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India, Can We Please Stop Period Shaming Young Menstruators?

Remember when in standard 6, all the girls were asked to assemble in the school’s hall or library? While some of the girls knew the reason behind us being called, for others this was just an unknown territory which from that time onwards would be a topic to be spoken about only in whispers.

The female teachers told us how our bodies would be changing as we hit puberty; how we need to wear bras to cover our developing breasts and pads for when we bleed. But all this information was conveyed to us with a reminder in every other sentence, that we should not discuss this with the boys of our class.

Now imagine the surprise of an 11-year-old, who was never informed about periods, because of the taboo this topic was made up into, who is now suddenly thrown into this limbo and left to suffer it in silence.

Representative image only.

We were asked to hide the pads while we carry them to the washrooms in our pockets and feel our cheeks getting flushed when by mistake any boy opens the front chain of our school bag, only to find a pad wrapped around in a green plastic cover. This would be only be followed by snarky comments and sly laughs of the boys and second-hand embarrassment faced by all the girls.

Since then, we have grown up buying menstrual products from medicinal stores wrapped in newspapers, denied entry to temples and shrines, sneakily checked our friend’s skirt for if they have stained or not, and silently cried during cramps.

The concept of period shaming is so deep-rooted in our society that young girls are made to believe that they are impure and unclean for a bodily function that is completely natural and inevitable. The Bhuj Incident of 2020 where 68 college students were forced to remove their underwear to prove if they are menstruating or not showcases one of the many examples of humiliation and barbaric situations which menstruators have to face.

period awareness
Representational image only.

Incidents such as girls forced to drop out of school, undergoing hysterectomy to increase productivity, being banished to live in period huts, being forced to live in dark rooms and denial of food as well as coercing them to marry a banana tree are some of the dehumanizing practices which highlight how the Right to Dignity of a menstruator under Article 21 is time and again being denied.

The Menstrual Hygiene Scheme launched by the government amongst various other schemes focuses upon providing sanitary napkins at a subsidized rate to adolescent girls in rural areas. However, despite the various schemes initiated, a WHO survey pointed out how 43% of Indian woman have no access to sanitary napkins. Moreover, according to National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4), out of the 336 million girls in India more than 60% of adolescent girls use old cloth during menstruation and 71% have no prior idea about periods.

This lack of awareness stems from the absence of active discussion and understanding of women’s bodies. Patriarchy and misogyny have objectified a woman’s body as something that elicits sexual desires, is godly or arouses repulsion. A woman’s body has turned into a symbol of a family’s honour or the source of sexual, political and social violence and hence, a woman’s body is only dignified and respectable if it is hidden and not discussed.

But for how much longer will we allow these dogmatic and obsolete views to influence our present? Why should menstruation be associated with shame and disgust when it is the only form of blood bled without violence? Why should girls be considered impure and restricted from visiting sacred places and temples when Justice D.Y. Chandrachud in the Sabrimala Judgment stated how the social exclusion of woman based on their menstrual status is a form of untouchability forbidden under Article 17 of the Indian Constitution?

Now that period shaming and the subsequent problem of period poverty has become a burning issue, why are we still silent around the topic of menstruation? Is it for the sake of patriarchy and a family’s frail honour? Because in no way could this be for a woman’s welfare as no purity, honour, and dignity can be availed at the expense of a woman’s life. The only way forward from here is to break the silence, normalize healthy talks around menstruation, and raise our voice in incorporating menstrual health and hygiene in the political agenda.

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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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