A girl could be familiar with the following scene: Entering a shop and quickly grabbing some bags of pads, trying to avoid any attention, watching the cashier pack them in an opaque bag with tacit understanding and a delicate awkwardness, then rushing into the washroom…
Indeed, this is the stigmatized situation faced by women and girls during their menstruation period. For centuries, menstruation has been regarded as taboo in many societies, though it is nothing more than a normal and fundamental biological need of women. Today, there are still more than 500 million girls around the world having difficulties with Menstrual Health Management (MHM) probably due to lack of education, infrastructure and financing conditions. Changes need to be made — This is what Ananya Grover tried to demonstrate in her TED talk in March 2020, two years after her “Pravahkriti” campaign. She conducted that campaign focusing on menstruation management in her senior high, the Amity International School in Noida, India.
Like many millennial girls, Ananya looks energetic, smiling confidently and talking in a bright tone. I caught her on a busy weekend, right between two meetings she had for other activities. Taking a sip of soft drink from time to time, she brings us stories about her period positivity campaign and her thoughts on youth responsibility.
1/ Menstruation — a necessary starting point
Ananya doesn’t start the campaign by coincidence. For her, it is rather a combination of personal concerns and concerns for the social context.
“Incidents’” is the word used by Ananya when referring to awkward and uncomfortable experiences where girls are unprepared for their period in a rather unfriendly environment. “Probably all girls have been facing or witnessing those incidents.” She remembers the time when some boys were snooping in her female friend’s bag and laughing at her pads. “I feel humiliated, embarrassed, but I cannot do anything,” says Ananya. She also mentions that one of her campaign mates who fainted due to menstrual cramps had to take her exam within a limited time in the medical room. “It is depressing because without giving any extra time or accommodation, women’s needs were not taken into account.”
Individuals’ reactions are not the only things that are frustrating, but also the social context. In India, the existing problems in education, healthcare and facilities, as well as social norms are all obstacles for MHM.
Firstly, “Things need to be taught properly.” Ananya points out the gap in education on menstruation and, more widely, women’s health issues. Having been educated at an urban school, she was a relatively well-educated student compared to her peers in the country. Yet she still mistaked menstruation at the beginning and had to figure out the mystery by discussing it with friends. “I even thought it happened only during puberty, and once you become an adult, you get rid of it”. Based on her personal experiences, she worries about the lack of sex and reproductive health education in school since “people should know about what happens with girls’ bodies.” Similarly, girls need to have the right people to turn to while experiencing their period to avoid feeling isolated. An ideal preparation includes not only understanding sexual and reproductive health and rights, but also having correct attitudes, including knowing how to express concerns and being respectful. This is a lesson for all, regardless of gender. Misunderstanding the nature of menstruation could increase the mental burden of girls and even physically hurt them. For example, false usage of sanitary products could lead to infection and more serious gynecopathy. If schools and parents do not take responsibility to teach the young generation the knowledge, then in the field of MHM, progress could hardly be made, and harms would go on.
Secondly, reducing the stigma of menstruation requires a change of mindsets. Ananya observes that resistance from the public always exists even if there are NGOs focusing on social progress, including promoting the SDGs and other ideas. Misunderstandings and traditional norms, such as the idea of “purity and impurity,” are preventing girls from attending daily activities, including religious practices and going to school. This stigma worsens problems like period poverty and menstrual inequality, which means that females at vulnerable status will be less competitive both socially and financially due to absence from education and social participation, which will enforce their poverty and subordinary status.
However, “we are gaining momentum in this field,” Ananya said. According to her, the situation in India has improved recently, especially after Pad Man, a film joined by a famous actor Akshay Kumar came out in 2018. Mainstream media started to discuss menstruation publicly, and some corporations started promoting menstruation products such as biodegradable pads and menstrual cups through advertisements. Although their primary goal was to profit, Ananya still appreciated that, as commercial activities increased media coverage, benefiting the spread of menstruation knowledge.
In a nutshell, when all these things — experiences, concerns, awareness and social contexts — add up, it is hard for one to not take action. And there went the campaign.
Ananya’s campaign focuses on promoting period health, hygiene, awareness and positivity on campuses and in society. To ensure that the project sounds as familiar and attractive as possible to the public, her team decided to pick its name from their own language Hindi, instead of English. The name is “Pravahkriti”, where “Pravah” means “flow” and “Kriti” refers to “a beautiful creation.”
