Over the last three years, the discourse around menstruation, menstrual rights and menstrual hygiene management have taken a lot of prominence, especially in online forums. As the conversations have grown, the issue itself is slowly being unpacked, and the discourses have shed light on a number of intersections around menstruation: be it stigma, education, healthcare or the economy.
In light of this, a panel discussion featuring experts from different backgrounds and industries took a #Periodपाठ at the Youth Ki Awaaz Summit last week, where the conversation moved beyond stigma and taboo to allied and related issues that menstruating persons face in India.
Moderated by entrepreneur and menstrual health advocate Nirmala Nair, the panel featured Deane De Menezes, Founder – Red is the New Green and Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, Secretary General of the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance. Here are the five most important lessons the panel left us with:
“When I started Red Is The New Green, it happened by accident – I didn’t have a sanitary napkin. The experience made me realise just how privileged I am,” said Deane De Menezes, about her experiences as a menstruating woman. “There’s so much more we need to learn about our bodies.”
There are people born on the wrong side of the poverty line, and don’t have access to health care. That’s what we focus on at @Redsthenewgreen – inclusivity, to include voices and help women overcome such issues. – @deanedemenezes, founder – @Redsthenewgreen #YKASummit pic.twitter.com/ACokTfhyfb
— Youth Ki Awaaz (@YouthKiAwaaz) December 20, 2019
The lack of access to a sanitary napkin during menstruation might have been a one-off experience for Deane, but the truth is a majority of menstruating persons in India face that lack on a regular basis. And that’s not the only convenience they lack access to.
“The needs of different women are different,” said Deane. “In some places, where we worked on promoting reusable cloth pads, there was no water to wash the cloth with. In some places, the idea of inserting a menstrual cup in their vaginas, was alien and absolutely shunned.”
The question of access doesn’t then just limit itself to product, but also has to do with attitudes, traditions and norms, which need to be dealt with effectively in order to resolve such a massive issue.
When we think of spiritual leaders, issues that come to mind are far removed from those such as menstrual hygiene management and sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights. And yet, on the panel, we had Sadhvi Bhagwati Saraswati, who dispelled the notion that these two concepts cannot be interconnected.
“It’s a tragedy that in our minds, we think religious leaders shouldn’t be involved in aspects of day to day lives. At the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance, we come together on the principle that religious leaders promote the name of peace. But our definition of peace today has to expand,” she said. “If today, due to my action, others are suffering and dying, their blood is on my hands.”
She went on to speak of the idea of heaven or a higher state of living, and said that heaven for one person that’s hell for another isn’t really heaven at all. That’s how the alliance moved towards these concepts – first tackling open defecation and now moving on to menstruation.
“We pay so much attention to situations where our sisters or daughters move in to say, a hostel – we worry about the food they eat, their safety and comfort,” she said. “But the average woman spends seven years of her life menstruating. Don’t we need to make sure that this is safe, clean, healthy and eco-friendly too?”
Lately, the conversation around climate change and sustainable living have gathered steam, and rightly so. Why is the dialogue on menstruation then, not moving forward with the times, and why are we stuck with the outdated pad dispensation programmes?
“Every year, 22 hundred crore menstrual pads are thrown out. And then we talk about Swachh Bharat?” said Sadhvi Bhagwati. “We’re working on eco friendly pads and solutions to pollution, because that is dharma, where girls are safe, healthy and empowered.”
And yet, the conversation around informed choices for safe, eco friendly sanitary products gets waylaid. Rather than what women should be doing, the focus goes on what products they should be using. The need is to bridge this, and help women make these choices themselves, said Deane. “The work needs to start with spreading information. It’s essential for women to read up, to understand the pros and cons and make our own choices.”
Gone are the days, when women need to be told over and over again about what they should be doing. This has been happening for years. The need to tackle the topic of informed choices needs to rest with women themselves – without impinging on their agency. “Let women make their own choices,” said Deane.
“When I learned what ‘I am down’ meant, I was on a mission to change that,” she said. “We menstruate because we have a divine creative power within us – without it there’s no creation. This is not something to be down about. It’s something to be ‘up’ about.”
Used to think when girls say they’re down, they meant depressed. I’m on a mission to spread awareness – that we have a divine creative power of menstruation – which we need to be empowered about. It’s not something to be ‘down’ about, but ‘up’ about! – @SadhviBhagawati #YKASummit pic.twitter.com/5xqHqHOcLg
— Youth Ki Awaaz (@YouthKiAwaaz) December 20, 2019
Another important piece, she said, is that this discrimination we see across communities is generational. It’s a problem of women’s empowerment. “A mother thinks she’s impure or dirty and less than, when she bleeds, and she passes that on to her daughter.”
This doesn’t just affect their health and wellbeing, but also their access to education. “About 23% of girls drop out of school when they begin menstruating. When there are no toilets in their schools, no private way to clean themselves, they’re told ‘ghar mein baitho!’,” said Sadhvi Bhagawati. “In two or three years, they are failing school and dropping out.”
The impact on these girls’ education makes its mark on the national economy as well – their lack of education and opportunities directly impacts their ability to perform in the workforce, which is why it needs to be tackled collectively.
Right from purchasing sanitary pads to disposing of them, women are at a disadvantage. “When it comes to you and me, sanitary pads are just expensive,” said Deane. “Not everyone can really afford one – even regular brands. We have cases in Mumbai, where women wear a sanitary napkin, wash and dry this disposable product and then reuse it, because affordability isn’t factored in.”
Access is another issue, she said. Sometimes in towns or villages consignments for sanitary pads don’t come through. Once women run out of spare cloth, in such cases, they’re forced to fall back on unhygienic methods of menstrual management.
This has a clear and rather devastating impact on women’s health. Today, reproductive tract diseases are the second largest causes of death among women. “We have shorter urethras than men,” said Deane. “We’re more susceptible to infections.”
Then there’s the question of disposal. With 800 million women menstruating in the world, there’s a lot of waste that ends up in landfills. Animals eat the waste, breeding germs and contaminating the soil. “Moreover, there’s a municipal waste worker who is segregating disposed pads off by hand, often without gloves or protective gear!” said Deane. Right from the start to finish, women are fighting their way across the value chain of a sanitary product.”
The intersections with menstruation, overall health and well being, the economy and welfare of people are so interconnected, that the onus to resolve these issues cannot be on women alone. Nor should they have to. As Sadhvi Bhagwati succinctly put it, “If I get an infection in my finger and ignore it because it’s just in my finger and nowhere else in my body; in a week I’ll be on death’s door. As long as we look at issues in isolation, we’re not going to be able to resolve them.”
Do you agree? What’s your #Periodपाठ? Share your thoughts, stories and suggestions here!