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In My Urban, Middle-Class Home, We Had To Ration Sanitary Pads As We Couldn’t Afford Them

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This post is a part of Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management in India. Click here to find out more.

The day a girl gets her first period is one she seldom forgets. It is laden with emotions of panic, confusion, and oftentimes, shame. Many private schools today organize dedicated sessions for girls on period awareness – something I, and most girls during my times did not have access to growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. Menstruation, being the taboo subject that it unfortunately continues to be to this day, was never discussed at home. The only thing that was subtly conveyed was that menstruation made women impure, compelling them to isolate themselves from key household chores and forbidding them from entering the kitchen, prayer room, and even the living room during their periods. Yet, restricted access to certain areas of the household was only part of the problem. The bigger challenge was the lack of awareness and access to sanitary napkins.

My family did not speak to me about menstruation, menstrual hygiene and how I should prepare myself for it. The day I got my first period is etched in my memory. I was afraid at the sight of blood, and everything else that followed. I had to use a piece of cloth every time I got my period, since sanitary napkins were still uncommon. This practice got with it, every month, the stress of having to wash, dry and then reuse the cloth, which would then need to be hidden away lest the men in the family saw these impure and repulsive pieces of cloth. Menstruation was being perceived not just as an aberration, but as something unclean; while what was, in fact unclean and grossly unfair was the way in which I had to deal with my periods while growing up.

It was not long before I discovered the existence of sanitary napkins. I was introduced to the comfort and disposability of the pads, which was nothing short of revolutionary for me. Alas, this enthusiasm was not destined to last. I soon realized that they were so expensive for girls like me who belonged to the middle class, that I had to ration them. This meant that I could only use sanitary napkins when I went out, and had to continue using cloths when I stayed home. This was the scenario in an urban, middle class home. Needless to say, the situation in the poorer, vulnerable sections of our society is far more disturbing. The lack of affordability, in addition to the severe paucity of both the awareness about hygienic practices and access to sanitary napkins, have perpetuated the deplorable conditions of girls in rural and marginalized parts of the country.

The use of cloths during period, apart from being extremely uncomfortable, also enhances chances of infections and diseases. With no better and more affordable options available, women across sections continue to use pieces of cloth rags! These highly unsanitary practices are an indictment of the system that has failed to address the issue. In many rural pockets, even today, young girls either drop out of school when they attain puberty, or are forced to skip classes during their periods as they are unaware of, and unable to access or afford sanitary napkins. Ensuring access and affordability is therefore critical in the implementation of basic hygienic and sanitary practices.

Central to this goal is first changing the perception of menstruation as a taboo subject. A lot can be achieved by encouraging dialogue and allowing the space for women and young girls to discuss the subject without inhibitions. Next is the need to accept menstruation as a biological process that every woman goes through for most part of her life. It would be an enormous fallacy to treat it as anything but a health, hygiene and sanitation issue. By imposing taxes on sanitary napkins, these basic essential goods are being treated as luxury products. Menstruation is not a luxury, and should not be perceived as such.

In a country where women’s health issues are already on the rise, it is important to implement measures that will prevent further diseases and infections from affecting women’s lives. Reports suggest that only 42% of the 355 million menstruating women in India don’t have access to hygienic sanitary products. To address this, the high tax on them needs to be removed, making them more affordable, and available close to every woman in the remotest parts of the country. The government also needs to ramp up measures to ensure the reach of sanitary napkins to young girls across the country, by tying up with schools – especially public schools – and distributing pads to girls. This will help prevent young girls from dropping out of school on attaining puberty. The installation of sanitary napkin vending machines in public toilets is also something that the government can implement for ease of access. Bringing about these changes, both in policy and in the mindset of the society, is an impending need of the hour, to make sure no woman is deprived of the basic necessities to deal with menstruation – a natural process which is by no means a luxury – with dignity.

The author is a public health advocacy and communications consultant and runs Footprint Global Communications www.footprintglobal.com

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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.

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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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