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Padman And The Silence Around Menstrual Hygiene

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Pad Man is the first feature film with Akshay Kumar, Radhika Apte and Sonam Kapoor and that talks about women’s monthly period.” With barely any knowledge of Hindi, Muruganantham managed to effectively convey his thoughts to the team. ‘It helped that director Balki and the cinematographer PC Sreeram knew Tamil,’ he says. Despite his wide network of employees and volunteers, Muguganantham personally travels with his machines to train women to make sanitary napkins in regions affected by extremism. He rolls off names of villages that many may not have heard of — Dhamtari, Lakshmipuramu, Gajroli, Tehri… Many girls in such villagers don’t attend school due to lack of awareness and access to sanitary pads. Murugnanantham is changing that. This is the best thing about his innovation—that a village girl who shut herself at home simply because she menstruated, can finally go to school. In all these years of working on menstrual hygiene, what Muruganatham finds most difficult to deal with, is the superstition surrounding it. “Women in rural India have the strangest beliefs surrounding the monthly period,” he says. He is trying to break these by educating them. In a tribal village in the Nilgiris, women believed that if they used a sanitary towel, their eyes will be taken away. Muruganantham says, “A girl used it for two months and told her friends ‘Look, my eyes are still intact’.”

– Meet Muruganantham, the real Pad Man, The Hindu, February 9, 2018.

Madhu Krishna, Country Lead – Sanitation, India Country Office, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, says:

There are 336 million women of reproductive age in India. Research tells us that 45% of them think that menstruation is not normal and 52% do not know anything about menstruation. These statistics are important because menstruation is a basic biological process and to manage it with dignity is the right of every woman. These statistics throw light on the hidden problem of awareness, which is unfortunately shrouded in social taboos and myths. This leads to lack of understanding, inadequate access to the right products or infrastructure, and an overall ecosystem wherein the problem cascades from awareness to use to access and ends at disposal.

The need of the hour is to break the silence around menstruation. We need to understand the acute disadvantage that women face while menstruating and account for it across the entire sanitation value chain.

The issue needs a holistic solution approach with a focus on all aspects—knowledge and information, ensuring access to products, adequate infrastructure and safe disposal. True success will be achieved when we establish menstruation as a normal process and get rid of all social taboos and myths which make it difficult for women to deal with such a basic, and significant portion of their life.

“Change is stressful”

I remember my very first boss saying that to me when the company we worked for was undergoing massive restructuring within the various divisions. I ran into a group of people who were involved in realigning and restructuring the business operations. It felt like the staff had been thrown into nowhere and then dumped back out.  However, where we landed was where we now worked. It was ultimately change for the better, but he was right. It was stressful. How are we supposed to respond to a world marred by taboo, disease, lack of understanding, inadequate access to the right products or infrastructure and hunger? We are supposed to be involved in security, transparency, team building and community values. And a number of NGOs are now joining together to advocate for better policies that will tackle the challenges that girls face holistically. Menstruation is one of the most crucial topics that has been discussed and advocated all over the world.

There is a strong movement of seeing it as a taboo in third world countries. This is a very important change factor which is dealt with in secrecy in many communities, cultures and peer groups. In countries like India, there are a high amount of restrictions and social stigma attached to it. In India, numerous restrictions are placed on womenfolk during menstruation, and menstruating women and girls are barred from participation in many activities. There is also a fact that adolescent girls suffer from myriad health problems associated with menstruation. There is an absence of adequate facilities and resources they require for menstrual hygiene.

Challenge In Changing Social Norms

This often poses as a challenge to adolescent girls in managing menstruation at school and home in various parts of the country. Women and girls in rural areas often resort to using unsafe and unsanitary toilets, and sometimes don’t have access to any kind of toilet. This is compounded by gender inequality, which excludes women and girls from decision-making processes and prevalence of taboos that seek to restrict women and girls from managing their menstruation safely in a supportive and healthy environment. Some of the solutions that are involved are training teachers, sensitization of parents and society through dialogue, mid-mass media communication campaigns, empower adolescents and youth, services at the workplace, challenging in changing social norms. The health of women and girls in the family is dependent foremost on proper sanitation facilities. Easy to use vending machines have been installed at various Anganwadi centres as part of the Udita Project where women and girls can easily access sanitary napkins at minimal cost.

To conclude, in India 23 million girls are forced to leave their studies due to either taboos associated with MHM or lack of facility for usage and safe disposal of sanitary napkins in their school premises. Menstruation in India has traditionally been associated with taboos and adolescent girls find it extremely difficult to even discuss the issue with their parents or elders in the family. We should talk about it explicitly. Inclusively in all the families and societies, without hiding it and without talking about it in code words.  As Savita G Arun mentions in her excellent article “They Taught Us Everything About Menstruation In School, But Not The Boys”, “Every man should know what menstruation is – beyond the vague idea that it is just a 3-day women’s thing. As a fellow human being, it is really important for a man to know about the menstrual health of women. They should know how to treat her and more importantly how she wants herself to be treated at that time.

Menstruation is not a girl/woman thing. It is meant for everyone. Menstrual education and awareness are important for everyone irrespective of their gender.

If 10 is the age for girls to start knowing about menstruation, then at the same age boys should be taught about the science of menstruation and not as something that is not relevant to them.”

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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.

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        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.

        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.

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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.”

        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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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        Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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