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What drives Srilekha Chakraborty to work with remote villages in Jharkhand, talking to girls and women about menstrual health? We find out in a free-wheeling conversation!
We live in a world where on one hand people happily pee in public,
And on the other, even today sanitary napkins are sold wrapped up in black plastic…
This is what came to my mind when I started talking to Sociologist and Gender Rights Activist, Srilekha Chakraborty who is currently working with tribal communities in Jharkhand, on sustainable menstruation. There is no denying the fact that in our country, even today, menstruation is taboo.
According to the latest data based on a compilation of government reports by IndiaSpend, only in seven of India’s 36 states and union territories did 90% or more women in the 15-24 age group use hygienic protection during menstruation.
Srilekha Chakraborty and other inspiring women like her will be talking at Femme Con, a Women’s Health Festival coming up in Delhi on September 2nd, organised by TheaCare, a safe space for solution-based conversations on women’s health. Here you can find workshops, doctor consultations, performances, products, art and books, ask your questions and find an ecosystem of support around women’s health. Register to attend!
What got Srilekha Chakraborty working in this space, and how has her journey as a researcher and activist working in India’s interiors been?
Srilekha belonged to a ‘regular’ upper-middle-class family in a small suburb of Kolkata, with her father being a government employee and mother, a homemaker. She says that the inspiration to work for others came from her mother who wasn’t highly educated but wanted Srilekha to get a good education. She describes her childhood as one with the privilege of proper education and books in her life.
According to Srilekha, it’s very important for people to find a purpose to their lives. In the pursuit of finding her purpose, she joined the Teach for India fellowship program after her Masters, and when she was working with these children she realized that education was really not what she wanted to do. Of course, she wanted to work for marginalized children and with other people but not only through education.
However, her stint with Teach for India, enabled her to meet people of various marginalized communities and especially women. Meeting women and getting to know their stories made her realize that she was more inclined towards working with the struggles of women. Their problems appealed to her heart and soul. That is when she decided to become a gender rights activist.
Srilekha then began working with an organization called Sanjog in Kolkata, where she worked with survivors of human trafficking who had returned from sex work. During this project, she got to know a lot about the struggles of these women, which took her on a psychological journey to understand the lives of women from a larger perspective.
Srlekha cites this as a “turning point in her life”. This experience confirmed her belief that she really wanted to work on gender issues concerning women starting from the grassroots level i.e in rural India.
Taking her journey ahead, Srilekha joined an organization called Network for Enterprise Enhancement and Development Support (NEEDS) that primarily works in Jharkhand with various tribes and marginalised communities present there. According to her, “Working with NEEDS has been a life-changing experience”.
She got to work with Adivasis very closely which opened her eyes to a lot of issues and problems which are rarely addressed in mainstream media and society. She adds, “Hardly any work has been done concerning gender issues.”
While working with NEEDS, Srilekha realized that most of the work in tribal areas has been done around the livelihood, civilization, security and education – while this is undoubtedlty needed, hardly any work has been done on gender issues. This made her realize that how most people measure development on the grounds of education, or livelihood etc. but we never consider gender or sexual empowerment also a metric for development.
Srilekha has now been working with young, Adivasi and Dalit girls of the Santhal pargana in Jharkhand the issues of Sexual Reproductive Health Rights for the past five years. While working with these women in Jharkhand she realized that a lot of women are not aware of menstrual hygiene. It is something that is neither taught properly nor discussed because it’s not a matter of priority for any of the agencies working there.
Of course, there are a lot of policies in terms of gender and menstrual health but most policies are not being implemented properly at the grass roots level. Further, even campaigns like the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan lack a focus on menstrual hygiene. As Srilekha says, “It feels like the construction of toilets is the only way of spreading the idea of hygiene. And basically, the idea of menstrual hygiene even under Swacch Bharat is not a big topic of discussion like there are very fewer posters or advertisements educating people or the tribal communities about menstrual hygiene even though it is a very important aspect of hygiene.” Even the healthcare workers at grassroots level (‘ASHA’s) are not supported or empowered by government policies to work with women in this space.
Srilekha therefore began a close knit project called Kahaniya Zindagi Ki (Stories of our Lives) with the tribal communities in Deoghar, a small town in the region. Under this project, she showed short videos relating to puberty and menstrual health to these communities to educate them and initiate discussions about menstruation, bodily changes and sexuality. While such material does exist, it is rarely made accessible to people living in the interiors of India.
She observes that as there is no proper guidance given to young tribal girls about how to use a sanitary pad and most importantly, how to dispose of it. In fact, this is not only an issue concerning tribal communities, but it is something concerning the whole nation because till now there has been no proper national campaign to teach women about how to dispose a sanitary pad and what is its proper usage for good reproductive health.
Another startling fact that she realized during her research was that there are hardly any agencies who educate men and talk about their issues. As Srilekha shares, “For women at least, there are anganwadi workers but for boys and men, there are very few agencies that talk about their gender issues.”
To work on this she held intense workshops with men and young boys from the tribal community. Since no one had talked to them about such issues, she suffered a lot of backlash; still, the experience has made her hopeful. She understood how young children after seeing their father beating their mother or how women were abused, started to believe that beating women was a form of showing one’s masculinity.
She realized that how important it is to talk to men too about gender issues, about sexuality and masculinity and how crucial it is to teach our boys from the very beginning that you become a man when you stop hitting women. She adds that teaching these concepts to young boys in these tribal communities and seeing them changing their false ideas was the best part of her research.
To move forward her movement on menstrual health forward, Srilekha has created two petitions with Change.org, #Periodspecharcha and #Padsonboard.
#Periodspecharcha is a five-pointer petition on empowering and supporting Aanganwadi workers in Jharkhand to be able to talk to Adivasi girls about menstrual health and hygiene, by providing them with the necessary tools and training.
#Padsonboard is a petition about how important it is to have a sanitary napkin on medical kits in flights since they are a necessity for women.
If Srilekha’s story inspires you, join her at the Femme Com event in Delhi, where she along with many other powerful and inspirational women will speak about their journey, learnings and ideas.
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