#PeriodPaath: An Open Letter For Advocating Menstrual Hygiene In Upcoming Delhi Elections

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This is an open letter written for the Aam Aadmi Party in order to encourage them to make Menstrual Health Management (MHM) a more active part of the political developmental agendas proposed for bettering public healthcare systems in Delhi, in the upcoming Delhi Legislative Assembly Elections, 2020. 

Ahead of the Delhi Legislative Assembly Elections, which is to be conducted on 8th of February 2020, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has repeatedly emphasized their ‘honest’ governance advocating the subsidized facilities they have promised to provide within their public healthcare system. Their overall manifesto for the 2020 Delhi Elections evidently is constructed on the promises to strengthen health, education and infrastructural sectors.

However, their developmental agendas cannot be seen in isolation to one another. Health and healthcare is intricately linked with both educational and infrastructural development of an area. This consequently also implies that education and infrastructure influences as well as is influenced by healthcare facilities available for people. This relationship of interdependence becomes vividly alive especially if we peek into the politics around periods in our society. 

Image Source: Economic Times

Menstruation and menstrual health in India has fairly been a topic of discussion in the last few years within public spheres and civil society; although menstruation even today is discussed insidiously, mostly among women and close circles. The efforts to invisibilise menstruation, both from our textbooks and in our everyday lives, especially in spaces with male presence, result due to the overarching socio-cultural taboos attached to it. This stigma around menstruation gets produced and reproduced through oral narratives, patriarchal misogyny within institutions like family, religion, education, pop culture and the lack of adequate dissemination of reliable information among children and adults due to poor governance.

The attempts to make menstruation invisible are often practiced and perpetuated by women too, who are socialised into the patriarchal system that stigmatises them for menstruating. And, when government bodies fail to provide adequate facilities and infrastructures in public spaces to tackle the stigma, women resort to invisibilising themselves for the fear of period stains, lack of toilets and proper sanitation systems. 

While a report claims that, on any given day, more than 800 million girls and women menstruate, menstrual health advocacy still fails to appear on the developmental agendas of political parties. For most political manifestos, health is perceived as an ‘umbrella category’, devoid of any intersectionality.

However, positive and practical changes will only occur when governments and policy makers identify the multiple marginalities bred through caste, gender and class positions within the health sector, rather than simply allocating budgets and building more medical centres. Further, the various linkages between the educational, health and infrastructural sectors need to be realised and worked upon through sensitisation programs and health policies, in order to ensure that development in one of these sectors lead to the betterment of the others.

The urgency of the matter at hand is actualised when various reports inform that young girls miss their schools during their periods due to menstrual health concerns and the shortage of proper toilets, adequate water supply, efficient waste management systems and sanitary products due to social causes like poor governance as well as individual financial shortages. Poor menstrual hygiene can also lead to various health risks such as urinary tract infections, mental health issues and reproductive complications.

With the growing environmental concerns, economic crisis and the perpetual cultural shaming of periods, women are directly affected as they become victims of the multiple inequalities that exist in our society. The already existing inequalities of basic resources have further repercussions on the availability of menstrual health products. Adding to that, is the lack of acknowledgement of the gravity of the situation at hand by people in power. 

Period Poverty

It is of no surprise when social researchers claim that women carry ‘double burden’, when they argue about one of the most crucial global developmental issuespoverty. In the Indian context, women who menstruate have historically undergone this phenomenon of period poverty. And women who already live in conditions of economic poverty, evidently are more vulnerable to period poverty.

Socio-cultural shaming and political ignorance of issues around menstruation lead to the ostracisation of these women, who are either completely excluded from accessing sanitary products and facilities or they are bound to pay the ‘pink tax’, a form of economic gender-based discrimination, that is capitalised on by private companies  as well as the government. 

Period poverty can be seen both a cause and a problem in itself. Proper care during the menstrual cycle is hindered by the period poverty cycle, which could rise due to the lack of knowledge among children and adults, religious superstitions and poor governance, which then again result into the lack of access to menstrual health products, sanitation facilities and produce various anxieties around menstruation.

There is an immediate need for intrusion to break the latter cycle if we want young girls to receive education comfortably, look for employment in future, smash the gendered public/private dichotomy and fight the male-dominated patriarchal world, which prioritises men and their contribution over women, citing that women are “weaker” as they have “health issues” to deal with. 

It is important to recognise that periods do not make girls or women ‘weaker’, but the patriarchal and brahminical societal structure promotes such gender inequalities. In a system, where women are already discouraged to access education and employment, the taboos around periods either directly legitimise their subordination invoking religious ‘mandates’, or indirectly push them further towards subservience by neglecting the basic health necessities that the government should ideally provide for free or at subsidised rates.

Along with all these issues, women who are oppressed within its broader category, such as Dalit women, Adivasi women, women with disabilities, Queer people, women living in conflict areas and women living within these intersections, with subordinated lived realities go through a more severe form of period poverty. 

What Can Your Government Do?

The Aam Aadmi Party’s interest in improving the health sector services is manifested through their budget allocation towards healthcare, which is 4 to 5 per cent more than what most state governments assign on an average. The Party also envisions to build several Mohalla clinics (Primary Healthcare Centres) and Polyclinics, which promise to provide not just basic healthcare services for subsidised rates but also have promised to cater to mental health issues of the citizens of Delhi.

