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Debunking Myths And Stigma Associated With Menstruation In Kenya

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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.

In a study done by UNICEF, 48% of girls in Iran and 10% of girls in India believe that menstruation is a disease. Moreover, 95% of girls in Nepal underwent restrictions during their first period with 44% of them observing the traditional practice of chaupadi, which views menstruating women as unclean and need to be confined to a shed away from their families.

Myths and misconceptions related to menstruation are still running in the bloodline of many communities in the world. In some parts of the world, being a girl and having periods is viewed with suspicion and shame and is still a huge undermining stigma with deep socio-economic consequences.

Is Menstruation A Scientific Phenomenon?

While the majority of people believe in the scientific notion that menstruation is caused by missed pregnancy following ovulation, whereby the thick endometrial walls of the uterus are shed off, bringing out menstrual flow, a lot of Indians still believe in mythological concepts on the origin of menstruation. Such myths are social and structural injustices perpetrated against women to control women’s sexuality and her being.

Impact Of Menstrual Myths

In communities where periods are still a taboo, a girl’s first period can be a tormenting introduction to puberty. In Ethiopia, more than half of adolescent girls don’t receive any education on menstruation before their first periods. The misconception behind it is that girls are no longer virgins when they start menstruating. Surprisingly, some are punished by parents who fault them for having sex or being raped. The myth lowers women’s intrinsic dignity.

Woman looking at two signs that says facts and myths pointing in opposite directions
For representation only

Furthermore, there is no scientific evidence that menstruation breaks women’s virginity. These convictions only fuel girls’ feelings of shame and embarrassment, sometimes forcing them to drop out of school. There is a need for comprehensive sexuality education to teach people that menstruation is a biological phenomenon which gives women the power of procreation.

Some Hindus believe that if a girl or a woman touches a cow while she is on her period, the cow will become infertile. The myth associates girls and women bodies with curse and impurity and dehumanizes them. Such myths encourage social injustice where women are discouraged from owning property and socio-economic empowerment. It also undermines the right of property ownership. Women should be viewed as good stewards and drivers of the economy and not to be associated with curse or impurity.

Perpetuated Taboos

My grandma came to visit us, suddenly she sat me down and asked me where I do spend my nights, on pointing at my mother’s house, she immediately became cross and summoned my mother claiming it was a taboo for a girl of my age to sleep in my mother’s house.” Says Awuor, 13

Menstruating girls don’t sleep in their mothers’ houses!” Exclaimed the irritated grandma.

Menstruate and forget sleeping in your mother’s house’ is an old and familiar narrative among the Asembo community in Kenya. The mythical narrative that menstruating girls should not sleep in their mothers’ house has run in the community for a long period of time. At this juncture, girls are considered unclean. This myth makes girls victims of their own bodies by making them feel less accepted in the society.

Menstruating girls and women should be treated with respect and dignity. There is a need to sensitize community members that menstruation is a healthy and biological process and should not be viewed with suspicion. Menstruating girls and women need adequate sanitation, sanitary products and a loving atmosphere.

The Bewitched Pads

I have witnessed various cases of ladies who desperately wished their husbands could be more submissive, take their sanitary pads to witchdoctors to make concoctions for their husbands who would end up being over submissive to them.” Narrates Yvonne Oluoch, 20, Siaya, Kenya.

Kenyans believe that sanitary pads stained with blood have magical powers. This resembles Cherokee belief that menstrual blood is a source of feminine strength and has the power to destroy enemies. Likewise, in ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder wrote that a menstruating woman who uncovers her body could scare away hailstorms, whirlwinds and lightning.

Some organizations have done commendable work in busting period myths and accelerating menstrual hygiene education. UNICEF has developed a comic book which educates both boys and girls on menstruation. The book guides girls by telling them all they need to know about their periods and the associated period misconceptions. It also guides boys by teaching them about menstruation and how to support fellow girls.

Despite the progress, there is still much more to be done. There is a need to educate all genders on the importance of open dialogue on menstruation. Governments should support comprehensive sexuality education programmes, which busts misconceptions and negativity that surrounds the menstrual life cycle. Women cannot steer development around the world if their menstrual health is not treated with the seriousness it deserves.

Okoth Paul Okoth is the Kenyan Regional Ambassador to Tunza Eco-generation. He is part of the current batch of the #PeriodParGyan Writer’s Training Program and an intern with Youth Cafe.

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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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