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Amplifying The Unheard Voices: Why Caste And Menstruation Cannot Be Separated

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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.

Written by Utkarsh Tiwari

In 2007, Miranda Fricker came up with the ground-breaking theory of Hermeneutical Injustices. It explained how the language to express your oppression is critical in identifying it. Thus, knowing your pain is a privilege of the learned. It is through this lens of undefined oppression, disparity and marginalization that I intend to write this article to explore and understand how our system has excluded the much-needed voices of the Dalit, transgender and non-binary persons.

Owing much to activism in the past decade, the topic of menstruation and menstrual hygiene has come to occupy the stage of public and however rarely, political discourse. Unfortunately, this dialogue has included a disproportionately high number of savarna, upper-caste/class cis-women, and thus, has been dealt with in a structure guided by social privileges and capitalist disparities.

Throughout history, the word ‘menstruation’ has been associated with women in the binary sense. This is the complete invalidation of the lived experiences and struggles of, as pointed above, trans men and non-binary persons. Moreover, this also completely overlooks women who don’t menstruate (trans women and women with PCOD, for example).

To understand anything well, we must understand not only the socio-politics of the time and place but also that of history. Historically, menstruation has cultivated a very patriarchal notion of “purity” as a bid to maintain the gender power dynamics. Some scriptures go as far as to claim that a menstruating woman should not look at a man while he is eating. If the mere glance of a woman threatens your masculinity, what masculinity are you even defending? Oh, also who made the food you’re eating?

This idea of ‘purity’ is not limited only to menstruating women and is eerily reminiscent of the caste hierarchies that have plagued the Indian society for aeons. Some women’s rights activists in the past have claimed that each woman is a Dalit because she faces discrimination, especially when she is menstruating.

This narrative is not only hugely problematic but is also simply, untrue. Caste, gender and class should be treated as overlapping axes of privilege and oppression but should not be used interchangeably. They work by complementing each other by shaping a person’s social identity.

A cis upper caste woman is unlikely to know the struggles of an Adivasi woman, and to claim so is garden variety appropriation. Whereas an urban upper-caste woman is not allowed to enter a temple during her menstruation, a Dalit woman isn’t allowed that for her entire life. It means periods are regarded as defiling only to an upper-caste woman’s dignity because we never attributed any dignity to a Dalit woman in the first place.

Debates about period leave and such, in elitist leftist circles or the echo chambers of Twitter, where the privileged women (and god forbid if men) are the judge, the jury and the executioner, are undoubtedly important. But they do little for the Adivasi, Dalit, poor and rural women who cannot afford to stay at home during their periods or even afford pads.

A survey conducted by the National Family Health Survey-4 (NFHS), released in 2015-16, revealed that while in urban India, 77.5% women observe safe menstrual practices, the numbers stand at an average of only 48.2% for women in rural areas. Women in rural areas have to not only suffer through the ordeal of menstruating in the absence of proper sanitary options but also be subjected to unimaginable social discrimination fueled by illiteracy, stigma, deeply etched patriarchy and lack of appropriate knowledge.

This culture of silence is so deeply etched, that 70% of mothers consider their menstruating daughters “unclean” and according to a study conducted jointly by Water Aid, PATH, Zariya, Development Solutions and Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, only 55% womxn believe that periods are normal. The lack of proper sanitary products causes menstrual infection in 14% of women.

We must ask ourselves, do we, clouded by our privilege, think of these issues motivated by genuine concern or for the mere sensationalism of these accounts. Mainstream discourse dominated by cis upper-class savarna women has systematically failed to include the silenced voice of the marginalized people. We must yield the people their due space and voice, and we must work towards region-specific and goal-oriented comprehensive solutions. We must use our privilege to amplify these voices that matter but are unheard. We must pass the mic!

Blood Safai is a campaign to demand for menstrual waste management. It aims to raise awareness about environmental impact of menstrual waste, advocate for sustainable solutions and demand for action on ground for safe treatment of menstrual waste. It is in association with Youth Ki Awaaz Action Network.

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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