While the current education minister, Mr. Manish Sisodia had emphasised on the need to educate both boys and girls on menstruation and menstrual health management, there is a dire need to make women’s issues more active part of their political agenda, especially during elections, since the election manifesto and the discussions around it get ample media coverage, thereby acting as a sensitising program in itself.

Image Source: Asian Age

The education, health and municipality sectors should work together in this project, if they desire to bring about changes in the way menstruation is viewed in contemporary times. Adding to these, given below are a few aspects which could be dealt with to ensure a holistic development with respect to menstrual hygiene management (MHM). 

Providing Sanitary Goods For Free/Subsidised Rates

One of the fundamental ways of tackling period poverty is by making sanitary goods more accessible to women. While women in the West are fighting for reducing the ‘pink tax’ on sanitary goods, the challenges in the Indian context are quite different. The subsidised rates of sanitary goods too can become expensive or be less prioritised over other amenities like food and water in India. And moreover, sanitary napkins marketed by private companies made available in skyrocketed prices, which the urban poor cannot afford. 

Further, while the numbers that explain the deficit in accessing sanitary products are gravely disappointing in rural areas, the urban cities are not doing well either, in these aspects. Hence, rather than simply cutting down taxes, governments should ensure that good quality sanitary products are distributed free of cost, especially for people who belong to the lower rungs in society.  

Door to Door Campaigns

Families play a significant role in creating and perpetuating menstrual taboos. The information around menstruation, unlike private property, is inherited through the women’s lineage. Fathers and brothers depend on the mothers of the household to perform care work, even when it comes to informing women adolescents about periods. Families also tend to segregate women during menstruation in India.

The recent Sabarimala case is an example, where menstruating women are not simply discouraged but physically prohibited from entering the temple premises. They experience a form of untouchability since they are physically segregated in the house, seen as impure beings, not allowed to cook food and enter or touch the kitchen or any other sacred objects of religious worship. 

Campaigns aimed at sensitising families could be one way to tackle such forms of discrimination. The circle of misinformation or no information at all, has to be challenged by actively talking about menstrual health, bursting myths, dismantling menstrual taboos and encouraging both parents to engage with their children (daughters or sons) about periods. 

Increased Sensitisation In Schools/ Menstrual Health Education (MHE)

While most sensitisation programmes view women and female school teachers as the primary targets for disseminating menstrual health education, men and boys often are thought of as secondary participants within this discourse. However, men have a great influence on the everyday lives of women and the policies that are formulated for them. They are husbands, fathers, sons, politicians, peers, teachers, employers and policy makers. Even more so, since most public spaces and powerful positions are occupied by them. As gender inequality is one of the prime reasons for such apathy towards menstrual health, men and boys should be treated equal targets for sensitisation programmes in schools and workplaces.  

Image Source: Huffpost India

Men need to learn about menstruation and support menstrual hygiene, rather than dissociating themselves by calling it a “women’s issue”. Adding to that, both people who menstruate and who don’t, often receive information about menstruation from their peers and discuss them within such narrow circles. However, the accuracy of such discussions is always up for debate.

The Ministry of Education should intervene into these ‘whispers’ and ensure that students receive information that is reliable and fact checked. Further, the discourse that is offered in schools should be updated and written not only in a scientific manner, with ‘hard biological facts’, but also from a feminist perspective that counters conservative language that is otherwise prevalent in our society. 

Bettering Other Facilities

Hardly a few public toilets, even in the national capital qualify as clean, let alone the availability of public dispensaries for sanitary products. The water supply is compromised and the waste management systems fail in ensuring a proper disposal system for soiled pads.

Image Source: Europe PMC

When the government promises to build more toilets, they should keep in mind that toilets are places engendered with gendered experiences. They must make menstrual health management a significant part of their developmental agendas, that often concentrate more on infrastructural expansion (in quantity) rather than bettering the already existing deplorable public toilets.

As pointed out earlier, the sectors of health, education and infrastructure have to go hand-in-hand towards the path of a more gender equal society. Hence, other facilities such as water supply, waste management systems, public safety, effectively maintained public toilets and gender sensitive infrastructures should be put into place in order to implement a functional and efficacious MHM system. 

Along with that, the government should also keep in mind about the labour force that goes into maintaining these public service systems. The politics of who cleans the toilets? and who uses them? has to be considered from a caste perspective. People who work within waste management systems have to be adequately incentivised for the work they do, till policy makers can find alternatives for such historically oppressed forms of labour. 

Image Source: The News Minute

Conclusion

While women’s work, both in public and private spaces still remain highly unacknowledged, due to its systematic and structural invisibilisation, the governments across the states and regions cannot be indifferent to the declining female labour force participation rates, even within urban settings, which are often promised to be more well-equipped with facilities, encouraging safer and effective public spaces for women. The demotivating factors that lead to the skewed male to female ratio in public spaces in India is a result of various reasons that are either deprioritised or completely negated by our male-dominated governmental bodies. Menstrual health is one of them.

Women’s bodies and their health management cannot be simply defined by men’s discomfort to talk about menstruation. The stigma can be countered when governments sensitise themselves, normalise conversations around periods, make gender sensitive policies (mandatory sensitisation programs, menstrual leaves), equip schools and workplaces with sanitary products and systems, prioritise menstrual health and well-being as much as food, water or medicines and revise health curriculum in schools and universities. 

Featured Image Source: WaterAid

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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.

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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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