Sonitpur Swacchata Mela – creating a safe space for MHM

by Mayuri Bhattacharjee

Melas or fairs are an integral part of Assamese culture and tradition. Most of us in Assam have heard about the Ambabuchi Mela or Jonbil Mela, but what about a Swachhata Mela, (a fair for cleanliness)?

On 15th March, 2017 Sonitpur, one of the largest districts in Assam, witnessed the first ever Swachhata Mela which was a follow up action of ‘Assam Conference on Sanitation’ held this February. The focus of this year’s Sonitpur Swachhata Mela (SSM) was promoting better sanitation and hygiene practices and highlighting the success stories in the district. This landmark event was graced by Rihon Daimary, Honourable Minister, Public Health and Engineering Department, Government of Assam; Manoj Kumar Deka, Deputy Commissioner of Sonitpur; Brindaban Goswami, MLA, Tezpur Constituency among other dignitaries.

Menstrual Hygiene Management & Swachh Bharat Mission (G)

Menstruation is a taboo in our society and it is seen as a dirty topic, sometimes even dirtier than shit and toilets. In the past few years, there has been a shift in mindset at the policy level which is evident from various government policies on Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM).

The Swachh Bharat Mission (G) Guidelines say: “Girls and women have hygiene and sanitation needs linked to their menstrual cycle. Women suffer in the absence of knowledge about safe practices on MHM.”  The guidelines mention conducting IEC activities to generate awareness about good menstrual hygiene practices among all stakeholders. Under the Solid & Liquid Waste Management component, funds from SBM (G) can also be used to set up incinerators in schools, as per SBM (G) guidelines.

MHM is a multi-faceted topic concerning various Ministries, especially the Ministry of Women and Child Development; Ministry of Human Resource Development; Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation; and Ministry of Health & Family Welfare. At the state level the Health & Family Welfare Department is playing a significant role by distributing low-cost pads through ASHA workers and providing education on adolescent health.

The Public Health & Engineering Department (PHED), the nodal department in charge of SBM (G) in Assam, has a significant role to play in MHM. The department is in charge of overseeing the construction of toilets with proper facilities, so that women have a hygienic space to change and clean up during periods. The increasing use of commercial sanitary pads in rural areas is also raising concerns about proper waste management, an area which PHED has to deal with under SBM.

Therefore, MHM cannot be ignored if we have to realise the goals and objectives of SBM.

Creating a space for Menstrual Hygiene at SSM 17

At SSM 17, we, at Sikun Relief Foundation decided to focus on MHM and tried to create an interactive space in our stall.  Our day started on a high note when Shri Rihon Daimary, Honorable Minister PHED, Government of Assam signed the pledge to break the silence around menstruation and ‘Be a MHM Champion’.

During our conversations with young girls and women we emphasised that menstruation is NOT an illness. A healthy period is in fact a sign of good health.

We believe the choice of menstrual products should be with women, however most of the women who visited our space at SSM 17 think cloth is backdated while pads are hassle-free. The reason for their choice is the difficulty to maintain cloth. Due to taboos they couldn’t dry the cloth out in the sun like other garments, which in turn leads to rashes and infections.

We also had a lot of fun talking about experiences with some women. One of them told us, “When I first started menstruating, I was confused and couldn’t understand from which hole was the blood coming out.”

A group of middle aged men also asked us about home remedies for menstrual cramps. Yes, that happened!

While we were wrapping up for the day, three young girls asked us if we could give them a couple of our leaflets on Menstrual Hygiene. Reason: They wanted to share them with their male classmates and tell them what they heard from our presentation in the morning. “We will tell everyone about this, at school and in the village,” one of them exclaimed.

“Why should we be ashamed?”

We were happy that in a crowded field, our 10x 8 ft stall became a safe space to talk about a menstruation without any shame or hesitation.

PS: In Sanskrit, Sonitpur means the city of blood and in a poetic manner it is only apt that we started our Menstrual Hygiene Project in Northeast India from this district.