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How A Young Manipuri Changemaker Is Smashing Menstrual Taboos In Gujarat

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WASH logoEditor’s Note: This post is a part of #NoMoreLimits, a campaign by WASH United and Youth Ki Awaaz to break the silence on menstrual hygiene. If you'd like to become a menstrual hygiene champion, share your story on any one of these 5 themes here.

“There is a deep sense of shame and oppression associated with menstruation”, rues Angel Konthoujam, an SBI Youth For India fellow from Manipur who wants women to celebrate the occurrence of menstruation as naturally as it happens. SBI Youth for India is a 13-month long programme that enables India’s brightest young minds to work on rural development projects with experienced NGOs. Supported by the State Bank of India, the fellowship offers one of the best platforms in the country to follow one’s heart and help solve rural India’s most pressing challenges.

Talking to Shweta Raj Kanwar about her journey towards making the world more acceptable to women’s needs, Angel Konthoujam opens up about her life, aspirations and how her model is effectively assisting rural women in Gujarat to open up about menstruation and tackle the taboo without any shame.

One of the four children born to her parents, Angel was born in the city of Imphal in Manipur. She completed her education from Scindia Kanya Vidyalaya, a boarding school in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh from class 8 to class 12 and graduated with a bachelor of Science Degree in Physics from St. Stephen’s College in New Delhi. Thereafter, she went on to pursue her master’s in sociology from Madras University.

Talking about what prompted her to become part of the SBI Youth for India fellowship programme, she says, “My father encouraged me to apply for the fellowship. I was interested in the fellowship as it gives valuable grassroots level exposure with partner NGOs who are seven of India’s most experienced organisations in poverty alleviation. The fellowship gives one absolute freedom to design and implement one’s own rural development project. I got to gauge the needs of the community and design my own interventions. I believe there aren’t many platforms where one can get such an opportunity.”

Menstruation is still considered a taboo topic in many households despite women’s rights being hailed time and again. And Angel took up this issue as part of her fellowship programme and decided to spearhead the stigma.

“Our society, in general, isn’t very kind to women. We live in a society where there is a culture of silence around menstruation which has been intensified by being passed down from generation to generation,” she says. Her effort is to remind society, and most importantly women themselves, be it in the rural areas or urban spaces, the importance of menstruation and how life depends on it. She also adds, “There is a need to reassess and revalue menstruation because that’s where life begins. It affects half of this country’s citizens and the stigma that surrounds this normal bodily function without which human life cannot be sustained has to end because it affects how women deal with menstruation. There is a deep sense of shame and oppression associated with menstruation. Women are made to accept the usage of old rags to manage their menstruation and told not to touch other human beings as they are ‘impure’ during menstruation. Most of us have been brought up with the concept that this is the only way we can deal with something that’s ‘filthy’ and ‘impure’. I want women to gain knowledge of the reasons why menstruation occurs, to help them open themselves to critical thinking regarding the taboo, and challenge the myths and lifestyle restrictions that have been imposed upon them. I want to equip women with a menstrual product that is relevant to their needs, to help them go through menstruation in a dignified manner”.

Recalling her experiences with the women in Gujarat, she says that in the beginning of the fellowship, she would spend hours in the project village, trying to understand their daily lives and trying to create a bond with the women. She never approached them with a dichotomous feeling that separated her from them. They knew far more than she did about their struggles and hardships and she definitely did not know more than them about their needs. Hence, Angel made it a point to always include them in the planning of the project. Their perspective adds a whole new understanding which helps in designing the solutions to the problem at hand.

One of the interventions was to facilitate educational sessions on menstruation, starting with the adolescent girls. For most of the girls, these sessions were the first opportunity they ever had to express curiosity about menstruation. Angel designed an interactive teaching aid, which allowed her to engage in a fun manner with the girls. In the first few sessions, none of them would give a response, apart from giggles. Then one session, she asked one of the students to facilitate the session in their dialect using the teaching aid. She right away took charge and with help from her friends in the audience, she managed to narrate the whole process of menstruation. This incident, Angel says, was one of the best experiences she had in the entire session, “I still have a recording of that session because it was a life-changing experience. I have never felt as much joy as I did that day in my life, ever before. I was very proud.”

When not in her ‘wonder woman’ avatar, Angel likes to travel but when she does travel, she spends ample amount of time getting to know the natives of the particular land, their rich culture and traditions. “I enjoy learning about people and their history. The fellowship has also been an extended version of my love for travelling. Dangs is a beautiful place inhabited by beautiful people,” she says, while adding, “I also like to indulge myself in poetry; I do document my time during the SBI Youth for India fellowship in the village through this medium. One of my poems on the Adivasi community will be in SBI’s coffee table book to be published regarding the fellowship.”

In the course of her time with these women, it is evident that Angel has bonded very close to them, when she says, “The women of the Kotwalia Community of Chichinagavtha are all my future aspirations. They are my sole inspiration and my motivation on rainy days. They remind me of the kind of perseverance people can possess regardless of the kind of hardships life can bring. Neglecting women as stakeholders of development is like rendering the body of development without hands. The women of my project village, given the chance, will surprise the world with their wit and confidence. This inspires me above anything else to work towards poverty eradication.”

The stigma regarding menstruation transcends caste, religion and region. “Even I did not know why I menstruate well into my twenties. I can only speak on behalf of my community in Manipur and state very honestly that conversations on menstruation rarely happen. We have lifestyle restrictions such as not being allowed in the kitchen, not being allowed to enter the religious worship areas, etc. I would love to engage with both men and women regarding menstruation back in my hometown, Imphal. I am looking to collaborate with non-profit organisations, schools, etc. in the north-east,” Angel adds with a firm determination while she works hard each day to enlighten the minds of not only women but men, into accepting nature’s ways that have so far been neglected by man-made stereotypes.

Her association with Sadhana Forest- a community consisting of individuals from all over the world – she says, has helped her amplify her current project in an effective manner. “My travels led me to Auroville and I learnt a lot about sustainable living at Sadhana. I was vegan the entire time. It was quite an experience. I also came to know about Eco Femme which works on producing re-washable cloth pads. I also worked with them regarding my fellowship project.”

After completion of the SBI Youth Fellowship Programme, Angel will be attending the University of Cambridge for an MPhil in Development Studies. She is being fully funded by the Chevening Scholarship. She plans to take her grassroots experiences and couple them with sound academic understanding to become a better Development Worker.

As a young changemaker, Angel Konthoujam believes in ample assistance from all government and non-profit organisations and the need to converge to help India eradicate poverty. As she rightly goes on to say, “I implore each and everyone to remember that change starts from within, be it regarding how we as a society treat women or how we as a society treat the underprivileged.”

The writer can be contacted at shwetarajkanwar@gmail.com or shweta@thenortheasttoday.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.

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

  • Mobilising young people between the age of 18-35 to become ‘Eco-Period Champions’ by making the switch to a sustainable menstrual alternative and becoming advocates for the project
  • All existing and upcoming public institutions (pink toilets, washrooms, schools, colleges, government offices, government buildings) across East Delhi to have affordable provisions for sustainable menstrual product options

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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