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Nearly 2 Mn Girls Across The Globe Are Put Through The Trauma Of This Ghastly Tradition

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PFIEditor’s Note: This post is a part of #YoungSambandh, a campaign by Population Foundation of India and Youth Ki Awaaz to find solutions to improving access and awareness of sexual and reproductive health and rights among young people. Have a story to share? Share it with your thoughts and suggestions here.

Trigger Warning: The following article contains graphic details related to female genital mutilation.

Every girl born in the Bohra community in India faces the risk of being subject to the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). The two-million-strong Shia Muslim community, worldwide, practices FGM unabashedly even today. Shorn of all its cultural and religious colour, the practice is meant to control the sexual desires of and sexual pleasure in girls. It is meant to ‘tame’ and curb girls and young women, to ensure they do not go astray, and that they stay faithful to their husbands. In effect, it is a form of sexual abuse and violence against women.

There is no question of choice, as FGM is performed when a girl child is a mere six or seven years old. It is done as an unquestioning following of a custom dictated by a purported “religious” requirement.

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Historically, FGM is a sexual and reproductive rights issue. It is a rite of passage making girls who are cut ‘ready for marriage’. In India, FGM, also known as “Khatna” or “Khafz”, involves cutting a child’s clitoral hood for no medical reason. The clitoral hood is a very thin membrane and doctors have stated that it is very likely that both traditional cutters and medical doctors will do severe damage to it, even if it was not intended. The clitoral hood has a function—it is not merely extraneous skin. It is meant to protect the ultra delicate and sensitive clitoris. By cutting, and putting 7-year-old girls through this frightening ritual, what psychological function does it serve? And why are the girls told to never speak of it again? What does it teach them about their bodies and, specifically, their genitals and sexuality? It teaches them that they don’t have any control over them.

Shahina, a 47-year-old respondent of a research study that WeSpeakOut conducted on FGM, says “The place where I am cut, I feel like my skin has gone dead. What was earlier sensitive is now no longer sensitive. When I touch there, it is scarred and I just have no sensation at all.”

In the same survey, another respondent, Mehfuza, a 42-year-old Bohra woman, says “On touching the area that was cut during Khatna, I feel a burning sensation. During sexual intimacy that area would burn a lot.”

These and several other testimonies of women have described in detail the pain, trauma, and psychosexual impact Khatna has had on their bodies and minds.

The practice of FGM is centuries old, and continues today in many areas of Africa, Asia, Europe, and America. An estimated 200 million women have undergone the procedure, and an estimated two million are subjected to it each year during infancy, childhood, or adolescence.

The World Health Organization has defined four categories of FGM. Type 1 involves the removal of the prepuce and, sometimes, all or part of the clitoris. In Type 2, the clitoris is removed along with all or part of the labia minora. Type 3 (infibulation) involves the removal of the clitoris, some or all of the labia minora, and the sealing of the labia majora with only a small opening remaining for the flow of urine and menstrual blood. Type 4 is a general category that includes other operations on the external genitalia as well as procedures done to the vagina. The FGM procedure itself can lead to shock, death, and infection. Long-term physical effects of infibulation include difficulty in urinating, in having sexual intercourse, and in delivering a baby.

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Today, the world over, there are enormous efforts being made to eradicate the practice by international agencies, governments, and grassroots community advocates. Elimination of FGM from the world by 2030 is a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) to which the government of India is committed.

Yet, in India, we do not have a clear law to prevent and prohibit FGM. While there exist in Indian law provisions for criminal action against any form of hurt (IPC section 324, 326), there is no specific mention of FGM/Khatna in our laws, and the practice largely goes unnoticed.

It has been seen, internationally, that public education as well as legislative action are important tactics, as are working to educate health care providers. WeSpeakOut, which is a community-based organisation of survivors of this practice, faces tremendous odds working with women and men to educate and make the people aware of the irreparable harms caused by FGM/Khatna.

It is time for the Government to step up and take note of this much hidden practice and initiate comprehensive measures to tackle this. The first step that would go a very long way in this journey would be for the Government to at least openly accept that this practice exists in India. The work for the elimination can then begin.

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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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