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We Still Need To Talk About Menstrual Hygiene In Rural India, Here’s Why

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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.

I was thirteen when I bled for the first time. I remember I was getting ready for school when I spotted blood stains in my underwear. I had shown the same to my mother who got equally hyper and started shouting on top of her lungs “My daughter has got her periods. Oh my goodness, my daughter is now no more a child.” She immediately asked me to skip school that day—to which I had revolted, so she had no option but to tie some old clothes around my waist to soak the blood as she never used a sanitary napkin herself.

Before I forget, we lived in a small town Agartala, which can be considered equivalent to a rural sector, and I studied in Holy Cross School the only English medium the city had during those days. Though I had been to school that day, I was uncomfortable throughout. I couldn’t pee, I was constantly worried if I had stained my skirt, and I also had to remember my mother’s wise words “keep this discreet from your male peers.” So, I also had to be extra vigilant as I studied in a co-ed school.

Overall, it was a very cumbersome experience. Now in my forties, my rage takes the upper hand when I realize how little my mother, who in spite of being a professor lacked in the basic knowledge on menstruation. And hats off to my school for never having a clean toilet or provisions for disposing of the sanitary napkins. I would often spot the blood clotted clothes strewn carelessly in the dirty school lavatory. My school also lacked the provision of storing sanitary pads for female students during emergencies.

The case was equally bad with my friend. She suffered from severe menstrual cramps, which made it obvious that she was in her menses. Our school was famous for conducting exams, making it difficult to take a leave even for a day. So come whatever may, we had to be present in the school almost every day. If in case we took leave during our menses and our parents made the mistake of writing down the same as the cause of leave, it would come under the scrutiny of our hostile teacher Mrs Aditi Chaudhuri who would leave no chance to shame that already nervous little girl.

According to a report by NDTV,  during the annual function at a secondary school in Rajasthan’s Dholpur district, way back in 2017, where Manoj Kumar, the district health officer had been among one of the grandee’s, the drastic low number of girl students in the school drew his attention. He was told that a handful of girls dropped out of school as they reached their teens, or in better words, as they hit their menses. The schools in these dim and distant districts like Dholpur hardly had a functional toilet, let alone sanitary napkin dispensers.

Myths about menstruation among the rural populace force a girl child to drop out of school in her teens. Image: REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

My school and several other schools in these remote districts till the day, remain a strong example that menstruation is something which should be cloaked in mystery; it’s a taboo, and one cannot speak about it openly. In a country of 300 million women like India, where 30% of the women menstruate, it has been observed that menstruation is still a subject of gender incongruity. Myths about menstruation among the rural populace force a girl child to drop out of school in her teens or be repudiated during their menstrual cycle every month.

During the year 2014, NGO Dasra conducted a report Spot On!, and it was observed that 23 million girls withdrew from schools annually as they lacked knowledge and awareness on menstruation. The report also came up with some startling numbers. With little to no knowledge of menstruation, it was observed that 70% of mothers in the rural sectors considered periods as unclean. There was also a lack of awareness on the same. It was seen that 71% of adolescent girls were unaware of menses until they hit their menarche. A report by UNICEF projected that 79% of women and young girls in Tamil Nadu, 66% in Uttar Pradesh, 56% in Rajasthan and 51% in West Bengal were completely ignorant of menstrual hygiene enactments.

Now coming back to my school, where at least I did not have to discontinue my schooling as my parents could afford sanitary pads. But as I mentioned earlier, my school lacked the basic provision of stocking sanitary napkins for emergencies. Also, my school did not even provide any training programs to the girls on menstruation and its importance. Likewise, in cities, we have easy access to sanitary napkins, but in rural areas, they are found with much difficulty.

Majority of the girls in the rural sectors bank on bucolic or other handy material which is readily available. And we know how dangerous, unhygienic and unsanitary these products are. It’s seen that women tie up worn-out/old clothes around their waist to absorb the menstrual blood. Much to the horror, filthy socks filled with soil are also tied around their waist for the said purpose. This results in dangerous infection which causes hindrances in day-to-day activities of a woman during her periods. Barely 2% to 3% of bucolic women have the proper knowledge and access to sanitary napkins. The lack of demand hence results in less stocking of sanitary napkins by the shopkeepers in those distant areas.

Conditions for menstruating women in rural sectors can only improve when the government raises awareness about menstrual hygiene.

The impact of poor awareness of menstrual hygiene among the rural masses often leads to serious afflictions in adolescent girls and menstruating women in those faraway places. About 120 million menstruating adults in India encounter menstrual dysfunctions which affect their normal chores. Almost 60,000 deaths due to cervical cancer are reported from India out of which two-third are a result of poor menstrual hygiene. Some more ailments arising from poor menstrual hygiene in the rural sector comprise of anemia, irregular periods, Urinary Tract Infections (UTI) and psychological traumas like consternation, discomfort and mortification. Surveys conducted by the health ministry in 2002, 2005, 2008 and 2012 had suggested had we indoctrinated among the rural populace the importance of menstrual hygiene these maladies could have had been avoided.

In closure, I say conditions for menstruating women in rural sectors can only improve when the government raises awareness about menstrual hygiene. Training program on awareness of menstrual hygiene should be provided to each woman from the rural community. I want to add why only women? It should be rendered to men as well. Else, how will we upheave cognizance?

Our country has progressed, and the live example is the fact that it was in 1990, where there was a ban on advertisements promoting sanitary napkins. It was us who ultimately broke taboos and made a full-fledged feature film ‘PadMan’ about a low-cost sanitary napkin entrepreneur in the year 2018. India has indeed come a long way. But we still have a long way to go. Providing sanitary napkins to over 300 million women and ensuring that they do not adhere to age-old traditions of using cloth, socks or sand should be our goal. Improving menstrual hygiene should be our mantra, and our primary focus should be on rural areas.

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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.

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.

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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 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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