They plan various activities for the campaign, such as the Nukkad Natak (street theatre), stapoo and hopscotch. “It’s not easy to practice, especially in front of younger students. They probably just find things funny and won’t listen to you,” Ananya says, smiling “But an organizer should be confident. You can not be awkward by others’ awkwardness. Once the organizer delivers coherent information confidently, the audience could reflect later on, even if they might have difficulties receiving the messages immediately. Getting boys involved is also a challenge, yet Ananya and her team decide to set up a gender-mixed classroom. “Because boys will become men and fathers,” Ananya explains and added that the support from the other half of the society is important to eventual de-stigmatization.
They also try to change the living conditions for girls by launching pad dispensers at school’s washrooms. While a student pays very little each time to get a pad, the money will go to the purchase of new pads so that the system could operate sustainably.
The campaign has shown achievements. Students in target schools could get pads in the washrooms, and boys gradually understood their female fellows and family members. But further tasks arrive in the meantime. Ananya re-emphasises the importance of the education system taking responsibility, since schools are closed under the COVID-19 and girls can no longer get pads from dispensers in the schools. Moreover, she is exploring ways to deliver all the resources they have to those who want to develop their own project after her campaign ends. Ananya mentions that progress on MHM is a long-term task with multiple layers. “Firstly, you need access to a safe environment, water sanitation, hygiene products, and then the knowledge about your body and how to protect yourself with sanitary products, and finally a fully changed mindset to destigmatize menstruation. We are still at the first stage.”
Ananya describes herself as “a thinker, a dreamer, a doer.” But other than this, labeling, de-labeling, and stereotypes are simply out of her consideration.
For young talents who are successful in a specific domain, others might hold more expectations for them to go further in the same direction or even take it as a career. However, Ananya is not restricted by icon-establishing norms. In her view, sticking to previous directions is not necessary since one’s life goal could be much larger than one’s previous achievements. Her concern is wider than what she’s done. As a rising sophomore at Princeton, Ananya talks about her passion in Computer Sciences. She tries to combine this passion with her social engagement, just like what she and her team did when developing a video game for the campaign. The game was used to help introduce knowledge of menstruation in a more interesting way. Another example of this combination could be providing organizations with database and digital support so that they can leverage their influence.
(Game Crimson Crusade, source http://www.pravahkriti.com/ )
“But it is true that I still feel special about women’s health.” Ananya doesn’t mind to call herself a feminist, and she would define herself as a “traditional” one who cares about women’s empowerment. She continues to participate in social practices like The Pad Project, a US-based NGO whose mission is to “create and cultivate local and global partnerships to end period stigma and to empower women and all menstruators worldwide.” She was once an ambassador for the project and helps screen the documentary Period, End of Sentence (Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2018). Starting from this August, she will be advisor for a group of ambassadors to work on public health efforts within the menstrual equity movement.
(Profile picture from https://www.linkedin.com/in/ananya-grover-6037a7147/)
For her, what’s essential is that people care about how to use their passion and expertise to contribute, because “even the most ordinary people could have hidden talents that are neglected by others or even by themselves.” In fact, that’s how she perceives practicing social responsibility. She demonstrates that social responsibility is an extension of being an acting and involved member in one’s community, society and the world. And to be responsible, “motivation and the passion to start practicing” are of most importance.
Some critics assume that the young generation, especially the millennials, is not capable of taking responsibilities. Yet Ananya does not worry that the youth is too optimistic and idealistic. “We think we are going to change the world, that could be naive but useful to actually get things done.” She highlighted that having ambitions on making social progress would do no harm, while passivism would not change anything.
Indeed, one can always face difficulties on the way. For Ananya, there can also be moments when she feels lost. “Dream big but feel small” could probably happen to everyone, she explains. “It might be difficult to quantify your achievement and convince people with your plan.” A difficulty that she met during the campaign is that people expected numbers, but when targeting mindset change, there was no direct index to evaluate the progress. However, her reason to keep moving forward is that “one could still believe that a small push ultimately is going to lead to progress”.
For those who are also young and willing to act, Ananya highlights the importance of teamwork and project scope. For the latter aspect, she pointed out that “it’s better to change a few but do it well”, since even a small-scope change could provide a chance for the youth to learn and develop their own ways to make differences. It is always a good idea to “scale up slowly rather than fixing eyes on the huge number.”
About the Author
TU Yifei is a journalist in SRP’s Writing and Interviewing Program. She’s a social science student willing to dig deeper in gender related issues.