Ensuring dignity, killing the silence

A culture of silence and shame around menstruation forces women to neglect their health and become victims of demeaning practices. But there’s hope as a group of social activists arestriving to bring change.

In a remote village in Raichur, where poverty and backwardness rule, women’s health and hygiene is rarely a matter of concern. So even if a family owns the little comforts of life, there is no provision for ensuring that women in the family get basic facilities like clean toilets and sanitary supplies.
Ensuring dignity, killing the silence-1“In my native village, there is lack of awareness about menstrual hygiene and women are vulnerable to serious infections and disease. My mother lives in a small village in Raichur. At home, we have most of the basic comforts such as television, mobile phones, mixer grinder and even a music player. But it is such an irony that up till just a few years ago, whenever my mother got her periods, she would look for rags for menstrual protection, which were not even good enough to swab the floor. A majority of women in the village do this as they do not know what harm it can cause,” says Lata, a young woman who works as a volunteer with a non-government organisation.

In a society where women most often have no say about their basic needs and aspirations, expecting them to pay too much attention on a bodily function might almost seem like a travesty.  After all, among the rural and urban poor, women’s hygiene and sanitation takes the least important place in the scheme of things. These women rarely even have a private space where they can clean themselves and attend to their feminine hygiene.

According to various studies, only 12 per cent of India’s around 350 million menstruating women and girls have access to sanitary napkins. Over 88 per cent of women resort to shocking alternatives like non-sanitised cloth, ash, plastic, sand and husk, exposing themselves to Reproductive Tract Infections (RTIs). Inadequate menstrual protection also makes adolescent girls miss five days of school in a month. Some of these girls actually drop out of school after they start menstruating.

The effects of inadequate sanitation facilities on women are not just confined to health hazards alone. Rural women often venture out into open fields or to use public toilets in the dead of night, which poses major safety issues. In many communities in India, women are made vulnerable through orthodox and demeaning practices centred onmenstruation.

A growing movement

But as grim as it may sound, there are a conscientious few who are tirelessly working to promote menstrual hygiene, reaching out to thousands of women and creating awareness about the need for clean and hygienic protection.

“Girls are banished from the home for four days every month during their periods; many have no access to sanitary napkins and are not given nutritious food in those days. This is because of the culture of silence surrounding menstruation. Apart from the stigma, the biggest barrier to using a sanitary napkin is affordability.We reach out to adolescent girls in government schools and underprivileged communities to create awareness about menstrual hygiene and distribute low cost cotton sanitary pads made by our volunteers to girls in government schools,” says Kala Charlu, founder of Bengaluru-based MITU Foundation, one of the first organisations to work in the area of menstrual hygiene.

MITU Foundation, which works in the area of menstrual hygiene management and women’s empowerment, was founded in the memory of 26-year-old MaitreyiCharlu (fondly known as Mitu) to continue the good work that she had started. Through their Donate for Dignity programme, MITU has been giving away sanitary kits to adolescent school going girls with the help of donors – this kit contains a pack of reusable napkins, disposable paper, soap and panties and can make a world of difference to a school girl.

This year, as part of Menstrual Hygiene Day (May 28), Kala and her team addressed disposal challenges by setting up portable electric incinerators in school bathrooms in Nelamangala taluk. They are also campaigning for clean spaces with water facility, so girls do not drop out of school.

“The biggest challenge is to sensitise the men of the family on the need for menstrual hygiene so that sanitary supplies for the women and girls are budgeted for in the home’s monthly expenditure,” points out Kala.

One woman army

It enraged Bengaluru-based Urmila Chanam that cultural taboos, myths and stigma around menstruation in India are often used to suppress women’s voices and to stop them for having access to information about their health and safe and hygienic sanitation.

“In the remote corners of rural India, women are disempowered, afraid to talk freely about their body, always entangled in a web of working in the fields, drawing water, keeping the house and so on. They do not even realise that they have a right to be healthy and happy. I know of women who have died of infections and cervical cancer because of unhygienic menstrual practices,” says Chanam, a journalist and public health professional, who founded Breaking The Silence a couple of years ago to address the issue of menstrual hygiene.

This year, as part of Menstrual Hygiene Day (May 28), Kala and her team addressed disposal challenges by setting up portable electric incinerators in school bathrooms in Nelamangala taluk.

Urmila travels to remote villages in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and the NorthEast to educate girls and women on the biology of menstruation, its hygienic management and safe and environment friendly disposal of used sanitary material. She partners with grassroots NGOs and through her sessions and open conversations has been empowering women to value their health and ‘break the silence’ around menstruation.
“It began as a social media campaign to help get sanitary supplies for women but now it operates on both levels – my effort is to dispel myths and give the right information on menstrual hygiene in rural India, while garnering support for the campaign from the urban and educated population through social media. We have to move from shame to pride because periods is a life-giving phenomenon,” adds Urmila.
The next few months she will organise rallies and travel on foot from house to house in UP and the North East aiming to reach out to at least 5,000 girls.

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