About 4-5 km off the National Highway 37, touching Guwahati city, is the picturesque village of Pamohi, largely inhabited by a majority of Karbis, Bodos, Rabhas and a minuscule percentage of Nepalese and Assamese people. In the last decade, Pamohi has grabbed attention due to the works of Uttam Teron, who in the year 2003 established Parijat Academy – a school for the underprivileged children of Pamohi, with just four students. Over the years, Teron along with his wife Aimoni Tumung, have worked immensely hard to achieve their noble goal of 100% literacy in Pamohi.
In course of time, this passionate couple’s work has not just remained limited to imparting formal school education, but a wide range of other areas from vocational training, awareness building on menstrual health, hygiene, sanitation, environmental concerns, among others. As the entire nation is going hullabaloo over the latest Bollywood release PadMan and the contestations around it, not many are aware of a different story of women in Pamohi making attempts at bringing change as far as accessibility to sanitary hygiene is concerned.
Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) in the state of Assam is limited only to the distribution of sanitary pads during flood emergencies, without taking into consideration the socio-cultural dimensions and a gender-sensitive approach in addressing the same. In April 2017, a young woman from Assam’s Baram area died after developing a parasite inside her stomach which doctors cited as the result of using unwashed and unhygienic cloth during menstrual cycles.
The Days for Girls (DfG) Campaign
Aimoni Tumung is proud of the efforts of these strong-willed women from Pamohi who have initiated the use of reusable eco-friendly sanitary napkins that they themselves make after having attained hands-on training under the Days for Girls campaign. The DfG campaign that first started in Kenya is an effort across 110 countries facilitating “in changing the status quo, through menstrual solutions, health education and income-generating opportunities”.
Celeste Mergens, at a time when virtually no other organizations were speaking about the global need for menstrual hygiene management solutions, established DfG. Almost all over the world, young girls drop out of school due to lack of menstrual supplies and the stigma associated with it. Having realized the need to break the silence around menstruation and taboos associated with it, DfG was established as a network.
Now, under its enterprise programmes, they provide key community members with the tools to make kits and meet the hygiene needs of the community. Tumung acknowledges the help and support that she and her team of women have received from DfG members since July 2017 when contact was first established through volunteers from Florida State University.
MENSTRUAL HYGIENE MANAGEMENT IN ASSAM IS LIMITED ONLY TO THE DISTRIBUTION OF SANITARY PADS DURING FLOOD EMERGENCIES.
DfG and women in Pamohi
Three young volunteers from Florida State University had come to Parijat Academy for their internship and after having seen the plight of menstrual hygiene awareness in Pamohi and the nearby Garbhanga area, these young volunteers decided to introduce DfG in this part of the world. Their mothers, who are volunteers of DfG under one of its enterprises in Florida, came down to provide training to the young girls from the village who were already training in stitching, knitting, etc.
A total of about 15 women, including Aimoni Tumung, received the training which was primarily to facilitate the making of hygiene kits and menstrual supplies. The group was mostly a mix of Bodo and Karbi women in their early twenties and since they were already trained in stitching, the training was completed in a span of 2-3 days.
Women in Pamohi and Garbhanga have minimal or almost no access to menstrual awareness and wellbeing. Garbhanga is an area about 20 km off Pamohi and it has a total of nearly 16-17 villages mostly inhabited by Karbis, Nepalese and a small percentage of Garos from bordering Meghalaya.
Tumung shares, “Awareness on menstrual hygiene and sanitation is almost nil amongst women here. Women are not aware of the use of sanitary napkins, neither do they have access to the same. The dropout rate of girls is very high post attainment of puberty and most women do not even wear underwear, let alone use of sanitary napkins”. She further adds that under sanitation and menstrual health programmes, there have been attempts in distributing underwear to the women in the area. Several international organizations have also come on board to help in this regard.
Extreme poverty in the area has deprived communities of their basic requirements and women’s health continues to remain a neglected domain. Being muddled amidst a range of issues from border contestations with neighbouring Meghalaya, land disputes, attack by wild elephants, etc, women’s issues and needs get sidelined.
