“I had nothing to do with menstruation until 2011, when I was around 18 or 19 years old,” says Pravin Nikam, founder of the Pune-based Roshni Foundation, a non profit that works with gender and sexuality.
And yet, over the last eight years, Pravin has been an active advocate for involving men in the discourse around menstruation, gender and sexuality. Speaking at the Youth Ki Awaaz Summit last week, Pravin shared his inspiring story of starting Roshni Foundation, a story that took attendees through the chilling repercussions of stigma and taboo around menstruation for girls in rural Assam, to the challenges around the issue that continue to exist in Maharashtra even today.
Pravin’s journey started as a student travelling with his friends to Shuklai in Assam. “The intent was to study the challenges faced by people in rural Assam, and interact with people there,” he said. “There, I met a young girl named Roshni, who told me ‘I’ve recently left school because I’m cursed by God’.”
Astonished by Roshni’s story, Pravin inquired further and learned from her father that in their village, girls who attain menarche are no longer sent to school. This was the first turning point in Pravin’s life. Here, he came face to face with the chilling reality, that superstition was keeping young girls and women from attaining their potential.
In India, a recent report by Dasra revealed, 23 million girls drop out of school upon attaining menarche, due to a mix of reasons including cultural taboos and stigma. Not only does this affect their health, wellness and careers, but also directly impacts the female labour workforce participation, impacting the national economy at scale.
Unlike others who might have moved on after such an episode, Pravin realised he needed to do something about the issue. Back home in Pune, he joined a formal gender, sexuality and menstrual hygiene training session organised by a government institution in Pune. Through his work, he met several stakeholders and came to a second realisation. “Taboos around menstruation aren’t just an issue in India. Whether it’s Africa, Europe, America or the Pacific – women are being discriminated against on the basis of menstruation,” he said.
Learning of these stories, and interacting with people in the field, Pravin started the Roshni Foundation, initially staging interventions around gender and sexuality, through sessions with adolescent girls in schools. Over the months, he realised that for maximum impact, he would have to reach out to teachers, rather than students.
A chief hurdle the organisation faced was the silence around the issue of menstruation. “The whole movement on sanitation in India started in 2014. But here we were, speaking about menstruation in 2011. Very few people would entertain us back then,” he said.
Fortunately for Pravin, Roshni Foundation found good partners over the months and came up with an effective module with innovative tools to train teachers in dissemination information around gender, sexuality and menstrual hygiene among students. “One common thing I realised through my work was that it’s usually the men who aren’t interested in holding dialogues around menstruation – they like to brush it off as a woman’s private business,” said Pravin.
Even among male teachers who were interested in the issue, Pravin faced reluctance to act, as they were concerned about the schools shutting down, or them being asked to leave their villages and homes. The challenges were such that they would have deterred anyone from pushing forward. Not Pravin.
Slowly, but steadily, he convinced teachers – male and female – to join his mission. “Till now, we have managed to train over 800 teachers, impacting the lives of 8000 girls and achieving a community impact of 5000 women overall,” he said.
Pravin’s story leaves us with a critical lesson – that the issues of discrimination around menstruation and lack of proper menstrual hygiene management in India – can not be resolved by women or men alone. “We need collective action to create measurable impact,” he concluded.
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