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Menstruation And The Caste System: A Long Overdue Confrontation

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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.

If you are a privileged person by your milieu, influenced by your caste, class, gender, religion, economic status and every other distinct category to exist; I would like for you to ask yourself this question: What does the menstrual movement stand for and against?

If you fall on the privileged corner of it all, the chances are that your reply would enlist “menstrual leaves”, tampon tax, touching the pickle, entering the temple, etc. Some might mention “period poverty” if they are more intimate with the movement.

Indeed, there is oppression in our privilege, but is this a circumspect view of the menstrual movement? Are all the stories limited to these struggles? Are these taboos universal? Is it just patriarchy?

I am an upper middle class, cishet woman. By raising these questions, I intend to introspect — possibly with you — about how we (privileged) have subsumed the menstrual movement within our privileged struggles. With the universalisation of elite menstrual struggles, the menstrual movement has sidelined the menstruation of Dalit women — existing at the nefarious intersections of caste and gender.

menstruation
While brahmin women bear the burden of upholding the integrity of their household, Dalit women are perceived to be born without that worth.

Menstrual Taboos and the Caste System

Most menstrual taboos that we encounter are an amalgamation of the caste system and patriarchy. The Brahmanical ideals of being “pious” and “pure” are adhered to with rituals and taboos. 

For instance, Deepthi Sukumar narrates her experience with menstruation as a Dalit woman. She talks about “pickle-making” being an upper-caste activity. Because pickles are generally used for food preservation when there is excess left. But Dalits generally face food scarcity so they never really make pickles. Therefore, the “do not touch the pickle” myth is essentially an upper-caste taboo.

Similarly, while Savarna women are stripped of their rights to enter a temple during their Menstruation, Dalit women never even had that right in the first place. 

The Sabarimala temple controversy raised slogans like ‘all women are untouchables’. This periodic untouchability is not akin to the perpetual untouchability that Dalit women face. These slogans merely serve to subvert the narratives of Dalit women.

In a ritual followed in Andhra Pradesh, the clothes worn by an upper-caste girl during her first menstruation are to be given to a “chakali” (lower-caste) woman. This tradition is followed to pass on the pollution brought by the first menstruation to a low-caste person, to preserve the integrity of the upper-caste household.

While brahmin women bear the burden of upholding the integrity of their household, Dalit women are perceived to be born without that worth.

Menstrual Leaves and the Caste System

The stigma around menstruation prohibiting women from entering the kitchen, working and farming is again an upper-caste narrative. 

Dalit women continue to labour through their menstruation. They toil in the fields growing produce like wheat and vegetables. A manifestation of casteist hegemony that exploits them while conveniently forgetting their rut of pollution and purity.

Being deeply entrenched in poverty due to their caste, they do not have the option to demand menstrual leaves. Dalit women working in garment industries are denied leaves and forced to take pills to tackle their periods, going against their right to self-autonomy. 

Their fight for menstrual leaves will come with first breaking through the shackles of their systemic oppression, before breaking the menstrual taboos.

Menstrual Waste and the Caste System

Our saga of menstruation halts once we dispose of our sanitary-napkins in the dustbin. Improper waste disposal can clog the drains and release a terrible stench. The menstrual waste eventually ends up in a dump alongside other wet or dry trash. 

Sewer workers who come into contact with menstrual waste are prone to contracting harmful bacteria and falling ill. Additionally, manual scavengers may also hunt through the dump for some leftover food alongside disposed sanitary napkins. 

Manual scavenging is an inhuman and life-threatening activity. And unfortunately, this “job” is relegated to the lower caste. Millions of manual scavengers are Dalits and Adivasis, with women making up 95–98% of them. 

Confronting as an Intersectional Feminist

Feminists have since long carried out an inadequate discourse around menstruation. A polarised dialogue about the upper-middle class and their plight — taking over the movement because their socio-economic status gives them the voice. 

It is not entirely wrong, but we need intersectional feminism. Feminism acknowledging the circumstances of people existing at the crossroads of caste, class, gender, religion, race and more. A feminist that views every struggle as a struggle in itself — but knows that some hardships are graver and deeper. A privileged feminist that represents their struggles without discounting their privilege and being oblivious of the disadvantaged.

As an intersectional feminist, I believe that Dalit voices deserve to be a distinct entity in the menstrual movement. We can begin by being their ally and not taking up their space.

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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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