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A Day Spent In Sunkiya Village Talking About Menstruation And Environment

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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.

By Chandarprabha Sharma

“Okay then, either we get thrown out of the village, or we earn a family for life. In either case, we will remember this for life”, I joked with my friend Vaishali Singh.

In 2019, eArth Samvarta Foundation (eSF)’s visited the beautiful village of Sunkiya near Mukteshwar in Uttarakhand to understand their ways and lives from an ecological perspective. Sunkiya and its people were especially aware and conscious about their environment and were dedicated to conserving it. They solved the problem of unemployment and livelihoods by creating Camp Sunkiya, an eco-tourism facility which also increased the incentives further to conserve Sunkiya’s ecology.

This made us curious about what menstruators in Sunkiya village used to maintain hygiene during their periods and how the related waste was managed. These two questions have been an important study for eSF in its community study trips because of the paradox between the goals of improving access to sanitary pads and conserving the environment.

58% of girls and women use hygienic sanitary products according to NFHS-IV. This means that a large population of menstruators still use dirty rags, sawdust, leaves and other unsafe methods for menstrual hygiene. At the same time, 200 Tonnes of sanitary pad waste is generated every day in India. The two goals of improving access to safe menstrual hygiene products for menstruators and reducing environmental damage from plastic-based disposal sanitary pads seem to be paradoxical goals that compete against each other.

However, a variety of eco-friendly options available in the market have made it possible to simultaneously achieve the goals of improving menstrual health and hygiene for menstruators while also protecting the environment from plastic waste from disposable sanitary pads. Our experience with the womxn of Sunkiya Village in Uttarakhand highlighted important considerations that can encourage the adoption of eco-friendly sanitary products.

Overcoming Stigma To Communicate About Menstruation And Eco-friendly Products

The reason we were worried about being get kicked out of the village was because of the stigma around the topic of menstruation. When we entered the Jan Chaupal, we also noticed womxn from 3 generations- grandparents to younger ones. We knew we had to approach the topic sensitively due to this inter-generational group.

The stigma around menstruation needs empathy and strong communication skills that build trust and confidence first, to have a meaningful discourse instead of being shut down right at the start.

Building Trust And Confidence

Sunkiya village and its people made us feel so welcome that we felt like we would leave with a newfound family. eSF’s menstrual health workshops begin with fun Icebreakers and for Sunkiya, we had to come up with something special. We began with introductions wherein every member had to share their name and the relationship they had with the eldest member present. This helped build familiarity and make the group feel warmer.

Another icebreaker we played was to invite them to share all the different codewords and names for the word menstruation that have used or heard. This game turned into a laugh riot as they explained codewords like “Chipkali choona” and more. Somewhere in the laughter, we took the first step towards overcoming the hesitation and stigma around menstruation and the doors for an open, comfortable and emphatic discussion opened up.

Building A Sense Of Empathy

We first spoke to the eldest womxn in the group and asked them about their experiences and challenges with menstruation. They spoke about the rules they followed like sleeping outdoors, not stepping into the kitchen or temple and more. They also spoke about how they spent days worrying about leakage through the rags they used, and the bloodstains being visible. “Nishaan ke kaaran sabko pata bhi chal jata tha ki mahina chal raha hai, aur sharam aur aati thi”. (Others would find out that we were on our period due to the leakage stains and it would be embarrassing for us”

“Kya aap chahoge ki aapki potiyon ko bhi in mushkilon ka saamna karna pade?”, we asked. (Would you want your granddaughters to face the same challenges?). To this question, asked immediately after they recalled their own discrimination and misery during periods, they answered with a firm, “Nahi- kabhi bhi nahi” (never).

The Miracle Sanitary Pad

The 2nd generation of womxn in the village, the daughters and the daughter-in laws, shared how their experience have seen some improvement with regards to the rules. They still avoid entering certain areas like kitchens and temples, but they are not expected to sleep outdoors in discomfort. This felt like music to our ears. Their experience with menstrual hygiene also drastically changed when sanitary pads arrived at their kirana store.

