When Buying Sanitary Napkins Is Still Shameful, Even For Women

Period Paath logoEditor’s Note: This article is a part of #Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC, to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management among menstruating persons in India. Join the conversation to take action and demand change! The views expressed in this article are the author’s and are not necessarily the views of the partners.

By Jaya Shroff:

It may appear that things have moved in a positive direction when it comes to removing stigma around menstruation in India’s biggest cities, but walk its urban slums and you’ll still witness scenes from Akshay Kumar’s hit Hindi movie Padman playing out – ‘Hum auraton ke liye bimari se marna sharm ke saath jeene se behtar hai.’ (For women like us, it is better to die of an illness than live with shame).

Menstruation is still such a taboo in Delhi’s urban slums that many women won’t even walk to a chemist to buy a sanitary pad. Married and middle-aged women still prefer using old rags, partially because of the cost, but more because of the shame associated with going out and buying a pad; women across Delhi’s urban slums told this reporter. 

Even at the age of 48, Jayalakshmi Amma, who lives in a slum near Nandini Layout in Bengaluru, did not know the biological role of menstruation in a woman’s body, till she attended an awareness session conducted by Smile Foundation.

“We want to know more about the menstrual process and related hygiene. It is the first time that I have come to know why I bleed every month. Earlier, I thought that this was because all the girls were cursed. Now that I know that this happens because of biological reasons and not some myth, I feel so much better about myself and about being a woman,” she said. 

“Young girls have no prior knowledge about the biological process they will go through most of their life,” says Smile Foundation’s Seema Kumar. *Image is for representational purposes only*.

Thirty-six-year-old Asha Devi recounts a similar tale. “I now know that menstruation is important for a woman’s well-being. It is also necessary to have these periodic cycles for healthy childbirth, and also for the feeding for the foetus as the unborn baby gets his nutrition from the blood,” she said.

“I also learned that if a girl is 16-18 years of age and not menstruating, then there is a problem, especially if she hopes to have children in the future. So, menstruation is indeed good news,” she said, sharing her learning.

“Young girls have no prior knowledge about the biological process they will go through most of their life,” says Smile Foundation’s Seema Kumar, who leads the women empowerment programme at Smile foundation, and goes from slum to slum, with community mobilisers, and health counsellors, to establish a bond with poor women, and create awareness on menstruation-related health issues. 

“We don’t discuss menstrual hygiene, women’s health and nutrition in silos. We talk of all issues—family planning, nutrition, anaemia, breastfeeding, and reproductive health. The idea is to get a conversation going so that these issues are not discussed behind doors and women can feel free to talk about their problems, know their bodies and also take charge of their health and well-being,” Kumar said.

Only 48 percent of the adolescent girl population in India are aware of menstruation prior to their first period. Additionally, another study shows that 40% of girls remain absent from school when they menstruate. Nearly 65% reported that it affected their daily activities at school and that they had to miss their class tests and classes as a result of pain, anxiety, shame and staining of their uniform. 

In Delhi, interactions undertaken with women and girls as part of a study, to understand attitudes around MHM, revealed that most of them understood menstruation as the expulsion of ‘dirty blood’ (ganda khoon) from the body. “This deeply ingrained notion was associated with the perception of menstruation as impure and consequently, with the need to follow several restrictions. Women mentioned that in the village, they followed several restrictions during menstruation. They were not allowed to cook, did not interact with other members of the household, lived away from the house, etc. However, given the lack of space in urban slums, it was not always possible to observe these taboos,” the study revealed.

“In villages, we used to be isolated [during our period], but in urban locations, that is not possible—we have no space. And if we women don’t cook, how would people in the household eat? So we only follow what [restrictions] we can,” Renu, 40, told the interviewers.

In a massive push for female hygiene, the central government recently slashed down the costs of sanitary napkins Suvidha sold in its Jan Aushadhi Kendras to Re1 from Rs2.5.

In the recent past, several state governments like Kerala, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra have pushed for free distribution for sanitary napkins.

Yet, when it comes to measuring the impact of these measures on women living in India’s cities, clearly a lot needs to happen. “The bigger and more important hurdle is changing mindsets. The focus should be on reducing and finally removing the stigma around the issue,” said a senior official from the Ministry of Health, requesting anonymity. 

 (The author is New Delhi-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

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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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