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How Inclusive Are Our Conversations About Menstruation?

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Written by Sukanya Chaudhury

“Pollution may be temporary or permanent, voluntary or involuntary and may fall on any member of the society. The first and the later menstruation, as well as delivery, are periods of specifically female pollution (even though women’s impurities may spread to others) of the involuntary type.”

The aforementioned line of thought and belief, as noted by Gabriella Eichinger Ferro-Luzzi in her work ‘Anthropos’, was reflective of the menstrual scene in Tamil Nadu back in the 1970s. At the time of a woman’s ‘impurity’, she was reduced down to an untouchable who was prohibited from coming in contact with other persons as well as their objects.

In fear of being possessed by evil spirits and the harm which was believed to be inflicted on men if they set their eyes on a menstruating woman, the need for temporary segregation of the menstruators took a seat above the need for menstrual health and hygiene. Such was the fantastical apprehension regarding vaginal blood that the menstruating women were considered to be the lowest of the untouchables, also known as ‘Candala’.

Representational image.

As comical and unreal the stated facts may read, one cannot negate the gravity of the same backwardness which still persists in today’s society. Not just the unscientific notions of the presence of ‘evil spirits’, but the very existence of casteism has allowed the Indian mindset to wander as far as considering a woman untouchable during her periods.

Allocating the menstruator a small corner in the house or, in most cases as seen in the rural areas, an outhouse, was and still is a common practice. With no proper menstrual products at their disposal, women are often left to use plain cloth or sand and mud to deal with their flow. This, undoubtedly, makes women prone to several uterine infections and diseases. Lack of proper nutrition and the required hygiene is what makes menstruation an incredibly uncomfortable and hurtful period for most women in India.

Menstruation is a biological and a very fundamental aspect of the existence of the human race. However, the man-made notion of caste segregation, ironically, occupies a more important role in the functioning of our country. The percentage of internet users in India, as per Digital 2020: India, is reported to be 50%. With a little over 650 million internet users in the country as of January 2020, about 29% are active users of social media.

When the statistics are further delved into, one notices the stark contrast between the 29% of female internet users to that of 71% of male internet users. This directs us to the evident fact that talks about menstrual health management (MHM) and menstrual health education on social media percolates very little into the society- with the vast majority, including the menstruators, still staying unaware of it.

This particular parity can be attributed to the class distinction, which has been enhanced severely due to the existence of castes. If compared to India a few decades back, the situation related to caste distinction and discrimination in the present times is relatively less if not the same. Now, instead of deliberate distinction, it is more of a subconscious institution which exists where only the urban and semi-urban people get access to such awareness programs and are made part of conversations.

Though useful in advocating correct information and debunking common social stigma, the main problem still remains untouched. The urban population, even if not completely aware, has access to clean sanitary products whereas the rural population lacks both. The system of India is such that the difference between the cities and the villages, regarding any aspect, is too vast to be bridged anytime soon. Starting from the lack of education and the existing dogmas surrounding menstruation, it is only given that MHM should be taking a backseat in the list of problems that requires an immediate solution. This is applicable to all castes and tribes in India, excluding only the ‘elite’ metropolitan population.

The depths of the situation can be well understood through the number of girls in semi-rural and rural India who drop out of schools at the onset of their menstruation. About 23 million girls drop out every year with the highest percentage being in Uttar Pradesh (66%). This is primarily due to the lack of privacy, the restrictions imposed on girls and is also dependent on the type of absorbents used. In cities, however, cases of school drop-outs because of menstruation is almost nil but has about 40% of students who remain absent during the days of their periods.

Talks about menstruation have helped a significant percent of the urban population. However, it still remains incomplete and incompetent if it fails to reach the rural population which forms the major bulk of India. Like feminism, talks about equality wasn’t complete until the Third Wave that brought about the inclusion of the intersectional perspective. Similarly, no positive changes regarding menstruation can be brought about if menstruators of the lower castes, tribes as well as trans-men and non-binary persons are not included in the conversations of it.

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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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