There is an alarming lack of awareness about menstrual hygiene and even after decades, there is still a stigma associated with discussing periods, a natural biological function. Meet Srilekha Chakraborty, an activist who has been trying to de-stigmatise menstruation by talking openly about it through her #PeriodsPeCharcha campaign in an interview Feminism in India conducted with her.
Pallavi: Tell us about yourself.
Srilekha Chakraborty: I am a PhD scholar and I am trying to understand gender and sexuality amongst Adivasi girls through my work. I’m trying to bring in an indigenous perspective to the sociology of body and gender. My study is also related to how young girls understand and perceive their own sexuality and their understanding of body in their everyday lives.
While I was working in the community and trying to find literature related to the women, I realized there is actually very little literature related to indigenous Santhali women around body and sexuality. In the community, my advocacy has always been around sexual reproductive health and rights. I have been working entirely around the Santhal pargana which comprises of six districts in Jharkhand mainly and it’s very interesting to understand that in these areas the concept around development has always been from a welfare approach and not from a rights-based approach.
In the community, people have very little agency around what is happening regarding government schemes – the maternal health schemes are one of the most effectively ensured schemes in the community. So when a woman is pregnant, they go to the Anganwadis and there they get injections and medicines. But if you go to the women and ask them, “Do you know what these injections are about?”, they say something along the lines of “Sarkar deti hai, acchi hi hogi” (If the government gives it, it will be good only). Most of the women don’t know what is injected in their body, the idea of welfare schemes has robbed away the sense of entitlement from them.
When I started working around gender and health, I was trying to bring a change in the narrative – it was a movement to ensure a rights-based perspective with informed choices from a welfare perspective, to make the community think that it is your right that the government is giving you what it is – it is not charity. It’s also very interesting that in the area that I work in, the Adivasi belt, the talk has always been around the politics of land, forests and water. So, talking about health was a very different thing coming up, especially in terms of rights where you can go and demand things. I started working there with an organization called Needs (Network for Enterprise Enhancement and Development Support), which talks about reproductive and sexual health with young girls and boys to create a safe space so that at least in the community people knew that they could talk about these things.
P: Why do you think menstruation is such a taboo topic? Does it have more to do with superstition or with lack of attention to ‘women’s issues’?
SC: It’s very interesting to find that in the areas where I work, technically there is no taboo as such in a visual sense. In a more caste-based society, I have observed things being said like “You’re menstruating, you can’t touch this”, “You have to wash your bedding after three days”, and many such. My own understanding of sexuality also changed after working with these communities. For instance, I realised that they have to work in the fields mainly, fetching water, irrespective of their periods. These are things young girls have been doing from a very young age, so the concept of a taboo is not that much. They will do everything which they normally do.
While I was working in the community and trying to find literature related to the women, I realised there is actually very little literature related to indigenous Santhali women or any marginalized women, from a health perspective
There are other taboos, but not in terms of menstruation. There is a lack of knowledge and ownership of women’s issues but which creates the gap. A lot of health policies in India are centred on maternal health and neo-natal health because there are certain national population ratios and things like that. Discussions around menstrual hygiene are extremely new concepts for NGOs and governmental agencies to talk about. In the last three years, I’ve received a lot of phone calls about the same and conversations have been happening at a higher rate than they used to happen before that. It’s about priority and what is more important.
It has actually been one of my points to equate menstruation to reproductive health. The services offered by the government only start when you get pregnant. But before that, after your puberty, it is not considered important to check if you are even getting proper nutrition or if you’re actually menstruating every month. These issues too pertain to pregnancy later and to women’s general health, so it must be tackled too.
P: Can you tell us about the women you’ve been working with? Who are your primary target groups?
SC: I have been working with the Adivasi girls who belong to the Santhali belt. Recently, I have started working with the Munda tribes. When I was working in West Singhbhum I also worked with the Oraon women there. My discussion has been around Adivasi women mainly, but there are also marginalised and backward castes and women in that dialogue also. I primarily work with young women aged anywhere from 16 to 22-24, but mostly I work with young girls who range from 16 to 19. I work with girls who were married quite early and it can go up to 30-35 too. I used to work with the ASHA workers there as well, who have been involved in the community health for long.
P: When did you start the #PeriodsPeCharcha Campaign?
SC: I was working in the community on menstruation for a few years when I realised that the conversation on menstrual health was very new to the girls. I was trying to collect narratives of first periods which is when I realised that it is a very common phenomenon for first periods’ accounts to be stories like, “I went to bathe in the water, and I came back and realised that there was a leech in my vagina.” They used to laugh about it and even say they could not sleep. I realised that my earliest understanding of periods was very different – my mother came and told me everything, and it was not very scary. But for these girls, there was also a fear factor that was involved. After starting to menstruate, a lot of young girls were also dropping out of schools.
Every time I went to the government departments to talk about these things, the scenario was messy. If you go to the Health Department they say “We have so much work, we’re training ASHA workers”, if you go to the Education Department they say, “Yes, education is required but who will do it?” There are many guidelines that talk about menstrual health, but they are not being implemented in the community. When I started talking about menstruation, I named it #PeriodsPeCharcha and then I realised that these things need to go to a global platform too. So there are two parts that go on simultaneously – I have an online petition on #PeriodsPeCharcha and on ground, I work with the young girls in the community, the ASHA workers and the community workers over there who basically go and train other young girls
P: What are some of the primary issues you face in the course of your work?
