What I Learnt Through My Journey As A Menstrual Health Facilitator In Delhi

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.

Though India may enjoy its status as a fast developing nation at a global stage, even today most of us feel instant pangs of ‘awkwardness’ when sanitary napkins or condoms are advertised while we are watching television with our family members. While we still prefer to either not talk about sex at all or at the most speak about it in ‘hushed’ voices; the levels of awareness related to issues like sexual health and hygiene could be easily guessed. The importance of sexual health as integral to a person’s resilience to enjoy a happy and satisfied life is highly underestimated. Most of the people are unaware about the basics to maintain their sexual hygiene.

Even today a lot of myths regarding sexuality, menstruation, masturbation, and pregnancy are prevalent and widely believed in our culture. Nobody bothers to question these myths and practices because over the centuries they have been deeply embedded in our cultural psyche. Any attempt to rationalize is considered as a major ‘violation of sentiments’. However, the need to talk about sexual health issues. This becomes even more pressing when we must confront the consequences of not talking. These include the increasing rates of teen pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, abrupt and unsafe sexual behaviours, or relying on mediums like pornography for sexual knowledge.

As they say, half-knowledge is worse than ignorance. It is high time that ‘sexual health’ is freed from the veil of taboo and brought up into open fora for dialogue and discussions. With these thoughts in mind, I decided to begin my journey of being a sexual health and hygiene facilitator two years ago. The opportunity to view other women and my own self in a fresh and non-judgmental perspective was enthralling. Through this journey I initiated the first few steps on the road to discovery and understanding of my own womanhood.

During the summer of 2016, my PhD Supervisor Dr. Preeti Kapur gave me an opportunity to work with her in an NGO, where we took up several short projects pertaining to sexual health, teachers’ training, counseling and inclusive classrooms (which happens to be my PhD interest area). It involved conducting interactive workshops with female students, teachers as well as community workers of one of the remedial schools being run by that NGO. All of this helped me to evolve both as a woman and as an educator

Breaking The Mental Barrier

To my mind, menstrual health and hygiene was still a taboo topic in our society and while we spent our initial days in creating age- and gender-specific workshop modules, the challenge of emerging from my comfort zone somehow concerned me. I remember an instance from our first session with community workers where my role was more of an observer. Since I was a novice, Dr. Kapur conducted most parts of the session. She was seamless in her efforts and didn’t shy a bit to vocalize her thoughts in their local vernacular. Being an observer of her vigour and a witness of the immense energy and enthusiasm displayed by the women participants during that session, I experienced a paradigm shift in my thought process.

I realized that our efforts can be immensely impactful by adding  power and value in the lives of the women. Eventually, it became much more than a mere project for me as I found myself being extremely associated and committed to the cause.

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Workshop conducted in Kalkaji, March 2018. Image courtesy of the author.

As I started taking individual sessions with young girls from Class VI onwards, I recognized that most of them did not even know about menstruation. Many were hesitant to even ask questions that they have repressed in their minds for years, fearing shame and humiliation. With young girls, the earliest challenge was to make them feel positive about their bodies, and the processes related with it. I attempted to disassociate the notion of embarrassment and humiliation with menstruation.

Amidst the sessions with young girls, I often wondered why their teachers didn’t enable them with appropriate knowledge pertaining to all the physical and emotional changes related to puberty and menstruation. To my disbelief, when we conducted sessions with the female teachers, I realized that many of them lacked knowledge relating to even the basic anatomy of the female reproductive system. Most of them, with half-baked knowledge, believed in myths that were being perpetuated from generation to generation. Approximately half of them were still using old cloth or cotton during their menstruation.

Soon we realized that the challenge was not to design and impart ‘world class’ modules but to make simple and comprehensible modules that offered practical and cost effective solutions to everyday problems. Spending days with them, we became familiar with their socio-economic constraints; hence we focused more on contextualizing their issues rather than building a content domain, which was jargon-loaded and costly. The nature of the workshops was interactive to accommodate the experiences as well as the surplus of queries that the participants came up with. For the participants who wished anonymity, queries could be written on chits  and discussed during the Q&A part of the session. Anonymity was more of a concern for the younger participants as they were still struggling to overcome years of socialisation into shame and embarrassment associated with their bodies. They were encouraged to challenge the prolonging myths and adopt healthy menstrual practices, which are backed by scientific evidence.

With an objective of breaking barriers, Dr. Kapur conducted sessions with male teachers pertaining to their sexual health and hygiene. We noticed that men folk were not comfortable sharing their experiences, nor did they appear for the follow up sessions. However, female teachers and community workers regularly followed up and showed earnest willingness to be a part of more such knowledge- and activity-based programs. We provided continuous encouragement to the male teachers, and at the same time respected their choice of not continuing with the follow up sessions. I sincerely hope that one day, we are able to break this barrier.

