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Silence Be Damned, Let’s Talk Red

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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.

Imagine you’re a 12-year-old girl. Or 11, or 10, or even nine. Let’s not be very fussy and specific about the age. You’re a young girl who may or may not have heard the word ‘prepubescent’. If you have, you probably do not know what it means, but you have a vague idea that it has to do with ‘growing up’. You go to school, play with your friends, try to sit with the elder girls during their conversations because they seem so cool, but they shoo you away sometimes. They tell you that they are talking about ‘grown up stuff’ which you won’t understand. Then one fine day, you find bloodstains on your underwear and don’t know how to react, or what to expect. Suddenly, you have grown up.

This is the story of most girls in our country. In fact, we have manufactured and perfected a culture of silence on taboo subjects like menstruation and sex to such an extent, that until a young girl has her first period she has no idea about the changes her body is about to undergo. Why are we so ashamed of talking about it? Why is it that the neighbourhood chemist, from whom your father buys sanitary napkins and not you (the scandal!), wraps it in newspaper and then puts a black polyethene on it before handing it over? Is it radioactive? Does the sight of it drive people to violence or madness? Will it sprout tiny legs and run away if not imprisoned in such a manner?

For me, the moment of truth – the moment when the hilarity of the situation became so obvious that it overpowered everything else – came while reading a flyer from the residents association of the building I was living in, in Bengaluru. The flyer was about compulsory segregation of garbage by residents prior to collection. Alongside gems like “empty packets of milk must be washed, dried and then only put in the appropriate bin”, it had instructions on how to wrap a used sanitary napkin. All pads had to be neatly folded in newspaper, and marked with a large X in red colour. Drawn for your viewing pleasure, so you know what lies hidden inside.

I had a fleeting vision, I saw myself turning into an entrepreneur, starting a cottage industry which made packets out of recycled newspaper and drew large crosses in red on all sides, saving the environment, providing employment, and becoming famous – all in service of the culture of silence. Then laughter drowned it all out.

In an urban set-up, the culture of silence may appear to be harmless. After all, whether marked with red crosses or not, sanitary napkins are available in abundance and disposing them isn’t much trouble. We may snigger at the idea of giving working women two extra days of leave per month and complain about it the way we have been complaining about maternity leaves and its detrimental effect on an organization’s performance. We may also attribute the bad temper of a woman to the universal excuse ‘it’s that time of the month’. We may be more concerned about having free Wi-Fi in our railway stations and bus stands than clean, functioning toilets. Trivializing gender issues has been our tried and tested response for a long time and it seems to work rather well.

In rural areas, the culture of silence is grim, stark and without a shred of benevolence. Menstruating women are forced to live in segregation. They are not allowed to touch the common sources of food and water. They are not allowed to enter places of worship, and sometimes, even schools and other public places. All this builds up and contributes to the perpetuation of a belief that menstruation is ashuddhaunclean, something to be ashamed of.

It is evident to any observer that hardly any thought has gone into tackling these superstitions, or into providing facilities that would enable improvement. Civic amenities are practically non-existent. Women and men are forced to bathe and defecate in the open. It is estimated that nearly 70% of households in India do not have access to toilets, and almost 60% of the population defecates in the open. What are the consequences? More often than not, the community pond water is used for bathing, drinking, cooking and other household chores. In the bottom of the same pond, you might find a congregation of used sanitary pads. Needless to say, quality of water is abysmal.

Availability of clean water is going down every year. Outside municipality limits, systems of garbage disposal are simply non-existent. In addition, waste from the urban areas is dumped into nearby rural areas. Swacchta (cleanliness) is not just a matter of dusting clean the public areas. Sanitation is a much larger idea which requires access to clean water. Building toilets and bathrooms will have very little impact unless there are proper water supply and drainage systems in place. Providing sanitary napkins at a subsidised cost for schoolgirls will not help unless there is a system in place for proper disposal.

Cloth pads have continued to be in use in rural areas because they are recyclable. This, at once, solves the problem of cost and disposal. A great deal of work is being done in this area. However, the culture of silence does not disappear by use of better or cheaper or more eco-friendly pads. The bigger issue at hand is that of gender equality. And this is where it gets really tricky. We live in a society where rape is dismissed as the ‘natural urge’ of boys and men, but natural biological processes like menstruation and pregnancy get inextricably linked to notions of honour and decency. Not the woman’s, mind you. Honour of the family. Honour of the men of the family.

What we need is a move towards understanding and openness. Agencies that provide nail polish to school going girls for free but charge for sanitary napkins should reconsider what is really important and what isn’t. Instead of levying tax on sanitary napkins, perhaps it’s time we learnt that it is not a luxury and but a basic requirement.

This is not just a question of law, subsidies, taxes, and government action or lack thereof. We have to imbibe and impart knowledge about what menstruation actually is. We have to stop whispering about it. We have to work together towards improving sanitation for both men and women in urban and rural areas. Above all, individually and collectively, we have to foster and nurture an atmosphere where a little girl does not have to be shocked and frightened of bloodstains, where a young woman can walk into a chemist shop and ask for sanitary pads without being sniggered at, and where women are not made to feel ashamed of being women.

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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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