What’s Missing From Our Discourse On Menstruation?

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.

68 women studying in a Swaminarayan trust college in Bhuj, Gujarat were made to remove their underwear to check whether they were menstruating.

Representational image.

The principal of the college, on hearing the allegation said that a bunch of women students were lying about their menstrual cycle to get permission to attend classes, decided to dig out the truth on her own and ‘punish’ the guilty. She went to the girls’ classroom, bad-mouthed them for mingling with everyone when they were on their periods, and ordered the girls to follow her, with the hostel rector, to the washroom. The undergrad women were then ordered to remove their underwear and show stains of blood, if any, to the hostel rector to check whether they were true to their word.  

Menstruating women on their campuses are considered ‘impure’ and aren’t given the same ‘privileges’ as other students studying in the college. These women weren’t allowed to talk to other students and faculty, and were forced to restrain themselves from any social gatherings. Hence, they are, in turn, barred from attending lectures and having meals at their hostel mess.  

Gujarat has been one of the states that is a flag-bearer for women safety and women progress. NGOs like Anandi and SEWA work for the upliftment of women in societies and work to eliminate degrading social conducts against women. I think Gujarat has always ranked well in terms of equal job opportunities to women, a reduced wage gap, and lessening the social stigma around women having careers. 

In India, from ancient times, there has been a taboo around menstruating women to be ‘dirty’ and of their presence in social gatherings. Women weren’t treated as equals in the past. However, as women representation grew fierce in varied strata of societies, women demanded equal rights and privileges as their counterparts. While we have progressed by many folds in gender equality, from time to time some setbacks arise so fiercely which makes one question: “Have we actually evolved or was it all just hogwash?”

In 2010, India adopted the mindset to address the importance of menstrual hygiene. Projects like ‘Freeday Pad Scheme’ to distribute sanitary pads at subsidized rates, and ‘Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram’ to improve the health and hygiene of adolescents were implemented. 

Under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, separate funds were allocated to the development of local sanitary napkin manufacturing units, and for the education and awareness of adolescents about menstrual hygiene in villages.

“Have we actually evolved or was it all just hogwash?” Representational image.

From talking about it at homes to social media campaigns, there have been consistent efforts to raise awareness about menstruation; it being a part of the natural cycle, and there’s nothing odd about discussing it. 

But, this doesn’t necessarily mean everyone’s okay with menstrual women being accepted as ‘normal’

The awareness about menstrual hygiene has been raised to eliminate diseases borne from improper sanitation. To escape the hesitation of going out and buying sanitary napkins from your local shop, pads and tampons have been widely advertised on TV channels and on social mediums; which leads to women resorting to hygienic methods for protection and decrease the risks of health problems. The underlying focus here is to reduce the mortality rate of women from diseases borne from improper menstrual hygiene. 

But, there is no such narrative around women in periods being accepted as normal.

The trope around discussion of menstruation is to educate the women about medical consequences. This discussion limits itself on dealing with medical severities and doesn’t even try to pan out to social conducts around menstrual women. Women are not allowed to enter holy places, such as Hindu Temples when they are on their periods. Even in ‘educated’ urban places, women are required to maintain distance from Puja Ghar, a place of worship, in their own homes. Presently, the stigma of not being ‘worthy enough’ to enter and worship in a holy place has been removed. But, the stigma continues to remain universally for menstrual women. 

The focus should be on handing the reins of women’s issues to them and eliminating men’s narratives completely. Representational image.

After the mishaps at the Swaminarayan trust college, Swami Krushnaswarup Dasji, a resident at the Bhuj Mandir, commented that if women on their periods serve dinner to their husbands then, as a punishment, ‘will be born as bitches in their next lives’. In his defense, he was supposedly quoting the Hindu scriptures, and maybe felt sorry for his helplessness to obey his tradition’s teachings. The next day, women in Delhi, in retaliation to his comment, organised a feast where many menstruating women gathered to serve food. The movement was widely praised and appreciated for being progressive. 

Here, women, in unison, gave a piece of their mind to the archaic mindset. But if the same women disobeyed their family’s house rules—restriction of entry to the Puja Ghar for menstruating members—the reciprocation might not be so positive.

Men always had an equal say in women’s matters. In mainstream cinema, men’s narratives are even used to alleviate women’s issues. Padman, Toilet, Pink are stories depicting core problems, faced by women, but conveyed through male icons Akshay Kumar and Mr Bachchan. 

On their own issues, women are yet to be given a monopoly to handle their matters by themselves. They usually have to incorporate men’s will in battling their issues, while the vice-versa isn’t true. You won’t see women’s opinions taken into equal consideration about matters of erectile dysfunction, premature baldness, or sperm donation!

While men’s narratives are considered as a token of support in battling women’s issues, this gesture seems more of a path correction—as earlier men’s own opinions have been responsible for women’s struggles. 

Rather than convincing every other man of women’s power, the focus should be on handing the reins of women’s issues to them and eliminating men’s narratives completely. Although it isn’t a certain solution, like the women executives being involved in the Bhuj incident, I think it’s worth the effort.

Battling their own issues won’t necessarily mean that we have found the Holy Grail of solutions for all our problems but it would certainly lead to eliminating the need to please one more gender to have redressals. 

Featured image for representation only.
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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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