In most cases, women use loincloths during the menstrual cycle, but the problem remains that there is no proper awareness regarding the use of these cloth pieces. These cloth pieces need to be washed and then dried in sunlight. Otherwise, the reuse of the cloth makes one succumb to a number of diseases like Urinary Tract Infection (UTI), ulcers and other illnesses.
The making of the menstrual kit
The DfG kit contains washable pads (made of two parts: a shield and a liner). Soft flannel liners are super absorbent when tri-folded and can be layered for extra coverage. When unfolded they are square, so they dry fast and can be washed with very little water. Moisture barrier shields hold liners comfortably in place while stopping leaks. Shields are pre-loaded with one liner in one shield and two in the other to show how one can adjust to flow needs. Shields are leak-proof because of a moisture-proof lining sewn inside called PUL (polyurethane laminate).
When the training was provided in 2017, raw materials like the PUL fabric was brought in bulk from the USA. The women express that the price of this particular fabric is way too expensive and it is difficult for them to regularly source it from outside. Local markets do not stock the same quality of the fabric and hence sometimes, production has to be stopped until the next batch arrives.
These women have customized the kit as per community needs, as the original DfG kit that contains a number of other essentials such as soap, hand towels, etc, which become way too expensive for these women. The cost of the kit is also kept as such that it comes within an affordable range for women in the area. The DfG kit made by women in Pamohi contains 2 large liners and 2 shields, which has a durability of up to 3 years and comes at an affordable price of Rs 110. What is now needed is a good market linkage through which these women can use this as an income generating opportunity.
Beyond the making and the use of the sanitary napkin – a complex debate
Menstruation continues to remain a taboo in Assam and the issue of menstrual hygiene and sanitation is far worse in the tea gardens and riverine or char areas of the state. In a context where women do not have even minimum access to toilets and a private bathing space, building awareness itself becomes an uphill task. The situation is far worse during the annual floods which the state experiences every year.
Rehabilitation camps for those affected by floods, conflict and violence rarely consider the specific needs of women (menstruation, lactation, among others). Nationally, 88% of women in India do not have access to safe and hygienic sanitary products during menstruation. A latest National Family Health Survey conducted in the year 2016 showed that girls in Assam between the age of 15-24, particularly those living in rural areas, need more awareness than those in urban areas.
IN MOST CASES, WOMEN USE LOINCLOTHS DURING THE MENSTRUAL CYCLE, BUT THERE IS NO PROPER AWARENESS REGARDING THEIR USE.
Only 44.8% women aged between 15 and 24 in the state use hygienic methods to control menstrual flow. In 2012, the National Health Mission initiated the Freedays Project across seven districts of Assam, under which one packet of sanitary napkin could be bought at a nominal rate of Rs 6. However, due to extreme poverty, many women could not even afford this.
Furthermore, there also remains the problem of disposing of the plastic sanitary napkins which take decades to decompose. India generates up to one billion tonnes of sanitary waste every month, the disposal and decomposition of which is a major challenge. Women in Assam have historically been using loincloths during menstrual cycles.
However, the taboo associated with menstruation makes women hesitant to wash these pieces of cloth and dry them in the sun. The reuse of unhygienic cloth adds on to the vulnerability to diseases. What women in Pamohi are doing is undoubtedly noteworthy, particularly in a context where women’s issues and awareness on the matter is almost negligible.
However, to draw linkages across the process so that awareness is equally created along with market linkages for selling these eco-friendly sanitary pads is an utmost necessity. Campaigns like Days for Girls are important in facilitating the same. At the same time, the focus should also be to understand the issue contextually as indigenous practices vary from community to community and the shift generally takes time.
The state apparatus needs to take a more proactive role in addressing the issue and the intervention should not be limited merely to the distribution of sanitary napkins. In order to ensure a world where a menstruating woman is no longer shamed, the efforts should thus be beyond viral hashtag photos and campaigns that are not sustainable over time.
Minakshi is pursuing her doctoral studies and is a freelance research consultant on issues of gender justice and marginalised identities.