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4 Indian Politicians Discuss How They Plan To Change The Period Narrative

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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 2018, Ninong Ering, a former Member of Parliament from Arunachal Pradesh introduced the Menstruation Benefits Bill 2017 in Lok Sabha. Among other things, the bill asked that every woman employee be provided thirty minutes of rest twice a day, for four days during menstruation and that women be given the right to self perception of their menstruation period.

But the pièce de résistance of the Bill was the demand for menstrual leave. In making a case for this, Ering cited research that he said dated back World War II. India doesn’t have a law that mandates period leave. In their response, the Ministry of Women and Child Development said there was no immediate plan to legislate for menstrual leave.

Ering’s intervention on this subject was of utmost importance because of the silence India’s political and religious class generally maintains on any discussion on periods — unless of course to spew vile misogynistic nonsense.

There are exceptions in leaders such as BJP MLA from Versova, Dr. Bharati Lavekar, who has extensively worked on period poverty, and helped set up a sanitary pad bank. Largely, political participation in any conversation around menstruation in India mostly remains issue based and infrequent. For example, after the central government in 2018 decided to scrap a 12% tax on feminine hygiene products, several political leaders spoke up about the need for pads to be tax free.

A lot is written every day about periods and the many entrenched socio-cultural aspects that determine accessibility, affordability, safety, hygiene and choice. But unless there’s active, voluntary, and spontaneous political involvement, period conversations will remain on the margins of public discourse.

I spoke to four political leaders to start a conversation on safe periods, and to see what their thoughts are on committing to normalising the conversation around bleeding.

Derek O’Brien (TMC): ‘Will Raise Period Safety In Parliament This Year’

O’Brien, who leads Trinamool Congress in Rajya Sabha, says gender should not be a disqualifier to speak up for safe periods.

Woman holding an Ambedkarite sloganEven though I am a man, and have not personally experienced a menstrual cycle, I feel gender should not be a disqualifier to speak up for ‘safe periods’. It is an important basic right for women to have access to hygienic and affordable menstrual products,” he said.

O’brien admits that a big part of his personal education on issues that matter to women comes from his wife and daughter. “For a start, menstruation must be perceived as ‘normal’ and we must work towards removing the stigma attached to it. Spreading this awareness is important. Let me commit to some meaningful action: a small step. Promise to raise the issue of ‘safe periods’ in Parliament this year,” O’Brien said.

Charu Pragya (BJP): ‘Involve Men In Period Talk’

Pragya, who is BJP’s National Incharge (Legal), says that in a patriarchal society the focus is never on women so it’s never about what she needs.

So starting from where she spends her money — usually on her household or her children — and moving on to how she takes care of her own personal health and hygiene,” Pragya said women tend to put themselves last in their list of priorities.

I think this is where we lack when we do our educational talk to women. And we have to start talking to the men as well, whether we go to schools, or we go to villages, the men have to be sensitive because they have to understand the importance of this in a woman’s life,” Pragya said.

We work on ground, we distribute sanitary napkins, but I like to think that’s the secondary part of our job. The primary part of the job is to sensitize people, and sensitize men. But it’ll need a generational shift now. We start in schools now,” she said.

Addressing her own privilege of growing up with access to sanitary hygiene, Pragya said a huge blind spot among most of the Indian girls, “is that nobody talks to you about what period is, till you’re already on it.

For an 11 year old or a 12 year old girl who doesn’t know what is happening to her, it’s a very scary experience. So I think that is one thing that needs to change in our country,” she said. The conversation about periods needs to start before menarche.

And another thing is that at least I was lucky enough to go to a school with a girls toilet. Imagine what happens to those kids who don’t have a girl’s toilet. So yes, (we need) access to basic sanitary facilities.

Sushmita Dev (INC): ‘Menstrual Hygiene Is A Right To Life Issue’

Dev, who is President, All India Mahila Congress, and National Spokesperson of Indian National Congress, said that as a society we don’t consider menstrual hygiene as a right to life issue.

I have read horrific stories about a young girl in Assam who had maggots in her stomach. We don’t see periods as a right to life issue, but it actually is. When we were trying to get sanitary pads exempted from tax, there were counter arguments — ‘why should we help big companies?’ Just as every child should have the right to vaccination, then people should also have a right to menstrual hygiene. Our perspective is wrong,” she said.

For representation only

Dev pointed out the instance of pads not being counted as an essential product when the lockdown started as an example of the need for attitudinal change. “I’m not criticizing, but when the list of essential commodities came out during lockdown, they didn’t specify sanitary pads, so all the factories shut down. Then they rectified it but it doesn’t come as an instantaneous reaction to think that this is a right to life issue.”

She raised the crucial point that bleeding is not a choice.No, I don’t have a choice in that I am biologically made in a way that I’m going to menstruate once a month. How can you then impose restrictions on me in society or otherwise? And it’s kind of discrimination.

It’s not enough to just give subsidized sanitary pads. The issues are much larger. Yes, access is an issue, no doubt about it. But access is also an issue because it is seen as a stigma. Women don’t speak out. There has to be last mile delivery. If you can take rice and sugar to every corner of the country, you can take pads. And it matters when there are more women in government.”

Khushbu Sundar (INC):

For me, with two menstruating daughters who are 20 and 17, I’ve given them all the training as to what it should be, the hygiene level that has to be maintained, and what they have to do to take care of themselves. But yes, you know, unfortunately, we still go down deeper into the villages where women are not even aware of hygiene when you talk about hygiene,” Sundar, who is not just an actor, but also Indian National Congress’s spokesperson.

During my shoot, we go into these very remote and interior villages where women use cloth or rag or sand, which is not at all hygienic and it causes a lot of other health issues. I think we need to understand that it’s fine to menstruate. You know, there’s a stigma attached to it in most of the villages in the interiors of India,” she said.

We still have their menstruating women who are not allowed inside the kitchen. But unless you’re not going to take away the stigma from talking about menstruation, we cannot address the issues. It’s completely normal to bleed. And if we didn’t bleed men wouldn’t be there in this world, too,” Sundar said.

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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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