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How My Periods Made Me More Aware Of Patriarchy In The North East

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I was born to a Kshatriya family in a small town of Gangtok, Sikkim. My town has a dazzling patriarchal and rigid system of customs; sacrosanct in the name of traditions, which nobody professes to question. Menstruation is not just a biological process but one of the many taboos which women and girls in my town have to deal with. That, along with the insane rituals that have no rationale behind them surrounding the process.

On my 10th birthday, when guests filled my house to celebrate my ‘gunew cholo’, creamy layers of happiness muddled in cake, gifts wrapped in hefty bags, and shiny smiles had dazed my day. ‘Gunew cholo’ is a ‘kanyadan‘ like ceremony in Nepali households. On this occasion, the father gifts a traditional sari to his daughter – prior to them getting their first period to render her a status of being ‘pure’.

Patriarchy in the North-East sustains in subtle ways and reviving patriarchal notions are often branded in love. They claim of raising girls in an environment invested with love, but notoriously chaining them in patriarchal ways. The ceremony didn’t entice me with curiosity because patriarchy had gifted me luxuries to suffice my day with. In retrospect though, when I questioned the significance of the ceremony, my mother asked me to refer to the Shastras – an answer which celebrates her bliss of ignorance, at the same time framing an irrational hierarchy of learning for me.

A year later when I first menstruated at the age of 11, my mother was away from home, and hence I stacked three pads – one on top of another – and wore them feeling uncomfortable. I was deeply apprehensive that my stains would be visible, and my friends at school wouldn’t approve of that situation. My fears were legitimate, for I had occasionally spotted boys amuse their crowd if they saw StayFree packets anywhere near, and I had never heard people at school openly talk about periods.

In addition to all of this at school, I wasn’t allowed to be home during my periods. I was taken to my aunt’s place on my first day and had to stay there for the entire month of my first period – a custom which is religiously followed by all Brahmin and Kshatriya families in my town. This was because, according to our morbid Nepali ‘customs’, period days are rendered as ‘impure’; and hence women are kept away from the sight of their fathers and brothers or any other men in the family.

During those days, I missed my brother and father terribly. But the strict rhetoric of customs and my vulnerability to facing strange consequences baffled me throughout to avert the longing of home. When I asked my aunt, as to what the consequences of me returning home would be, she said that it would deteriorate the health of the men in my family (my father, my grandfather, my brother). This was a strong enough reason to baffle an 11-year-old child. Yet, I gathered the courage to ask her about the correlation between my periods and their health, my aunt had no particular sources to cite and her answer was extremely vague and rhetorical.

During periods, when women need proper health care and diet, they are often reduced to a minuscule status against patriarchal custom standards. It’s not only discomforting for young girls to stay away from their homes – it’s also unsafe. For instance, when my friend was sent away to her aunt’s place during her first period, she was repeatedly molested by the maid of the house, and while her discomfort in the house heightened, escapism was too much to ask for and customs couldn’t be compromised.

In my second month when I returned home, similar practices were observed during the days of my period, however, in a much subtle way. Strict rules were maintained in the house – my utensils in the kitchen were separate, my clothes were separated during a wash and I was not allowed to enter the kitchen and the ‘mandir ghar‘ (place of worship within the house).

I was not allowed to serve water to the males of the house, or participate in religious proceedings; nor would my grandfather be allowed to touch my head to bless me. Additionally, I wasn’t allowed to sit on my father’s or brother’s side of the bed as doing that would inevitably invite an unhealthy scuffle from my mother.

The maid in my house was also religiously made part of the custom. If an owl sat near our house, or if crows fettered in the dark corners the members of my family would link this to be some sort of a sign that our maid was not following the rules appropriately while on her periods. The rules included – that she should not to touch the milk or pickle, avoid physical contact with my mother or father (for they were the ones involved in puja processes), and sleeping on the floor.

In the north-east, patriarchy and subsequent actions have always come fostered and branded in love. I was never aware of how to burst the taboo of menstruation until I attended an all-girls convent school. Back home, my brother still laughs at the TV advertisements of sanitary napkins; while my parents keep encouraging the customs. It took me almost my entire teenage years to groom my understanding on menstruation, and how important it is to talk about it; to challenge the rigid norms and practices, or to feel comfortable carrying sanitary napkins, and even to discuss menstrual health with my father.

It is interesting to note that I’ve grown up in an educated liberal environment; and if menstruation taboos flutter from the place where I come, I can only imagine how heightened the scenario would be in not-so-well-off households, not only in terms of access to menstrual health but also in terms of the validation they provide to these regressive customs.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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
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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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