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‘Matas’ of ‘Bharat’ Bleed Monthly, You Can’t Celebrate Them Until You Accept Them

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The human race, as we know it, aspires to achieve limitless success, and with pride and respect. Then, suddenly, a question pops in my mind. Is it being done without hurting someone’s dignity? The answer is no. And here’s why.

While reasons are numerous, I feel like we need to raise a basic but necessary concern. Our society has been constantly endorsing gender-based violence, in the form of partial treatment, and discrimination, on a large scale, under the respectable banner of ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’. All my life, growing up in India, I have seen and heard about rigid and brutal stands on menstruation. As a human being and as a biologist it’s shameful to acknowledge such a natural phenomenon being labelled as a taboo, without any scientific backing. It openly excludes women from many aspects of socio-cultural life.

This has its impact on the psychological state of young girls and women. Some of the cultural connotations related to menstruation are avoiding certain food items, sitting in a separate place, not being allowed into the kitchen, prohibiting their entry to any religious place, restriction on domestic duties, among others. In India, according to an article published in the Hindu 23% “girls drop out of school when they reach puberty; this is in part because schools lack gender-segregated toilets. Women frequently miss work because they have no place to change the cloths or napkins they use. In Bangladesh, most employed women miss about six days of work each month, stifling productivity and advancement.” And, half of the girls aged 14 to 17, in Karachi, Pakistan, “knew nothing about menstruation and were scared of their periods, believing they were ill or dying.” In Nepal, because of a particular Hindu tradition, women have to live separately in places like a cow shed, or a hut.

Menstrual blood is a biochemical fluid and not a sinful result of an individual’s deeds, as is believed by many. Science stands by it, meanwhile, there is no logic backing the claims that menstruation can have harmful reactions on women and those around them.

It makes no sense for a society to pose it as a nightmare and make it a legitimate tool for hate and discrimination. Even the ruling political classes’ approach towards this stigma is no good. Recently, the Finance Ministry taxed sanitary napkins 12% under the Goods and Service Tax (GST). Is this an acceptable decision? Ritualistic accessories like pooja items, sindoor (vermilion), and bangles are exempted from tax but a necessity like sanitary pads are chargeable. Waah!  This shows the hollow, ignorant attitude of the Government of India for whom everything is important, except women’s health. In a country where 70% of the female population cannot afford sanitary napkins, the ruling government continues to enrich its anti-women stand.

The slogan of ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ insists that this nation-state is a woman. At one side electorally powerful sycophants recite this everywhere and force others to follow the suit and on the other hand, their they are clueless when it comes to understanding the needs of women and designing their policies around them. So this sloganeering makes little sense to me, as it fails women on all counts—social acceptance, moral upliftment and inclusive social growth. Why should I not question the credibility of the so-called society and government which proudly boasts about ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas’ (inclusive growth)?

How Can We Do Away With Menstrual Taboos?

It is a conquerable task. The first and foremost thing we can do is raise awareness among adolescent girls on subjects of menstrual health and hygiene. As this Akvopedia article titled Menstrual Hygiene Toolkit states, “Young girls often grow up with limited knowledge of menstruation because their mothers and other women shy away from discussing the issues with them. Adult women may themselves not be aware of the biological facts or hygienic practices, so instead, they pass on cultural taboos and restrictions to be observed. Men typically know even less, but it is important for them to understand menstruation so they can support their wives, daughters, mothers, students, employees, and peers”. There is also a need to spread awareness among the school teachers regarding menstruation.

Awareness, Education, Empowerment

To overcome this moral crisis we need to follow this chronology.  Social education on menstruation coupled with awareness programmes can definitely empower women. An educational institution can make a difference in perceptions, across gender. A special interactive session on menstruation between students and medical experts can help change the mindset of people.  In this aspect, Kerala’s Left Front government made great progress by installing Sanitary Napkin Vending Machine in every school. It is a revolutionary step which openly accepts a biological process with a broad mind and vision and stands by the dignity of girls.  It deserves emphasis and replication by all elected governments.

It is high time we grew unconditional empathy and compassion for women and began understanding their plight. It is necessary for the growth of any society. Which is why I would like to end with an optimistic quote by Dr B.R. Ambedkar which says, “I measure the progress of the society by the degree of progress which women have achieved.”

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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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