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Swachh Bharat Mission: Five Years Later, Menstruation Hygiene Remains On Back-burner

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This post is a part of Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management in India. Click here to find out more.

It is going to be five years since the Modi government launched the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). While the campaign has made tremendous strides in installing toilets in far-flung corners of the country, when it comes to the issue of menstrual hygiene management, Youth Ki Awaaz’s on ground reports from four Indian states reveals that a lot still remains to be done.

Menstrual hygiene management has always remained a less-spoken aspect of the Swachh Bharat Mission, and when it comes to promoting safe menstrual hygiene practices, YKA found that multi-faceted challenges continue to hamper its implementation in rural India.

The first obviously relates to the priority the government accords the issue. According to questions answered by the government in Lok Sabha about Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin (SBM-G), the government stated that it neither allocates money separately for MHM nor assesses the impact of the many drives it runs.

The second and most pressing one relates to attitudes towards menstruation and the work that needs to happen to bring about behavioural change on the ground. While the government claims that it has been working to increase awareness about the issue and has also worked towards improving access to low cost sanitary napkins, YKA found that on ground, knowledge about safe menstrual hygiene practices was largely lacking.

This lack of knowledge coupled with a stronghold of myths and non-availability of low-cost sanitary napkins not only means that a large percentage of women in rural India still suffer due to unsafe menstrual practices, but that the situation is unlikely to change in the near future because of the lack of priority the government gives to the issue. 

Jasondi, Madhya Pradesh

An NGO has started a sanitary pad bank in Jasonda village in Madhya Pradesh’s Betul district recently. In this village, women primarily use cloth during their periods. Credit – 101Reporters

Such is the level of awareness on menstruation in Jasondi, a tribal village in MP’s Betul district, that many women YKA spoke to said most girls don’t even know what a pad is, with hardly 2-5 per cent of them using them. Adolescent girls also told YKA that ninety percent women still prefer to use cloth during their periods.

So, even though the nearest Anganwadi does sell pads, women don’t use them, with the cost being a major deterrent. In villages farther away from the district headquarters, women still use ash during their periods.

BL Bishnoi, district officer of the Women and Child Development department, said they run awareness campaigns to educate girls about menstruation.

An NGO – Sashakt Nari Sashakt Samaj –  has even kickstarted a sanitary pad bank in Jasondi to provide free napkins to women who can’t afford them. When it comes to attitudes towards menstrual hygiene though or of women using the bank, things looked bleak at best.

Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh

Sixteen-year-old Ashima Khan, a student of class 10 at the government girls school in Sitapur, UP said when she first started menstruating two years ago, she had no idea what was happening to her. When she told her mother about it, her mother told her to not talk about it with anyone. 

Ashima came to know about the process of menstruation when some counsellors visited her school. Since then, she says she is aware why maintaining hygiene is important during menstruation. She says she also takes iron pills provided to students in school during this period. 

Kusum Srivastava, the counsellor at the Mishrick block Community Health Centre, told YKA that girls who have attained puberty usually don’t receive the necessary information from their mothers, because the mothers themselves are unaware about the process. At Sitapur, the focus still remains on providing girls basic information about menstruation in the hope that girls pass on knowledge to their mothers.

Dungarpur, Rajasthan

Social worker Madhulika, who works in the tribal district of Dungarpur told YKA that even today, women in the tribal region of Dungarpur, Rajasthan don’t use sanitary pads, choosing to instead use the same cloth for months on end at times. Consequently, they become prone to infections and diseases.

Women YKA spoke to drew a blank when we discussed menstruation practices with them. While Haru Devi, a resident of Aligarh, 40 kilometres from Udaipur, had no idea what a sanitary pad was, Amari Devi, 39, said she used cloth all her life. It was only when her daughter Pooja started getting sanitary pads from her school two years ago that Amara Devi says she started using pads.

Arvind Chobisa, the coordinator of SBM in Dungarpur said that they had carried out many awareness programmes at the panchayat- and gram sabha-level. A district-level workshop was organised in Dungarpur last year where menstruation and the myths related to it were openly discussed. The drives, however, have not translated to any clear behavioural change on the ground.

Baunsanali, Odisha

Training on women’s health underway at an Aanganwadi centre in Odisha’s Baunshanali village. Credit – 101Reporters

Recently, awareness drives have started in several tribal-dominated pockets of Odisha. Not much seems to be coming out of them as women still remain unaware about basic hygiene practices. 

Srimati Hembram, the Sarpanch of Baunsanali, a tribal-dominated area situated in Joshipur block of Mayurbhanj district, stated that women and girls in the area have been shying away from even discussing menstruation.

She explained that it’s only girls who go to school who use sanitary napkins as they are provided napkins by the school. However, after they pass out of school, they stop using pads as their financial background deters them from buying it.

The ASHA and Anganwadi workers regularly conduct awareness meetings in their villages to educate the girls and women on the importance of menstrual hygiene, methods of using sanitary napkins and their safe disposal. However, more than 80% of women and girls under her panchayat limits still use old clothes.

On its part, the government seems to be aware of how difficult it is to bring about a behavioural change when it comes to menstrual hygiene, having cited the same as one of the reasons for lagging behind in promoting it. With the Swachh Bharat Mission finishing five years, however, this may be a good time for it to revisit its goals and put the pedal on implementing the objectives it set out for itself in promoting menstrual health.

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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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