‘Periods don't stop for pandemics, neither should our activism’

Srilekha Chakraborty, the woman behind menstrual health campaign #PeriodsPeCharcha, talks about introducing changes in ways menstrual health is looked at in Jharkhand's tribal villages

By Sudarshana Chakraborty
Published: Monday 08 June 2020

Srilekha Chakraborty, a gender rights activist from West Bengal, talks to Down to Earth about her work on WASH (water sanitation and hygiene) interventions and sexual reproductive health and rights with the indigenous tribal girls and women in Jharkhand villages.

Chakraborty is the woman behind menstrual health campaign #PeriodsPeCharcha and winner of Ton Schouten Award 2020 for her impactful story telling on WASH and women’s health through art.

WASH interventions in rural dispersed settings aim to improve safe access to water of sufficient quality and quantity and good quality sanitation; to improve hygiene practices; and to improve WASH in hospitals, health and nutrition centres, schools and other institutions. Edited excerpts: 

Sudarshana Chakraborty: What was the one issue that stood out in the seven years of your work on WASH programme in villages?

Srilekha Chakraborty: There were not many initiatives on menstruation when I started working in 2014 in the villages of Jharkhand. There were times when I would go to the decision maker’s office to talk about programmes on menstruation, but would instead be asked to talk to a woman. I would tell him that he has the power to make decisions, so I needed to keep him in the loop.

Things have changed since then. Last year, I did a ‘Freedom to Bleed’ campaign with a local MLA in one of the remote corners of Jharkhand with an aim to provide young girls some independence from the stigma of blood. I want to continue this campaign every year to get more men in power to speak up.

Sudarshana: Amid stigmas and taboos related to menstruation at the grass-root level, what are the changes that you have seen?

Srilekha: Interestingly, there are a few taboos around menstruation among the Santhal communities. But to start living with these girls was a fresh learning for me. Girls lack the awareness on menstruation and body rights. A majority of them don’t have a safe space to understand puberty and menstruation. Also, they don’t know who they should approach in the community to discuss the issue with. The sessions that are assigned ‘Kishori Baithaks’ are inconsistent and the outreach is less. 

Sudarshana: Are the WASH initiatives in India bringing about sufficient changes in health and hygiene?

Srilekha: The Union government, under the flagship of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA), promised to bring ‘Comprehensive Sanitation and Hygiene’ among people in rural India in 2014. But have the women been equal stakeholders in it? Has the government spoken about menstruation as a hygiene agenda to encourage people to challenge the stigma and raise awareness?

Constructing toilets at the grass-root was important. The outreach with information leading to the behavioural change did not happen at the same rate. In the middle of the campaign, the Centre renamed the toilets izzat ghar; every constructed toilet had the words written on it, but the women in the community did not have any clue what it meant.

Now the izzat ghars don’t have water and despite the construction in most places, villagers don’t use them. The impact was positive only at a few places where frontline health workers and grassroot organisations collectively worked.

Sudarshana: How can menstrual hygiene and reproductive health be made more visible and participatory?

Srilekha: First, menstruation and reproductive health are not women-only issues, but a public health concern. I work in Jharkhand and it has one of the highest rates of anemia among adult women in India (67 per cent according to the National Family Health Survey). Anemia is linked to menstruation.

Frontline workers should be trained to link anemia with menstruation and talk about menstruation holistically in villages. The training manuals / booklets available with frontline workers seldom talk about menstruation in a descriptive manner. When we are talking about adolescents and youth, we need to bring up creative posters, booklets and books for awareness.

Srilekha started the menstrual health campaign #PeriodsPeCharcha 

Sudarshana: How can government and non-government initiatives work together to make WASH programmes more impactful?

Srilekha: It’s not about service delivery alone. The central government, during the SBA, started several initiatives on sanitary pad distribution. But they didn’t reach to schools and health centers in most cases.

On the other hand, menstrual hygiene management sessions designed by non-government initiatives include discussions on gender, patriarchy, puberty — to break gender stereotypes and combat taboos.

Girls who dropped out of school as well as those who go to schools meet up in these remedial centres — take sessions, paint and draw — and this leads to a collective behavioral change. Frontline workers are majorly overworked — and government organisations and non-profits should work as allies in providing social support and service delivery together.

The initiative becomes more impactful in places where ASHA workers and auxillary nurse midwives take support from grassroot-level non-profit professionals.

Sudarshana: How was the experience of exploring storytelling for WASH?

Srilekha: It was almost after five years of my work and advocacy around WASH and Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) with indigenous tribal women and girls that I realised how very few stories from the grassroots were presented in the global forums, especially issues and plights of indigenous remote communities around menstruation.

That’s why I started the campaign #PeriodsPeCharcha (Let’s Talk Periods). My campaign demands mandatory menstrual hygiene services for young girls in the communities of Jharkhand.

When I reached out to NEEDS (Network for Enterprise Enhancement and Development Support), an organisation where I am a consultant, with an idea to do a mural, they agreed.

I spent the next few days getting artists and planning the workshop. In 2019, we did a mural project to build a collective story around menstruation that could influence the community.

Involving boys, men and the community has been one of the greatest journeys during the time. I used art in several other programmes on maternal and adolescent health.

Sudarshana: Will the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown and climate change affect WASH? If yes, what can be done to combat it?

Srilekha: A project that aims to provide more than 1,000 girls with the knowledge and understanding on ‘menstrual health matters’ (MHM) has still not been approved by funders. Projects on women’s health are receiving a severe blow.

During any form of natural disaster or catastrophe, the needs of women and children become secondary. Where have the funds given for public and adolescent health initiatives gone? Where will they invest now?

It also builds on to our own mental health anxiety — the fight that we, as grass-root activists, have raged to bring the discourse on MHM, abortion rights, awareness on contraception among adolescents on ground and behavioral changes among boys and men.

I wish to use the money I won with the Ton Schouten Award 2020 to reach out to the most vulnerable section of adolescent and youth. Honouring narratives using a story as the medium and involving the community on a collective act is the need of the hour.

There should be more initiatives to empower the youth and encourage them to create more art on public health and menstruation because periods don’t stop for pandemics — neither should our activism.  

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