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The Cycle Of Being ‘Untouchable’ Due To An Illness With No Name

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She was ten years old when her best friend took leave from school for a week.

“She is ill”, they said.

It was not fever. It was not flu.

She was ill, and there was no name for her illness.

Her illness was a mystery that would unfold to her only after two years.

She was twelve years old, and she saw that first blot of red on her trousers.

Oh! The hungama that came to pass!

For nine days they put her aside like an untouchable. She was given a bamboo mat to sleep on.

“Don’t touch this! Don’t touch that!” they would say.

Like a rat trapped in a cage for no mistake of hers, she was trapped in that makeshift bamboo tent that they erected for her.

A minute before that pitiful moment that she would remember her whole life, her mother was cooing at her to go to bed. A minute later, everything changed.

Suddenly, she was a grown-up who could sleep on a mat all by herself. She could eat alone, clean her utensils, stay away from her siblings and manage this new sensation that suddenly cropped into her.

She was not given an explanation for any of those happenings. All she could understand was that she was defiled, and there was no reason or name for that which made her so filthy overnight.

“I am not filthy”, she cried into the darkness.

“Someone caress me. I feel alone.” she sobbed.

That night was a nightmare for her. Yet, that night was not going to be a lone nightmare. It was going to be a recurring nightmare for her.

Within few years she mastered the temporary ‘untouchability’ norm, as soon as she found herself ‘out of reach’ she walked to the backyard, got herself a good shower, took her mat and placed it in its designated spot, making sure that no holy hand touched her filthy self.

She was 15 years old; once a younger cousin pestered her to join him in a game. She expertly sent him away saying that she was too ill to play (though deep inside her heart she longed to play), she felt like the beholder of a dark secret that no innocent ears should accidentally get tainted with.

Month after month the laws of ‘temporary  untouchability’ were passed down to her so that soon she knew how to carry herself when she was at home, at someone else’s home, at a hostel, on vacation or in college. She knew where she was allowed and where she was not.

Not all temples had a board denying entry to women on their periods. Still, she knew quite well that she would not be welcome inside a temple during those days.

No marriage invitation prohibits women on their periods from attending the wedding. However, she knew that she would not be wanted there.

No festival proclaims to disallow women during their periods, but she knew she could not celebrate.

She knew many things that she knew everybody else was also aware of. One day it would be her turn to pass to on.

She was 25 years old, and it was her wedding. The priest called out for the bride, who was nowhere to be seen.

“She is ill”, they said.

An illness that had no name,

An illness that kept her away from school when she was a child.

An illness that kept her away from sports when she was an adolescent.

An illness that deprived her of fun and celebrations when she was young,

An illness that was now keeping her away from her own marriage.

The wedding was postponed to a further date, and the bride was left to be on her own.

There was solidarity among those around her for all the misfortune that had befallen her. But none would dare say that it was a misfortune that society had forced upon her. There was no explanation for keeping her away from the most important day in her life. But she never asked for an explanation. There was no explanation right from the beginning. It was just a dark secret, and she had to carry it with her throughout her life.

She was 40 years old, and her daughter came crying to her with a stained trouser.

“Oh dear!” she cried, “Now my little princess is growing up.”

She held the little girl in a tight embrace and told her something that her mother could not tell her.

“You are no more a child, my dear. If someone tries to treat you, so tell them you started bleeding for the continuation of the human race.”

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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.

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        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.

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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.

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        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.

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        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.

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        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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