The conversation around menstrual hygiene management has made it to the mainstream fairly successfully in urban India over the last few years. Particularly in the online space, research, reportage and discussion around the larger healthcare and rights of menstruating persons have found a place of prominence.
But move a little away from urban developed centres towards rural landscapes, and the story changes quite a bit. “In my village, periods are still perceived ver negatively,” says Mausam Kumari, a young fiery menstrual rights activist from Rajauli block in rural Bihar. “Many people in the village have no idea what periods are, or why menstruating persons bleed once a month. In fact, some even consider it an illness.”
Mausam was speaking at the Youth Ki Awaaz Summit, held last week over a period of two days, featuring powerful talks and panel discussions. “Women still use soiled and unhygienic cloth instead of sanitary pads in my village,” she said. “It’s considered a part of tradition and continues unstopped.”
According to the NHFS 4 (2015-16), an alarming 82% of women in Bihar continue to depend on cloth during their periods. The study found a direct link between education and wealth and sanitary and safe management of periods across the country.
And that’s exactly the kind of change Mausam wanted to bring to her village. As a Youth Leader with the Gram Nirman Mandal and Population Foundation of India, she began conversations around periods, safe management and hygienic practices for menstrual hygiene management through setting up adolescent groups for discussion in her village.
“I have been called crazy, shameless and unsanskari for speaking up about menstruation by the people of my village,” Mausam said. “People say that such topics aren’t for village girls to discuss. They’re ‘modern concepts’ from the city and best left there.”
Despite the backlash she faced, Mausam’s fiery activism and action continued. She started the adolescent group with fifteen to sixteen girls from her village, and held sessions where they would discuss various aspects of menstruation. She led the conversation around how unhygienic used cloth was for management of periods, and built knowledge around the fact that the practice affects women on a larger scale. Studies point out that such unhygienic practices increase the likelihood of urogenital infections among menstruating persons, as well as reproductive tract infections such as Salmonella, Staphylococcus and E.Coli. It also significantly increases the risks of cervical cancer.
And yet, Mausam’s community wasn’t very supportive. Lack of awareness and severe taboos ensured a continued tradition of unsafe practices. Mausam’s adolescent group had different plans. She initiated a financial pool system, ensuring every menstruating person in the group saved up ₹30 a month, so they could all purchase sanitary napkins to create a bank, from which girls could take napkins to use every month. After the initial few months, Mausam found that the storekeeper would give her a discount on the napkins, enabling her to save ₹5 per purchase. The group used these savings to distribute sanitary pads to girls from underprivileged communities.
“Today, in our Rajauli Block, there are 16 sanitary pad banks that have been created,” declared Mausam, to an applauding audience. But the challenge for her did not end there. Access to sanitary pads was only part of the issue, she said. The larger problem was the lack of awareness on how to use them and why to purchase them. While many community members dismissed the topic as one for their school to discuss, Mausam recognised that even schools refused to speak about menstruation. “Those pages in our text books were shut for us, before they could be opened,” she said.
Moreover, Mausam said, benefits from the government run Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram scheme, a health programme for adolescents, in the age group of 10-19 years, which would target their nutrition, reproductive health and substance abuse, did not reach the remote Rajauli block. “But we reached out to the Civil Surgeon to ensure that a Yuva Clinic was set up in our block, for young persons to be able to speak about such issues and get the necessary guidance.”
Mausam and her group’s efforts paid off. Today there is a Yuva Clinic set up in her block. Despite setbacks in terms of young menstruating persons being able to speak up and get the advice they needed, she said, things are improving. By sustaining her advocacy and taking her concerns up to Bihar’s Health Minister, Mangal Pandey, she said the Yuva Clinic is now functioning. “We have even started talking about family planning there, now,” she said. Family planning, she says, is critical for girls to know even before marriage. “If I know there’s a well in front of me, why would I take a step forward?”
Villagers and community members may hate on her, but it’s clear from Mausam’s talk, her confidence and her clear vision that she’s not one to stop. “Main aaj ki ladki hoon, kyun na karoon baat?” she concluded.
Indeed, why shouldn’t she? Her efforts are saving thousands from unnecessary risks, diseases and in cases, even death. More power to her!