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She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named: India’s Period Shaming Problem Still Persists

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After a year-long opposition and multiple campaigns held by activists to protest the matter, the GST council recently declared that sanitary napkins would be exempt from the GST. This means that sanitary pads, which were earlier taxed at 12% due to being classified as ‘luxury goods’ – something I still have difficulty wrapping my head around – have now been completely exempt of the tax levied on them.

But the fight is far from over, as there’s much more that needs to be done. In the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) conducted during 2015-16 by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, it was discovered that only 57.6% of women in India within the 15-24 year age bracket used hygienic methods of protection during their menstrual period (‘hygienic methods’ translate to locally prepared napkins, sanitary napkins and tampons). Apologies for being a glass-half-empty kind of person, but this means that there are 42.2% of women out there who still use old fabrics, rags, dried leaves, sand, wood shavings and even ash during their period.

Using unhygienic methods for the absorption of period blood not only leads to menstruation-related problems like yeast infections but also restricts adolescent girls and women from performing basic daily tasks, such as going to school or helping their families in household work. In India, about 23% of adolescent girls drop out of school every year, not only because of lack of access to proper methods for period-management (Sanitary pad dispensers? What are those?), but also because of the absence of functional toilets in schools.

What’s even more alarming is the persistent shame and taboo which is associated with the word ‘period’. Even my modern, urban class mother refuses to say the word out loud, or says it in a hushed tone, reminding me of how almost no one was willing to say the name ‘Voldemort’ in the “Harry Potter” series. My mom also insists that shopkeepers wrap her sanitary pads in a newspaper and turns as red as a tomato when a Whisper or Stayfree add comes up on TV. But her behaviour doesn’t surprise me anymore, as during my research I found that 70% of mothers consider menstruation ‘dirty’, perpetuating a culture of silence around the completely normal biological process. So, if my mother finds the word ‘periods’ embarrassing, it’s only because she was raised in a time when society taught her that menstruation is something that is not to be talked about.

And while some may argue otherwise, not much has changed when it comes to conversations about menstruation in our urban neighbourhoods. We still talk about it in hushed tones. We still hide our pads/tampons when we walk to the washroom at work. We still separate girls and boys in schools to educate girls about their periods and then tell them not to tell the boys. We can’t even watch period-centric films like “Padman” and “Phullu” with the male members of our family.

The situation in rural areas isn’t any better either. The same study which said that 57.6% women use hygienic methods of menstrual protection also states that out of that 57.6 %, 48.2% belong to rural households, which means more than half of the 166,064 rural women aged 15-24 years don’t use proper methods of period blood absorption.

Besides not having access to sanitary napkins (reasons vary from unaffordability to the fear of public embarrassment), women in rural areas also have to deal with ridiculous myths regarding the subject. Whether it’s not touching pickles or not entering temples/kitchens, they’ve seen it all. However, the most astonishing discovery I made during my research was when I came across the concept of a ‘gaokor’ in Maharashtra, prevalent amongst Gond and Madiya ethnic groups. What is a gaokor, you ask? It is a hut located outside the village, where menstruating girls are banished for five days during their periods. In an article by The Guardian on goakors, the conditions of the huts were described as follows:

“Since the huts are considered public property, no one takes responsibility for their upkeep. Gaokors lack a kitchen as women who are menstruating are not allowed to cook; those staying inside rely on family to bring them food and other items. Women usually sleep on the floor with just a thick sheet for a mattress, which is folded and used as a cushion during the day.”

Isn’t is bad enough that women have to deal with blood coming out of their vagina for five days, menstrual cramps and absurd myths and taboos that they’re also being banished to tiny huts in the middle of nowhere?

The good news is that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has instructed the Maharashtra state government to take steps to eradicate the practice of gaokors, which it described as a “serious violation of the human rights of women”. The bad news is that this was three years ago, and there have been no updates on the matter since then.

There are no clear-cut solutions to the problems we’re facing today. There are many areas which need improvement. The tax exemption on sanitary pads was just a small (but commendable) step towards the right direction.

Providing access to sanitary pads or other affordable alternatives to women all over the country needs to be a priority for the authorities. I’d say tampons and menstrual cups too, but inserting anything into a vagina before marriage is another taboo that needs to be addressed, so let’s just leave it at that for the time being.

Both adolescent girls and mothers need to be educated on the fact that menstruation is a normal biological process, and not something to be ashamed of. I specifically say, mothers, because more often than not, mothers are the main source of information when it comes to a girl’s period. Schools need to create a safe and comfortable environment for girls to talk about their period related queries if they can’t talk about it at home.

But, more importantly, we need to educate young boys and men about periods too, so that we can raise more men to be like Arunachalam Muruganantham, who take the mantle into their own hands and help women overcome the stigma surrounding their periods. Or we could just educate them enough so that they turn out like my boyfriend, who’s bought pads for me on multiple occasions without complaining about it, and has taken care of me when I’ve been bed-ridden by my painful menstrual cramps.

Like many issues, the period taboo needs to go too. A woman’s period is not something she needs to be ashamed of, nor is it a valid excuse for society to impose unnecessary restrictions on her. There’s still a long way to go for us, with so many hurdles to overcome. But the least we can do is stop treating it like a sin, or as something that shouldn’t be mentioned in our day-to-day conversations.

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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

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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