Since then, the most recent workshop I have conducted was in March 2018, with the women of Sudhar Camp, Kalkaji. It was an initiative by the Outreach Program Committee of Ramanujan College, University of Delhi, where I work as an Assistant Professor in Dept of Applied Psychology.

An Unbreakable Bond With Fellow Women  

Somewhere between facilitating my participants, we developed an everlasting bond. Crossing the barriers of socio-economic status, educational backgrounds, residential setting, and even age, we all grew really fond of each other. Every woman treated me like her sister. They were so filled with love that not even a single day passed when they let us go back home without eating lunch from the school’s common kitchen. I remember one of the community workers who also worked as the kitchen staff, Georgina didi, coming with a glass of chilled water every half an hour. If I didn’t want water, she used to say “bahut garmi hai, pani peene se acha rahega (It’s very hot, drinking water is good)”, keeping the glass on the table.

I was personally so humbled and till date, I consider it to be the most providential experiences of my life. Apart from that, I made some unforgettable memories and gained some valuable lessons.

As time went on, I felt more responsible for the people with whom I was working. To give my best, I was relentlessly dedicated to improve myself with each passing day. I was engrossed with improving the content, resources, material, as well as my personal style of conduction, vernacular, and body language. What seemed as a challenge to me on Day 1, adopting the colloquial style of vernacular, was soon effortlessly integrated in my workshops. Within a few days, I was well aware of all the appropriate Hindi words to use. This helped me a lot in all the later workshops that I conducted with different organisations.

Practice What You Preach  

During my journey of being a facilitator of sexual health and hygiene, one of the main rewards was to accenpt that no matter how well read we consider ourselves to be, we are still prone to commit basic and common hygiene mistakes. Right from washing myself the correct way, to abstaining from using all the chemical products being sold with a promise to maintain a healthy pH balance of vagina, I tried to incorporate everything that I was teaching into my own life. I also downloaded an app in my phone to track my menstrual cycles and all the information related to it like length of my cycle, intensity of menstrual cramps, and moods. For the participants, they were encouraged to use old calendars to calculate the length of their menstrual cycles and keep a record. Those who had access to mobile phones were taught to use the mobile apps to maintain their menstrual records.

One of the most significant changes in my menstrual health regime was to switch to a menstrual cup instead of sanitary pads. Admittedly, I was quite reluctant in the beginning but considering its nature of being environment-friendly, hassle-free and cost-effective; I decided to take the plunge. Once I was satisfied with the menstrual cup and I was sure that its pros outweighed the cons, I started encouraging the idea of using a menstrual cup among the participants. Initially, most of them are reluctant, but once we explain the benefits of using a cup they are willing to give it a try. Not only this, I believe that each one of us who has benefited from a menstrual cup should encourage at least our domestic helpers (who we interact with everyday) to start using a cup instead of old cloth or cotton, which cannot be cleaned and dried properly and do more harm than good.

Some Quick Tips For Readers Of All Genders 

Sexual and menstrual health is not ‘gender specific’. Conversations regarding menstrual health should include men and be discussed without any feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment.

Though menstrual hygiene should be commonly talked about, there is absolutely no way that the significance of a gynaecologist should be underrated. There are several reasons every menstruating person must consider seeing their gynaecologist. Non-menstruating readers are requested to make sure people around them are also aware about these points.

A visit to your gynaecologist in every six months should be a part of your sexual health routine.

A menstrual cycle that is lesser or beyond the average 21 to 35 days must be discussed with the doctor.

Too much cramping before or during your menstrual health, which is not being reduced by pain relieving techniques like hot water bottle, consuming hot liquids, some yoga postures, and even medication, should be treated by your doctor. And remember, don’t self-prescribe!

A woman usually bleeds anywhere between 2 to 7 days, anything lesser or more should be discussed with the gynaecologist. So must immense blood flow, which requires using one sanitary pad every one or two hours.

White discharge is a common phenomenon; in fact, it is an indicator of the menstrual health. However, there are four symptoms that require medical attention. First, if the quantity of the discharge is enough to soak a panty-liner or sanitary pad. Second, a foul smell emanating from the discharge. Third, the colour. Usually, it will be off white, milky white, or pale yellow. If it is bluish, greenish, greyish or pinkish, it may indicate a vaginal infection that needs medical attention. And fourth, the texture. Usually it is smooth, slippery or sticky, but look out for texture is graded or rough.

 Be The Change Makers

We all are capable of bringing positive changes in others’ lives. By conducting various workshops for young girls and women, I believe in empowering them to make informed choices and to become peer educators at home, college, or other networks.

Acknowledging that awareness is not a landmark but a long journey, let’s take a first step by psycho-educating ourselves, our girl,s and other women in our network, about issues pertaining to their own sexuality, and maintaining their sexual health and hygiene. Promoting a dialogue and maintaining a nonjudgmental stance about sexual health and hygiene can be a milestone in creating a supportive environment.

This story was originally published on the author’s blog.

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 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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