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The Curious Case Of ‘Wombless’ Villages In India

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Periods have been considered a taboo in this country for a long time and menstruating women have been tagged impure. Women across the country are a victim to the stigma of menstruation. Although in recent years, these age-old ideas have been increasingly challenged, especially by urban educated women, the reality is that the stigma is still prevalent.

Menstrual Stigma Forces Women In Maharashtra To Undergo Voluntary Surgical Procedures For Employment

Although societal stigma itself is bad enough, there are instances where this stigma extends into employment issues. Mostly in these instances, people from the poorer sections of society are the ones affected the most, which is often exploited by some employers.

Thus, a large majority of women, especially those coming from lower-income families, with no agency and no education, are forced to form choices that have long-term and irreversible impacts on their health and their lives.

At the more extreme end of this same societal impact of menstrual stigma is a situation currently being uncovered in Maharashtra where it has been revealed by the Indian media that thousands of young women have undergone voluntary surgical procedures to remove their wombs otherwise known as hysterectomy. This disturbing practice is ultimately leading to the creation of “villages of womb-less women”.

Representational Image. Tens of thousands of poor families from Beed, Osmanabad, Sangli, and Solapur districts migrate every year to the sugar belts for work as cutters in sugarcane fields.

Tens of thousands of poor families from Beed, Osmanabad, Sangli, and Solapur districts migrate every year to the sugar belts in the more affluent western districts of the state where they work for six months as cutters in sugarcane fields.

Greedy Employers Exploit The Workers

Although among them some of the women are in their forties who are almost at an end of their reproductive age, many of those who agree to remove their womb are in their twenties. These women typically come from impoverished families making the extreme decision a harsh reality they face in order to gain employment.

Some of them are married young and have no choice but to take up the work to support their children due to pressing financial conditions. Most of these women are involved in sugarcane harvesting. There, they’re at the mercy of greedy contractors who use every opportunity to take advantage of them.

First of all, they are reluctant to hire women because cane-cutting is hard work. Moreover, during the harvesting period, employees are expected to be available to work at all hours of the day and night and women may miss a day or two of work during their periods.

Additionally, they also require paying a penalty for missing a day’s work. This then leaves little to no time for rest or adequate washing — leaving menstruators open to fatigue or infections related to lack of sanitation.

Fake Medical Information Makes Women Undergo Unnecessary Surgeries

The living conditions at their work-place are far from hygienic – they have to live in huts or tents close to the fields, there are no toilets, and as harvesting is sometimes done even at night so there are no fixed working hours and this affects their sleep cycles.

And when women get their periods, it just makes the situation worse and their struggles more profound. Due to the unhygienic conditions, many women get infected and unscrupulous doctors encourage them to undergo unnecessary surgeries even if they visit for a minor gynaecological problem which can be easily treated with medicine.

As most women in these areas are married at a young age, many have two to three children by the time they are in their mid-20s. Owing to the lack of awareness and misleading information by the doctors, many believe that it’s alright to get rid of their wombs.

These women are making permanent long term decisions regarding their body, without being informed of their disastrous effects. The surgeries lead to persistent pain in the back, neck, and knee and also swollen hands, face, and feet in many women. For some of them, these issues, unfortunately, meant that they can no longer work.

The instances in Maharashtra demonstrate the more extreme end of the spectrum, with drastic or unsafe practices putting lives directly in danger. These incidences glaringly point at the harsh reality that women daily face in the workplace, which gets more extreme and pronounced for the lower income group people.

“Government And Health Professionals Need To Step Up Their Game”

From the lack of basic healthcare and sanitation to exploitation, it creates a really inhumane situation. Even trying to earn the bread for the family comes with a string attached, leading them to their demise.

Awareness among these illiterate labourers along with strict actions taken against the people misleading them and exploiting them may lead to a better future.

The government and health professionals really need to step up their game to provide them with the basic necessities for survival, from healthcare and better working conditions to food, shelter, and education. Furthermore, information and awareness about hygienic menstrual practices could aid in normalising menstruation.

Featured Image Source: Wikimedia
Image is for representation purposes only.
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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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