SC: The first is about clarity between the departments. Swaccha Bharat Abhiyan was supposed to talk about menstruation, but in my area, I noticed it has only talked about toilets and how to keep women in their homes. It has not been feminist enough to even talk about women because women clearly do not have a lot of agency in those parts. Second, there are no set guidelines between the Education Department, the Health Department or any other department to find out what has been happening on ground with regard to menstruation.
I went to a few Kasturba Gandhi schools, which are regional residential schools for girls to study, and they are the only place where you can get sanitary pads on time because they have a proper budget for that. I visited two of them and I realised that there are incinerators and vending machines also. But the girls say that whenever they burn their pads in the incinerators, a lot of smell comes, so they don’t use it. They had cobwebs all over them – it’s just an eye-wash that this is happening and people are using them.
In government schools, the focus has always been on pad distribution. There has never been any focus on disposal or about training to teachers or ASHA workers. Pad distribution in Jharkhand also has only happened once in October and since they have not received it. The problem is deeper when the school doesn’t have dustbins where the girls can dispose of the pads. Regular garbage is fine, but period blood comes with a stigma – who is going to clean that up?
I went and spoke to the Health Department about including discussions on menstrual hygiene and they said ASHA workers will do it since they’re talking about maternal health already. But the ASHA workers do not have any added incentives to talk about these issues and neither do they have the training to conduct these sessions. There was a provision that the ASHA workers were supposed to distribute pads and charge the girls Rs.6 (Rs.5 for the pad and Rs. 1 for them), but the pad has not even reached the workers. They are not asked how many sessions they have taken with young girls because it is not in the policy itself which looks at maternal health.
P: Where do the men figure in this discourse?
SC: I think this is a struggle I’m still dealing with because involving men in the conversation is a very new concept. We have a few male staff who work with the community in areas related to livelihood. What I’ve been doing in my sessions is that I’ve been training these teachers, these village coordinators and I’ve tried to start the dialogue in the community. I‘ve told them that whenever they go and speak about things like farming, for example, they should try to have a conversation with men about this as well. Involving men in the discourse is very important.
There have been times that I have gone to government offices and I’ve been told by the men working There, “Madam, please don’t speak to us, talk to the other women.”
There have been times that I have gone to government offices and I’ve been told by the men working there, “Madam, please don’t speak to us, talk to the other women.” I’ve responded by saying that if any work needs to be done they are the decision maker, so it needs to come to them. But they’ve still said that this is a women’s issue and to not talk to them about it. Second, there are many schools in the community with all-male teachers. The ratio of female to male teachers in Jharkhand is skewed as there are a lot more male than female teachers. A block worker told me once that in one all-male staff school they don’t even distribute pads because they are shy and there is no dialogue about the same. So it is all the more important that we speak to mn about menstruation.
P: Are there any policy level changes that have been brought about?
SC: In 2016, the Jharkhand state has funded the Health Department Rs. 25 crores to promote menstrual hygiene among young girls, distribute sanitary napkins things like that. I get very curious about what happens to that money every year because not a lot of girls have actually received the pads. There’s also a scheme called Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK) under which there are certain districts that have been chosen by the government where a holistic programme has been put in place. So for adolescents, there are ASHA workers who will go and talk about menstrual health and discuss everything.
It’s very interesting that not a lot of these things are happening in the community in a broader way and I also wonder how these districts are chosen – there is not much difference in the RKSK districts and other districts, so why are we working in installments? For example in Jharkhand, 52% of girls get married before they’re 18 and this is quite scary because they are not getting any information on these matters.
There is a guideline that has been made in 2014 that talks about a detailed way in which ASHA workers are supposed to work in the community, what should be the role of the district level authorities etc to talk on menstrual hygiene. It has been written that the ASHA workers are supposed to take discussions in the community about the same. When I speak to the ASHA workers about this, they say that the can only talk about what they know as they don’t have any training. The girls in the community completely deny any such sessions happening, they simply say they don’t go and that it is never discussed.
P: What are the gaps that yet need to be plugged?
SC: Other than what I’ve mentioned before, there needs to be some monitoring to see if the ASHA workers are doing what they are supposed to. I started an online campaign to begin this discussion in the Anganwadis because it is the first health centre the women have access to. There are particular days young girls come to take iron tablets so the ASHA workers can talk to them about menstrual health too. Presently there is no module on menstrual hygiene that the ASHA workers have, at least I have not seen it in the areas where I work, so training is also a must.
P: How do you think we can take this conversation forward?
SC: Menstruation should not be treated as a ‘women’s issue’. It has to be linked to the public health discourse. In the sessions I speak, I speak about anaemia, about how this is tied to maternal and then child malnourishment instead of just talking about the newborn’s malnourishment. We cannot have the conversation on maternal and reproductive health without talking about menstruation and that is what I’m trying to put forward. In the urban scenario, I will talk from a rights-based perspective and I may or may not mention reproductive health as it is not their only reality. But in a rural setting it is imperative because women get married and fall pregnant very early, so tying menstruation to reproductive health is very important and I need to start the conversation from there. It can be a dilemma sometimes but I think it is important for the government to discuss these things too.
FII thanks Srilekha Chakraborty for taking out time to do the interview.
Featured Image Source: The Logical Indian