This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Sumati Joshi. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

Of Menstruation And Choice: Your Convenience Is Someone Else’s Impractical Reality

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.

In the spring of 2015, when I was preparing for a social venture challenge and looking for an area which needed a change in my community, taboos against menstruation came naturally to me. Let me clarify: I have received private education and come from a loving family who didn’t care if I visited our mandir at ‘that time of the month’. I wasn’t forced to miss school because of lack of access to products or ousted and secluded from the normality of life. This piece chronicles the start of a seemingly naïve project to my current journey to which I am deeply committed.

First, let’s face it- before the TED talk or mainstream Bollywood exposure, periods had never been a drawing room subject. We’ve whispered about our Whisper pack to chemists and stayed bound with black polythene bags while picking up Stayfree. None of the schools had a sanitary pad vending machine, only few had an infirmary where you could request for a pad (in case of an emergency). My mother, a high school teacher, has carried a full packet in her purse through her career because young girls have perpetual emergencies (read: we are forgetful). Even when I moved on to working in a corporate office, women were sheepishly pinging colleagues on Lync to check if anyone had an extra pad. This has always made me wonder that if toilet paper is a freely provided necessity in washrooms then why aren’t menstrual products? (Hint: Menstruating is as natural as taking a dump, if not more. The only difference is that it doesn’t directly affect men. Do we sense a theme here?)

In middle school, it was easy to become popular and best friends with boys, if you let them in and shared the mystery of periods. It was hush-hush. And then there was the shame. One incident of staining your white PT uniform or leaving a mark on the light coloured bench right before school got over led to the frenzy of forcing your parents to drive you early the next day, so you could clean up before anybody saw it. Hating them, because some kid already got there before you and now the whole batch would discuss this strange red-brown stain on your seat, despite your best attempts at convincing your mates that it’s tomato ketchup that leaked from your tiffin. We’ve all had accidents. We deserved more empathy.

Many of us planned a Goa trip and had the nightmarish realization of ‘Aunt Flo’ graciously accompanying us, which was then followed by a frantic Google search on tampons. Some of us bought them and read the instructions on the back while praying it goes inside the right way. Biology textbooks had an interesting chapter on reproductive health which was more often than not skipped in classrooms or rushed through. We’ve learned what we’ve learned at girl sleepovers or, in cryptic terms, from our mothers who tried to help us the best they could, with what they know.

Fast forward to April 2018 when I collaborated with an incredible NGO working out of the slums of Govandi at their Sponsor A Girl Program. In a room full of young girls accompanied by their mothers, aunts and older sisters I asked – Why do we get our period? The question was followed by silence. Static silence. Watch here.

At first, we thought it’s the shame, so we encouraged them in every way possible to speak up. We soon realized most didn’t know. In a society where reproductive health-related information is often provided by an older female figure, it is scary to think how these generations have grown up without adequate knowledge. “It just happens every month. God ensures it comes,” said the only person who decided to speak on the topic in that room. The stigma associated with periods forces women to hide every aspect of it. Used pads are hidden under the bed, thrown out of windows or flushed down the toilet. Women refuse to wrap it in a newspaper before disposing it off because the sound of tearing would be heard outside. Surveys have revealed that most females in slum areas don’t wear underwear unless they are on their period which exposes them to an array of infections. Access to gynaecologists, awareness about best hygiene practices and nutrition is still poor in most regions.

A lot of great work is being done by several organizations in this space, but my take away from this experience is on a slightly different tangent. It has taught me to check my privilege. When I started working on the project, several NGOs were working on WASH programs and I wanted to bring in a radical change – so what does one do? Why not just talk about other products – sustainable menstruation is the new fad!

Ground realities are starkly different and social impact projects need to be in touch with them. “Yahan peene ko paani nahi hai, dhone ko kahan se layein? (We don’t have access to drinking water, where would we get clean water to wash these products?)” Sustainable menstruation products such as cups need to be rinsed with clean water and soap. Cloth cotton pads need to be washed in cold water and then exposed to direct sunlight so it can be disinfected. Biodegradable pads should be buried under a pre-required depth and need to be compatible with the pH of the soil. Come monsoons in Mumbai and if not disposed of correctly, they will absorb water and rise to the top, floating across burial sites. These are not luxuries the urban poor can afford. I am an advocate for sustainable products, as long as their usage is feasible. They are eco-friendly, cost-effective, meant for long-term use and can be a great option for a lot of us. However, this perception is highly subjective. What is a convenience to you, maybe an impractical reality for someone else.

If there is one message I could share this Menstrual Hygiene Day, it would be the right to informed product choice. Encourage people to talk, hear their stories with empathy, understand their challenges and then educate them about their options. There’s a sudden social (media?) pressure to jump on the sustainable green-bleeders bandwagon. It’s all over the internet. Do not take this as discouragement or complacency. Our uteruses aren’t always our kindest friends and each woman’s period is different. I implore you to take your time to talk openly and figure what works best for you – a biodegradable napkin that you’re convinced you can properly dispose of, a cloth pad, a cup if you’re willing to know your body more intimately or whatever permutation, combination works! Your choices, comfort, and contribution with respect to menstruation – it all matters.

Breathe. You’ve figured out so much, you’ll get through the rest of it too. No pressure.

Let's ensure that no girl is limited by something as natural and normal as her period by making menstrual hygiene education compulsory in schools.

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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