decades, we still cannot claim to be aware enough. Most of the times, these chapters are just read amidst nervous smiles from the girls or mischievous giggles from the boys. Young students today want to know everything about ‘sex’ and expect the chapters on the reproductive system to be eye-openers about the same. The moment they finish their lessons, they lose interest. Of course, there is a small percentage of parents who talk to their kids and explain the facts without embarrassment. But the overall picture is extremely depressing.

The Taboo

Even today, educated mature women feel embarrassed to explain their reasons for not going to the temple or any other religious function when menstruating. We have developed smart alibis like ‘chaar din, kauva kata, chalta nahi, mausi aayi hai‘ etc to explain the occurrence. Apparently, even mistakenly touching anything remotely related to religion during this period will transport a woman directly to hell. Look at the shocked expressions of women when they realise they have accidentaly touched a woman on her menses, and one can understand the depth of the taboo we are dealing with. And why just mortals, we even have certain temples which are closed for a period when the goddess is supposed to be menstruating. An individual like Trupti Desai can take out a morcha to prove a point, but in reality, it will take ages to destroy the shame and guilt so easily and strongly embedded in the collective psyche of women.

The Kamakhya temple in Guwahati has an annual fertility festival called Ambuwasi Puja in which the goddess is said to be going through her yearly menstrual cycle.

The Argument

The liberals and the orthodox are always debating about the ‘right’ thing to do during menstruation. And yet there seems to have been no agreement on the matter. Regardless of whether some rituals were started for the ‘good’ of women and were based on certain scientific reasons, the fact is, today they are nothing more than a justification for the forced seclusion of many women. With pads and cups and better medications for keeping cramps under control available today, in some households, menstrual ‘hygiene’ has simply become an excuse to restrict women and make them feel guilty and ashamed of themselves. It is ironic that the beginning of womanhood is celebrated with songs and sweets and music whereas the subsequent periods are spent in hiding and isolating the woman.

The Future

Dealing with menstrual hygiene and awareness is the need of the hour. The death of an 18-year-old Assamese girl due to menstrual infection should be a huge eye-opener for India. A country which prides itself on worshiping the feminine in all its forms – Sita, Durga, Kali, Saraswati – needs drastic measures to save its women from the evils of social taboos which exacerbate their physical troubles. This cannot be achieved through textbook lessons and YouTube videos alone but will require a strong will from across our myriad cultures. Here are some things we can do at the level of our homes:

  • Start discussing the menstrual cycle with boys and girls alike.
  • Stop feeling ashamed about this completely natural and important phenomenon.
  • Try and educate as many underprivileged girls as possible. Start with those close to you.
  • Please stop wrapping the sanitary pads in newspapers. What’s there to be ashamed of?
  • God has not told women to stay away from Him while menstruating. It’s one’s personal belief.
  • If that nosy aunty taunts you for coming to the puja during your period, tell her to mind her own business. If that’s being rude, so be it!
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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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