At a time when many girls continue to be stigmatised and discriminated against simply because they menstruate, is it not essential for us all to break period-related taboos and ensure safe, hygienic and dignified menstruation for all girls?
“Don’t take a bath when menstruating. That harms the uterus.”
“Avoid drinking too much water.”
“Don’t play sports while on periods.”
“You can’t participate in religious activities. You are impure.”
These are the statements Aisha (name changed), now 16 and studying in Class 10, grew up amid. Hailing from the picturesque Lolab Valley in Kupwara district in Jammu and Kashmir, Aisha, upon hitting puberty, had started adhering to the same restrictions that other menstruating girls and women in her Gujjar community followed. That meant – no sports or religious activities during “those days of the month”!
When Aisha completed Class 7, her father – a daily wage labourer – moved her to Srinagar to study at the Gujjar-Bakarwal Boarding School, which provides free-of-cost education to girls from tribal communities. And she started staying at the Gujjar-Bakarwal Hostel (GB Hostel). Recollecting her time home, Aisha narrates, “I didn’t even know why women bleed. In our community, even mothers hesitate to talk to their daughters about menstruation. That’s a taboo. But moving to Srinagar completely transformed my understanding regarding Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM), thanks to the interventions by ActionAid Association at our hostel”.
In April 2020, we started working with adolescent girls and young women aged 15-25 years from the Gujjar and Bakarwal communities across Jammu and Kashmir residing in GB Hostel Srinagar. It all started with us sensitising them, strengthening their life skills and helping them become economically independent. Most girls lacked accurate information about menstruation. Cultural taboos and discriminatory social norms constrained them. As a result, unhealthy menstrual practices were prevalent. To address this issue we started working with subject experts, designed and conducted workshops to enhance understanding of Menstrual Health and Hygiene (MHH). The organisation also distributed sanitary napkins to 190 girls staying at GB Hostel.
“During these awareness-building sessions, we didn’t just learn how to manage menstruation safely and with dignity, but also about our Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR),” shares Aisha. In Gujjar and Bakarwal communities, many girls are married off at a very young age. Moreover, nearly three-fourths of women aged 15-49 years are anaemic in Aisha’s home district, Kupwara (as per NFHS-5). At these workshops, she learnt how early marriage and pregnancy, or repeated pregnancies spaced too closely, can devastate women’s health.
“When I now visit my home during vacations, I orient girls and even older women in the community about MHM and try to remove related misconceptions. I am also happy to have sensitised my parents against early marriage. They now want me to pursue higher education. Going forward, I hope to bring about a positive transformation in the mindset of my community members as well,” says Aisha with a confident smile. She requested us to now facilitate a session for the girls on Polycystic Ovarian Disease and Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome.
Recognising how Gender-Based Violence (GBV) violates human rights, including adversely impacting the sexual and reproductive health of those who experience it.
Women and girls’ perspective-building on gender-based discrimination and violence is carried out regularly, and they are encouraged to raise their voices against it.
17-year-old Ziya (name changed), belonging to the Bakarwal community in Pulwama district, is another young champion who was trained during interventions at GB Hostel. Her elder sister had been married off at 16 years, and she became a mother within barely a year. However, since a girl child was born, her husband and in-laws started torturing her – mentally and physically. Finally, unable to take it anymore, she fled with her daughter back to her parents, only to be forced by them to return to her husband’s house. “In our family, staying in an abusive relationship was seen as okay, but divorce was never an option for women,” Ziya recalls.
“When I was shifted to Srinagar, I started participating in workshops at our hostel on SRHR and gender-based violence. At those workshops, we were taught about patriarchy and gender-based discrimination. We were also encouraged to speak up against violence against women and to report related cases to the police,” narrates Ziya. “So, when I was home next during my summer vacations, I decided to talk to my parents about bringing my sister and her daughter out of their abusive environment. I finally convinced them, and we reported the case at the police station. My sister has now also filed a case for divorce. She is living a peaceful life now and has started smiling again,” shares a happy Ziya.
In February this year, we also launched an intervention in Baramulla to promote menstrual health and advance sexual and reproductive health and rights among women and girls living in the district. As per NFHS-5, only 67.9% of women in the district are literate, and only 62% (aged 15-24 years) use hygienic protection methods during their menstrual period. Patriarchy is much more deep-rooted in the far-flung areas of the blocks of Boniyar and Uri, resulting in a higher incidence of gender-based discrimination and violence there. The organisation plans to work with health authorities to strengthen the healthcare infrastructure in these hilly, remote locations.
This World Health Day, the World Health Organisation observes its 75th anniversary; the theme is #HealthForAll.
At a time when many girls continue to be stigmatised and discriminated against simply because they menstruate, is it not essential for us all to break period-related taboos and ensure safe, hygienic and dignified menstruation for all girls? Furthermore, when a significant number of women continue to die from preventable complications related to pregnancy and childbirth, it becomes crucial to sensitise communities on sexual and reproductive health and rights, strengthen healthcare systems, and promote equitable access to quality healthcare for all women.
Authored by Priyanka Khullar, Manager, Communications, at ActionAid Association. Developed with inputs from Nadiya Sheikh leads their work in Jammu and Kashmir.
Disclaimer: The article was originally published on shethePeople. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of ActionAid Association.
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