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No Period, No Break: Why Women Workers In Beed Are Forced To Remove Their Wombs

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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.

I leave the lush hills on which my campus resides and step down to the valleys of Kolvan and Mulshi. Living in rural Maharashtra, I see the sugarcane crop held in high regard. From the little-too-sweet teas, and the men and women lining the fields, with perpetually bent backs, it was clear that the real backbone of the industry were these people. Who could have known that the price to be paid for their labour were their rights?

The state of Maharashtra boasts the second position for its contribution to sugar production mainly due to the presence of the sugarcane belt in the state. Despite having drought-stricken land, the water-consuming crop has often flourished in the region.

For representation only

Such a drought-prone region is Beed, a village that has often been termed as “womb-less”. It boasts of unusually high rates of hysterectomies performed on the women in the region, particularly of those who migrate the neighbouring districts for the harvest of the crop.

For them to work effectively, several female labourers in their 20s undergo this life-altering procedure of removing their uterus. Medically, hysterectomy is seen as the last straw to any such prevailing condition. But in the Marathwada region, the rising number of hysterectomies are clearly a cause for concern. Why do these women choose to go through such a harsh and expensive procedure?

Drought-stricken land of the Beed district makes their lives harder as they have to work under harsh conditions for a meagre harvest. A family who cannot earn—if they cannot use their labour— has to pay to never go through labour. They go through the expensive procedure of removing all or parts of their uterus, as unnecessary as the removal may be.

The side effects of the procedure are high, with joint pain to low calcium. The lack of a nutritious diet paired with such an incredibly invasive procedure being performed results in them having lost their ability to menstruate and to give birth, ridding them of their choice. They were often not informed about the details of the side effects of the procedure nor of its lack of necessity.

Are We Losing Labour Rights?

The issue has brought out a narrative that has often been left out of the question of labour rights. There are suspicions surrounding that the women have been pushed into the procedure due to their employers, to maximise the productivity of their labourers. This is one narrative that the Maharashtrian administration considered for their investigation of the issue in June 2019.

The couples from Beed who migrate in search of sugarcane cutting are often employed by a contractor who pays them an amount in advance for a particular period. If they fail to meet the harvest set, the remaining of the amount is demanded back.

There are financial struggles on both sides, as the labourers from Beed come from poor backgrounds and exhaust the advance very quickly. The contractors also suffer from the act of cultivating a water-hungry crop in drought-stricken regions, in the name of commercial profit. Though their struggles are in no way comparable, this begs the question of nature of migratory work in a country like India.

migrant labourers
For representation only

The lack of concern for the health as well as the human rights of these workers is dehumanising. In light of the current pandemic, the migrant workers face a similar issue, again: a lack of healthcare concern from the authorities and their dehumanisation due to the nature of work. Labourers are sprayed, cursed and shouted at for their genuine concerns and need to work.

They die on the streets, on their way home and starve. Here, the women lie on surgery tables, having to part prematurely from their menstrual journey to work.

If this is the way their health has been disregarded in issues that can be treated with medicine, this begs the question of how are they treated against the backdrop of a pandemic?

The nature of labour in a “socialist“-turned-capitalist country has seen its fair share of exploitation, especially at the grassroots level. There is a countrywide epidemic of the gross exploitation of labour and the compromising of labourer health in favour of the state economy.

Debt And Dialogue

Due to the nature of their work, women often go through with the usually unnecessary procedure after placing complete trust in their health professionals to think in their best interests. The debt they incur from these procedures adds to the financial burden the family bears.

The exploitation of the often uneducated women by profit-driven doctors cannot be ignored either. In a country where is there is little dialogue over menstruation and reproductive health, how can these women make an “educated” decision?

Policies, Not Profit

What this challenge requires are menstrual awareness campaigns in rural areas, with more female doctors so that rural women feel comfortable talking about their intimate health with them. Awareness is critical as women often tend to rely on doctors due to lack of information about their bodies.

Normalising conversations around menstrual health is not easy, but gradual introduction of such topics in rural areas is essential. Campaigns can engage local women leaders so that such information is presented knowing the cultural-linguistic landscape of the community. Involving the men of such areas in the conversation helps as they can empathise with their wives or family members.

Moreover, the reasons behind performing such a procedure must be adequate, and such a protocol must be implemented within public and private hospitals. If necessary, a public health notice must be communicated for women to refer to reliable sources to make a choice. The side effects of the procedure must also be compulsorily described to the women.

For representation only

Regular contact must be maintained with the women to make sure that their contractors do not exploit them. However, this may be extremely challenging due to the migratory nature of the community. Another way is to put more policies in place protecting vulnerable parts of the population, such as migrant workers, which not only will boost their economic safety but also protect their well-being.

This issue is another reason to further push for sexual education in schools. Sexual education includes not only the practice of safe intercourse but also a detailed inquiry into sexual and reproductive health and rights. Not only will it help to take away the taboos surrounding sex in the second-most populous country but also effectively put the growing adolescents into a position where they can be informed about their bodies.

Not only is this issue a clear example of how cultural notions of female health can create a negative impact, but it is also a reminder of the ever-turning wheels of a profit-based economy, where the grassroots labourer is dehumanised and stripped of their rights. In a set-up where a person’s productivity is prioritised over their being, it is another compelling narrative on how profiteering and the lack of information about menstruation and female health exist in harmony to wreck the lives of such economically disadvantaged groups.

The discomfort of open defecation, lack of dialogue around menstruation, the pain of daily labour and growing poverty are all aspects of their lives that plague their well-being. Womb-less, the newspapers and journals call them. Right-less, I would say. Lack of their right to information is blatant in this issue. Give the women in Beed the right to bleed and be.

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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.

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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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