Read, Debate: Engage.

The women behind Kashmir's menstrual health revolution

September 07, 2023
topic:Women's rights
tags:#Kashmir, #menstrual health, #women's rights, #gender equality
by:Sutapa Baksi, Rishabh Jain
"The cultural stigma surrounding menstruation is deeply rooted. It is crucial that we break free from these oppressive constraints."

Ridwana Akhtar is on a mission to manufacture sanitary pads using sustainable methods and debunk myths surrounding menstruation. In her village in the Anantnag district of Kashmir, Akhtar noted a web of moral, religious and cultural beliefs intertwined with misconceptions and false information about menstruation.

"We all know how hesitant women get when it comes to menstruation. But the truth is that a woman's menstrual bleeding is a natural process, and there's no reason to [...] feel ashamed," said the 38-year-old entrepreneur who runs Al-Qaria, a self-help group.

Misinformation and superstitions around menstruation continue to circulate across India and Indian-administered Kashmir. A 2022 report conducted by UNICEF revealed that 71 per cent of teenage girls in India are not informed about menstruation until they experience their initial period.

Additionally, a 2019 study compiled by the Mumbai-based NGO Dasra found that approximately 23 million girls in the country drop out of school every year due to inadequate facilities for managing menstrual hygiene. These facilities include access to sanitary pads and education about menstruation.

Across the country, studies reveal, menstruating women are restricted from touching or consuming milk, honey and pickles. They are also barred from participating in religious practices or touching religious texts. Some cultures impose a complete social isolation for menstruating women by placing them in "menstrual huts."

There’s a general belief, fueled by religious institutions in India, that menstrual blood is "contaminated," Akhtar said.

She added that anything that comes in contact with a menstruating woman is often considered polluted, particularly items that are of a sacred nature like holy scriptures and even places of worship. Dispelling these myths is a necessary first step towards the conduct of an open and healthy discussion on dealing with MHM, she believes.

Hampering access

Taboos around menstruation in Indian-administered Kashmir continue to restrict women and girls’ access to sanitary products. According to data provided by the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), about 60 per cent of the women in the region rely on cloth for menstrual protection during their periods.

The survey also found that out of all the regions in northern India, Jammu and Kashmir has the lowest percentage of women (only 74.5 per cent) using 'hygienic methods' for menstrual protection.

As part of its National Health Mission, the Jammu and Kashmir's government introduced the Menstrual Hygiene Scheme in 2016. The initiative aims to distribute sanitary essentials to girls and young women and ensure they have access to necessary supplies for a healthy life.

Commenting on her self-help group in Kashmir, Akhtar said: "The initiative runs on a very small scale with the help of funds from the government. All of the produce is sold to women locally. As the pads that we produce are of superior quality, we hope to establish a strong market among the people of my state and then my country."

As described in an article published on Unseen Conflicts, a platform dedicated to documenting the experiences of individuals at the crossroads of gender and conflicts, religious institutions, including madrasas, located in rural areas and specific urban pockets of Jammu and Kashmir play a crucial role in facilitating educational opportunities for girls and young women.

A majority of these institutions, however, are run by male patrons, which creates a significant gap between what women need and what they receive in terms of their menstrual health. 

Irfana Zargar, a prominent KAshmir-based activist striving to create a safe environment for discussing menstruation, faces significant challenges her work. Both administrative and societal constraints make it difficult to address the topic effectively, she said. 

One of her main concerns revolves around the insufficient availability of proper sanitary essentials in public restrooms. For this reason, Zargar has launched a campaign titled Eva Safety Door that distributes sanitary napkins and other necessities door-to-door as a means of integrating menstruation and related issues into broader public conversations.

Although she received mostly positive responses from the public so far, there have been obstacles as well. Some women have reportedly criticised Zargar for openly discussing what they consider a 'personal' matter. 

"What adds to the challenges is the lack of awareness among men with regards to women's reproductive health," she told FairPlanet. "For female students in religious schools, an additional barrier of segregation exists, and the shame surrounding this topic makes the challenges even more daunting for them." 

Zargar emphasised the urgent need for greater openness and sensitivity on this matter, particularly from religious institutions. She also stressed the importance of equipping stakeholders with more resources and involving locals in focused groups dedicated to working on this issue. 

"Mere introduction of new schemes or establishments is not enough," said Zargar. "Substantial groundwork is necessary to address and resolve the problems surrounding menstruation effectively."

Shattering Taboos

Back in 2021, entrepreneur Ridwana Akhtar had learned about an initiative called My Pad My Right that was launched by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development's (NABARD). As part of the initiative, Self-Help Groups (SHGs) were given free sanitary pad assembly machines, raw materials, training and financial support. Akhtar recognised the programme's potential to empower women and combat disinformation and seized the opportunity. Shortly afterwards she established Al-Qaria.

Akhtar's efforts allowed Narupura, a small town located in the Anantnag district of Kashmir, to become home to the region's first sanitary pad manufacturing unit. Her family built a storage area for equipment and supplies and the production began in March 2023.

"The cultural stigma surrounding menstruation is deeply rooted, leading to a persistent sense of shame that affects women throughout their lives," she told FairPlanet. "It is crucial that we break free from these oppressive constraints and embrace a fresh perspective that prioritises open discussions, rather than spreading misinformation."

Al-Qaria now produces sanitary napkins called NISSA. "These pads are crafted using materials like air-laid paper, wood pulp and spandex, making them sustainable and environment friendly," Akhtar said. 

Al-Qaria also seeks to educate women and young girls in the village about menstrual health and hygiene. Akhtar has organised various awareness sessions, in which she addresses misconceptions around menstruation, the significance of personal hygiene, encourages the use of sanitary pads and dispelles related taboos.

"Many women in the community simply acknowledged these beliefs as the truth, while others remained oblivious to their menstrual health and overall well-being," she said.

Image by Jannes Jacobs.

Article written by:
Sutapa Baksi
Rishabh Jain
Embed from Getty Images
Akhtar noted a web of moral, religious and cultural beliefs intertwined with misconceptions and false information about menstruation in her village.
Embed from Getty Images
There’s a general belief, fueled by religious institutions in India, that menstrual blood is "contaminated," Akhtar said.
Embed from Getty Images
Akhtar's efforts allowed Narupura, a small town located in the Anantnag district of Kashmir, to become home to the region's first-ever sanitary pad manufacturing unit.