Pads was more comfortable and they didn’t have to worry about accidents and leakages. “Ab doosron ko pata hi nahi chalta ki humare mahina chal raha hai!”. (No one finds out we are on our period because there is no leakage!).

“Bohot badhiya, kya pads se kuch mushqilein bhi hui hain?”, we asked. (That is great to hear, have their been any difficulties with pads too?). 

Allowing Discussion To Thrive Works Better Than Preaching

Eco-consciousness is still intact in most villages with them practising many traditional ways that are more responsible. The people of Sunkiya village had built livelihoods around eco-conscious practices through their Camp Sunkiya model. So the womxn were quick to share their discomfort and difficulties with disposal of the sanitary pads.

“Humein samajh nahi aata hai ki khoon se bhara pad kahan surakshit phenke. Jalaana nahi chaahte, suna hai sehat ko nuksaan hota hai. Idhar udhar phekenge toh humare gaay aur kutte dhoond lete hain. Gaumata ka toh doodh peete hain, pads kaise khaane dein. Nadi ka paani bhi kharaab nahi karna chaahte. Toh gaddha khod kar mitti mein daba dete hain”. (We are worried about where to throw our blood-soaked pads. We don’t want to burn it because we have heard that it is harmful. We don’t want to throw them here and there because the animals find it. How can we let Gaumata (cow) accidentally eat the pad- we rely on the milk she gives. We don’t want to spoil our river. So, we dig a pit and bury the pad in it).

The community members themselves highlighted the problems with the disposal of sanitary pads. While they found them to be more comfortable, they realised the pads were harming the ecology of their Sunkiya. This helped clarify (if there was any possible doubt) that we were not there to market a product to them, but instead to hear their thoughts out and collaboratively work out solutions.

Discussing The Menstrual Cup And The Cloth Pad

We passed around the menstrual cup and asked them to guess what it was. We then explained its use and showed diagrams of how the cup works. We also showed them how much money one can save with menstrual cups compared to sanitary pads. The cost savings and the promise of preventing damage to the environment made them beam. They were nervous about giving it to their daughters due to fears of insertion but the mothers were keen on trying it. A senior daughter quipped, “Aaj kal kuch farak nahi padta, isko toh sab istamaal kar sakte hain” (it doesn’t matter these days, everyone uses them), which made everyone else giggle.

We also showed them the cloth pad, which had them slightly unamused. This is a common reaction when we show the cloth pad especially for menstruators who have been using rags. “Why should we pay for something that we have been using for free for all these years?” is the common question.

This question beautifully opens up the discussion into the importance of safety and hygiene. The problem is not with cloth, but with dirty, old rags. Additionally, the problem is with material that does not absorb well leading to health problems due to hygiene issues.

Cloth pads (dedicatedly created for menstrual hygiene and washed and dried in the sun, well before reuse) are safe and effective, but old, unsterile rags, which might not be allowed to dry in the sun but kept in the shade due to stigma can cause infections. If the right material is used with the effective design to prevent leakage, cloth pads can even be made at home or through Self Help Groups. We saw their eyes light up with another possibility to create livelihoods in their village around an idea that could also protect the environment.

Different communities respond in different ways to the topic of menstruation. Contrary to our nervousness, the women of Sunkiya village not only overcame the hesitation in no time, but actively discussed how they could have more agency and choice in the products for their menstrual health and hygiene.

They identified how their personal health and the health of the planet were related and were inspired to take action to protect both. 

What are your thoughts on Menstruation, and what do you know about the various types of products available for menstrual hygiene? 
Participate in the Planet-Friendly Periods survey and share your thoughts! Your participation in the 2-minute survey will create immense impact for the cause of menstrual health awareness.

Planet Friendly Periods is a campaign by eArth Samvarta Foundation (eSF) represented by Youth Ki Awaaz Action Network Fellow Chandarprabha Sharma in partnership with Nagar Nigam Ayodhya. The campaign aims to raise awareness about eco-friendly menstrual hygiene options in Ayodhya.

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  1. Suman Singh

    Very well said and highly informative!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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