On World Menstrual Hygiene Day, we hear from 2019 Legacy Award recipient Shomy Hasan Chowdhury. Shomy is a water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) activist from Bangladesh. She has dedicated her life’s work towards ensuring clean water and sanitation for all.
Periods are still a taboo in many parts of the world.
In Bangladesh, during Ramadan, I grew up seeing my aunts hiding their period and pretending to fast in front of family. When I was 16, I got my period for six months straight, yet I did not utter a word to anyone in fear of people talking about my period, until one day my mother noticed why I kept asking for pads. This could have led to more dangerous health complications if left untreated.
On television, whenever an advertisement of sanitary napkins would come up, we would involuntarily change the channel. In commercial ads period blood is usually shown as a blue/purple droplet instead of red.
The chapter on “reproduction” has often been omitted by school teachers and left “to be studied at home.”
At home, I would always ask my Mom to get me pads, so when I went to the US and saw my host Mom and Dad talking about my period openly it came as a culture shock for me. There are different myths surrounding menstruation; some think it is unclean and impure, some even think it is a disease! These little things indicate how we do not embrace a natural phenomenon like menstruation in everyday life.
In Nepal, practices of banishing women to “menstruation huts” during their periods still prevail, though it is illegal. Salesmen would always wrap the pads in a brown bag as if it’s a shame buying them. I was mocked for posting a photo of an unwrapped pad on my social media and was asked to take it down. I did not. The following year, the Bollywood movie “Padman” was a hit and many celebrities took part in the “Padman Challenge” holding photos of pads to break the silence around menstruation. In 2019, the documentary “Period. End of Sentence.” won the Oscar. We are making progress but have a long way to go.
Action Aid have said: “On World Menstrual Hygiene Day 2020, we’re working to break the silence around periods, tackle the stigma often associated with them, and raise awareness of the importance of menstrual hygiene for women and girls around the world.” 28th May is globally celebrated as “Menstrual Hygiene Day” and this year’s theme is “Periods in Pandemic.”
“Awareness 360,” a youth organization I am co-leading with my friend Rijve Arefin, focuses on WASH: Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (Sustainable Development Goal #6: Clean Water and Sanitation) and integrates menstrual hygiene management as a crucial part of its WASH Talks. We reach out to vulnerable communities such as sex-workers, sewerage workers, slum dwellers and school children to raise awareness about different WASH aspects, including menstrual hygiene.
Because of the tax imposed on them, period products are still considered a luxury. Hence, we are advocating to policy makers to cut the tax and invest in research to develop more accessible, affordable, sustainable and environment-friendly options. Across the world menstruators use old clothes, rags, goatskin, cow dung, cotton and more to manage their periods. During our projects we started teaching our beneficiaries how to sew their own reusable pads at home. We also conduct different workshops for young people to lead similar sessions in their communities. During these workshops, we encourage participation of both menstruators and non-menstruators because we believe both have a key role to play. On that note, we intend to make our period movement inclusive and beyond gender, avoiding gender-oriented terms like “girls and women,” and instead opting for neutral languages such as “those who bleed,” “individuals who have period,” and “menstruators” on our campaigns.
On Menstrual Hygiene Day 2020, we are hosting a Facebook live session on “period poverty” and a virtual Padshop teaching how to make pads at home. However, the celebrations began a little early this year. Awareness 360 has partnered with Affordable and Accessible Sanitation for Women (AASW) founded by my fellow Diana Award recipient Ziyaan Virji, Operation Period and 20+ organizations from around the world observing the entire month of May as the first ever International Period Month. The IPM campaign has three calls to action: Share, Create and Donate. We are asking everyone to share their period stories and our social media events happening every day of the month to break the stigma around menstruation, be creative and participate in our period-inspired art challenge, and donate to our emergency relief fund to provide menstrual products to frontline workers, homeless people, and those from low-income backgrounds. Periods don’t stop for pandemics, and neither does our work. More on this campaign can be found at operationperiod.org/ipm
Governments need to incorporate education on menstrual hygiene management in schools at the primary level and beyond, so that a menstruator knows what to expect and how to manage periods before hitting the menarche. WASH facilities such as safe and private toilets to change pads, soap and clean water for washing purposes and disposal systems need to be available so that no one has to drop out of school past puberty. This will ultimately foster access to quality education and economic empowerment, helping the entire society at large. A collective effort is essential to end period poverty and achieve menstrual equity.
It’s about bloody time for action.