Period poverty is a very real thing, not because of our economic crisis, but because of a much more deep-seated social bias coupled with economic insensitivity. Yes, with sanitary napkins and other feminine hygiene products deemed luxury items and subject to eye-watering tax as well as lack of physical accessibility, economically and systemically, this is an issue to be resolved, but the root cause behind period poverty is the ostracisation and isolation many young women face because of the cultural shame attached to menstruation.
Discussions on sex, sexual and reproductive health have always been frowned upon (to say the least) in our culture. This taboo extends to discussions on menstruation, despite it being a natural process that all women go through for a significant portion of their lives. The only socially sanctioned time to discuss a period is when someone becomes a ‘big girl’ or at times of suspected pregnancy. For all periods in between, women are basically on their own.
This lack of discussion contributes heavily to period poverty; a lack of overall access to methods, infrastructure, and knowledge when it comes to managing menstrual health, including but not limited to a lack of hygiene products like pads, tampons, menstrual cups etc., sanitation facilities like clean toilets, affordable healthcare facilities, and water management systems, and finally, an environment free from harmful misconceptions, cultural practises and shame.
In a bid to shift social attitudes towards menstruation and move towards easing period poverty, The Grassrooted Trust, with the Women’s Development Foundation, has formed the Athwela Sahana Piyasa Team to embark on an awareness and education initiative titled Mindful Menstruation to give women and girls in the Ibbagamuwa Division of the Kurunegala District the chance to learn about menstrual health and hygiene and how they can go into their communities and be voices for positive change.
Brunch sat down with The Grassrooted Trust Director Paba Deshapriya to learn more about Mindful Menstruation. “Mindful Menstruation is a process that we have implemented that helps our communities to counter the stigma and discrimination that stems from fear and ignorance of how our bodies work,” Paba shared, stressing: “It is not a one-off programme, which is why we use the word ‘process’. It is a process where we understand how and why our bodies work in this way. It is a lot of time spent understanding, listening, hearing criticism, and questioning, where at the end (hopefully) women and girls can practice, afford, use, and also be eco-conscious in terms of menstrual hygiene.”
The pandemic, with its lockdowns, has forced whole families to be at home all the time, especially in rural areas, in a way that has been largely unprecedented. With menstruating women and their male family members in the home all the time for an extended period, many women lost a sense of privacy, especially when it came to menstruating, and served to increase the sense of shame associated with menstruation.
Mindful Menstruation, in addition to building awareness for long-term change, also works to provide rural women with disposable sanitary napkins that can be used in lieu of these pieces of cloth that pose health risks to them if handled improperly. Addressing concerns on promoting the use of disposable sanitary napkins, because of their impact on the environment, Paba noted that disposable sanitary napkins are a short-term measure, with part of Mindful Menstruation’s long-term goals being to teach rural women about the other, more sustainable ways of managing menstruation, including reusable cloth napkins. “I’m all for it [using cloth] because it’s environmentally friendly, but when shame and cultural embarrassment comes in, women are not able to dry these clothes properly,” Paba said. “They dry it under their bed in the night, for example – and this leads to health risks like septicemia and various infections because the cloth is not clean or dried properly.”
Mindful Menstruation’s core goal is to first and foremost change attitudes around menstrual and sexual health, starting from creating an environment where a woman can seek out menstrual hygiene products without a second thought. “The reason we need Mindful Menstruation is because there’s still so much that is taboo,” Paba explained, noting: “In rural settings, there is so much shame that women cannot access hygiene products.” Often, it is this lack of access to sanitary napkins (or napkins being too expensive) that leads to rural women resorting to traditional methods like using cloth, but even for those women who can afford menstrual hygiene products like sanitary napkins there’s still a huge amount of stigma around being able to buy such products.
Paba shared that in many rural areas, the act of simply going to buy a sanitary napkin is often treated like a heist – the girl in question goes to the shop and hangs around for a little bit, making small talk with the mudalali, before discreetly making her way to the cabinet where pads are, then taking one and placing it near the mudalali while loudly asking for a pack of biscuits. “There is so much shame around menstruation. It has been made into something very unclean and women are put down with no understanding of how their bodies work,” Paba said. “This is why we need to separate myth from scientific fact and educate people on how natural this process is, and that it is a right to remain hygienic, access these products, and understand and educate themselves about how their bodies work.”
Through Mindful Menstruation’s approach of going directly to these communities at the grassroots level, Paba explained that they are better able to drive change. Mindful Menstruation doesn’t focus solely on menstruation, but a variety of other important things as well, like bodily integrity and autonomy, consent, pleasure, virginity, violence and its prevention, child abuse and corporal punishment, and protecting children.
“I always say that we can go talk to a community for hours, but if they’re not ready to listen there is no point. They need to have an open mind to listen to what is being said,” Paba said, explaining the rationale behind combining Mindful Menstruation with other programmes. “Because Mindful Menstruation is not only about menstruation, but also about bodily integrity and prevention of violence, there is a certain type of acceptance. We also give free pads to 150 women every month. What we’re trying to do right now is harm-reduction and build a space for them to talk. Women think menstruation is something you’re not supposed to talk about, and this needs to change. What we’ve done with Mindful Menstruation is open a space and made them understand we don’t judge them for having their period. We ask them questions like how their last month’s period was, and immediately, you create a space for them to be open. We have 100% participation in our conversations. They bring up their challenges, and now, we’ve even come to the point where they also propose and make solutions, which is the point of having such conversations.”
Greater education is also vital to making moves towards ending period poverty. “There are wide gaps in understanding about menstruation, which is why this is happening,” Paba said, adding that myths stating that menstruating women shouldn’t bathe and cultural practises like menstruating women being forbidden from visiting temples also contribute to the taboo around menstruation. “We need to fill the gaps, and this needs to be addressed across all levels of society.”
Having commenced Mindful Menstruation last year during the lockdown with a small group of rural women in Ibbagamuwa, The Grassrooted Trust is now looking to expand and touch the lives of more women. The support of the public is crucial for such initiatives and so, The Grassrooted Trust would like to invite the public to be a part of Mindful Menstruation by donating to sponsor menstrual health and hygiene products for rural women or to sponsor a Mindful Menstruation and be a part of driving long-term social change. It costs Rs. 4,000 to sponsor 25 packs of disposable sanitary napkins or two period cups, and Rs. 5,000 to sponsor a Mindful Menstruation Discussion.
For more information on how to donate or support Mindful Menstruation or to stay updated on its progress, please contact The Grassrooted Trust on firstname.lastname@example.org