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Why Do Men Get To Define What It Means For A Woman To Bleed?

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This post is a part of Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management in India. Click here to find out more.

Like most other things in human existence, menstruation too has always been a predominantly male discourse. Did the irony just hit the roof? Yep!

In a country where over 350 million of the population menstruates, the bulk of the people, both male and female, remains thoroughly ignorant of the woman’s reproductive health and menstrual hygiene. Like almost everything else, patriarchy and male social control have created and driven the discourse on women’s health since time immemorial.

A woman isn’t sick until the man says so. She still has to wake up at the stroke of dawn and get on with her household chores. And if/when she menstruates (which is not a sickness), either it is to be ignored altogether so that she doesn’t start giving excuses to get out of her chores, or she suddenly becomes impure and maybe even a witch and should be shunned and shamed and made to self-isolate. (Self-isolation. Ring a bell? The coronavirus is a virus that is highly contagious and having it means one should self-isolate. But periods are not a disease! It doesn’t make one a menace to others. Why, oh why, should you still isolate the woman on her periods then?)

Image for representational purposes only.

In our society, a woman’s periods are what a man says it is. And the worst part is that majority of women themselves perpetuate this phallocentric discourse of menstruation, either because they know no better or because they are simply too steeped in the mindless beliefs and traditions surrounding this ‘taboo’ to even entertain other ideas. It’s no wonder then that less than 36% women in India have access to safe sanitary hygiene and most of them don’t even know they need it.

In India, it was not until the 21st century that the government woke up to the fact that good sanitation and menstrual health are crucial to the nation’s women. Over the past decade or so, the government has launched a few targeted programs for women’s menstrual health and sanitation. Schemes such as the Menstrual Hygiene Scheme launched by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare or the ‘Menstrual Hygiene Management Guideline’ issued by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS) as part of the Swachh Bharat Mission have been initiated among others to educate adolescent girls and women on menstrual hygiene.

However, even then, the conversation on menstrual health doesn’t revolve around women as such. For instance, it required a man, Arunachalam Muruganantham, who came to be known as the Padman of India to manufacture cheaper sanitary pads, and a male superstar, Akshay Kumar, who played Padman in 2018’s hit Hindi movie, to bring his story to the people. While the male involvement in creating awareness is a social necessity (since men need to be educated on menstrual health as much as, or perhaps even more than women), the irony remains that the popular narrative on menstruation and clean sanitation got almost monopolized by men.

Moreover, menstrual hygiene is not isolated from clean water requirements and sanitation.

According to data recorded in 2016-17, over 21,000 government schools in the country did not have a separate toilet for girls. Of those that did, about 10.5% were locked and another 11.7% unusable. This means that girls studying in these schools would not use the toilets even during their periods, often leading to massive health complications to the extent of permanent reproductive damage, or they miss classes during every month, eventually dropping out of school altogether. Now, how many women are actually involved in the decision-making when it comes to water and sanitation, two things that are pivotal to a woman’s health?

What India needs is a full scale participation of informed women (men can participate too but will rural girls be comfortable listening to men lecturing them about periods? I believe they simply won’t turn up which means they will remain uninformed) to educate girls and women in rural areas, making them conscious of their own bodies and their right to clean water and sanitary hygiene. While a lot of NGOs are slowly taking up this enormous task, it has all started too late and there is too much to be done.

A woman does not need a man’s or society’s justification for something that is pure biology. There can be endless debates on how society’s ignorance about the woman’s sexual and reproductive health took on such mammoth proportions, and how social control of the woman’s body and health became normalised in time. One would probably have to look back at primitive times to find answers.

The fact remains, however, that even though menstruating is physically draining, it is an integral part of the woman’s existence, making her vulnerable and stronger at the same time. It’s time the woman declared herself free of parochial definitions and ensured that the conversation around menstrual health became something both men and women could contribute towards, instead of being tucked away in the corner with the stamp of societal (read: male) ignorance or disapproval

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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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