Talking about Periods can Empower our Daughters

From my lifetime to my daughter’s, there have been significant and positive changes around conversations about menstruation in families, the media, schools, and wider society. More importantly, in India, periods have even become a policy and election issue for political parties.  

While we have a long way to go, menstrual hygiene management as a human rights issue has come of age in South Asia. Schools have made progress in providing decent toilets and washing facilities to their students and various countries have started to include menstrual hygiene in their curriculum.

But our work is by no means done. A new WaterAid-Unicef report shows that as many as 1 in 3 girls in South Asia say they miss school days during their periods every month, and up to two-thirds of girls in the region do not know about menstruation before starting their periods.

The biggest issues contributing to girls missing school are inadequate toilets lacking water, privacy and disposal options, and social and cultural restrictions imposed on girls when they are on their periods. We are working hard to change people’s perspectives, but many girls from my daughter’s generation are not allowed to play sports, go to school, or visit religious spaces when they are on their period.

Schools are the starting point for a lot of work on menstrual hygiene. In Bangladesh, the Ministry of Education has instructed all secondary schools to provide decent, girls-only toilets, which means they have to provide soap, water, and bins for the disposal of sanitary products. Many school teachers do not have the confidence to teach about menstrual hygiene, but efforts are underway to change this, by improving the knowledge and capacity of teachers.

Kishwar, 15, in front of a girl-friendly washroom in the village of Sinawan, Pakistan. Credit: WaterAid/ Sibtain Haider

The ‘touch the pickle’ campaign in India is a clear example of how far the country has come in making periods a topic of conversation – it encourages gender equality by stopping the spread of myths around periods, such as the idea that a pickle would rot if a menstruating woman touches it.

In rural areas of India, supported by the Ministry of Rural Development, women’s self-help groups provide safe and affordable sanitary products to women. Many of these groups are supported by the government to produce pads as a livelihood initiative. In many countries, women resort to using rags or even leaves as an alternative when they cannot obtain or afford pads.

Manisha, 16, studying in her room in Sirthauli, Sindhuli, Nepal. “As of now, I am still not allowed inside kitchen and touch water during my menstruation. If our mothers could understand it too then change would be easy.” Credit: WaterAid/ Mani Karmacharya

Nepal made headlines around the world last year when it passed a law that abolished the discriminating and age-old practice of banishing women from their homes during menstruation, known as Chaupadi. It comes from a belief that women are untouchable while menstruating; they were forced to sleep in basic huts, rather than their homes. Though banned by the Supreme Court more than a decade ago, it was still being practiced around the country. The new law is a huge win for women’s rights and has criminalized this ancient practice – those who defy the law are subject to a jail sentence and a fine.

We need to break the silence at both political and religious levels to counter myths around periods. Afghanistan took an important step last year when it celebrated its first Girls’ Hygiene Day. Under the theme, ‘Nothing can stop me going to school’, the campaign aimed to raise awareness about the importance of girls’ hygiene. A prevalent myth in Afghanistan is that showering during periods can cause infertility. Overcoming ignorance about the monthly cycle was one of the key messages of the government on Girl’s Hygiene Day.

In Pakistan, the involvement of politicians and prominent female athletes, as well as various social media campaigns, have helped to start a conversation about periods. Through a working group that includes government ministries and national and international NGOs, the government works on the implementation of menstrual hygiene management initiatives around the country. Menstrual hygiene is an issue that crosses sectors, from health to education to rural development, and they all need to work together to maintain the progress that has been made and ensure it is sustainable.

To make sure that my daughter’s children will not face the same restrictions and shame that have been prevalent in South Asia for such a long time, it is essential that talking about periods becomes the new normal.

This week, as we mark Menstrual Hygiene Day, together with WaterAid I call on women and men around the world to talk about periods and to challenge the myths and taboos surrounding menstruation that prevent women from reaching their full potential.

Vanita Suneja is Regional Advocacy Manager, South Asia at WaterAid.

Don’t be Afraid to Say ‘I Have Anxiety’

The other day, I was having dinner with some girlfriends when one of them opened up about experiencing anxiety episodes over the past few months. She was really embarrassed, confused and crying.

As our conversation deepened, 3 of the 4 people at the table revealed they have been coping with anxiety for a long time. I was one of them. I sat there thinking: how is it possible that I have known these people for my entire life and yet we’ve never mentioned that we suffer from this condition?

Everyone can feel anxious from time to time – it’s a natural reaction of the body and the brain to certain situations or events. But an anxiety disorder is something else.

Have you ever felt as though you spend every single minute of every single day worrying over the slightest thing? Have you ever felt as though your heart is bursting out of your chest? Do you tend to catastrophize every situation in your life? Do you have irrational fears? If you said yes to at least two of those questions then…congratulations! You may have an anxiety disorder.

You must be thinking, congratulations? I’m miserable!

But I congratulate you because recognizing and admitting you are struggling with a mental health issue is the first step towards dealing with it and feeling better.

We need to start acknowledging anxiety for what it is so we can eliminate the stigma around it. 

Anxiety disorder is the most common mental health condition in Mexico, affecting 14.3% of the population. To put that into context, there are more people living with anxiety in our country than there are people living with diabetes, yet we rarely hear about those in mental distress. Having an anxiety disorder can be debilitating and crippling at the best of times – add people calling you crazy or helpless and society judging you and things can become much worse.

Since feeling anxious is common, anxiety isn’t often thought of as a mental health issue. I believe that this is where the problem originates. Anxiety is real and in Mexico it is still underestimated. Did you know May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and 14 – 20 May is Mental Health Awareness Week? If not, it’s not your fault: too often mental health is put on the back burner and seen as less important than physical health.

If you’ve experienced anxiety and wondered why it happens, anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events. There are several types of anxiety disorders, including Social Phobia, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and many others.

Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment. If you are suffering, don’t be afraid to seek help or counseling. You may think you are alone and that no one will understand what you’re going through, but by opening up to people close to you and receiving the treatment you deserve, we will all be one step closer to breaking the stigma around anxiety. If you sense that someone close to you might be suffering, approach them in a way that makes it feel safe for them to open up to you.

It might sound like a cliché but it really is true: you are not alone. Speak up. 

United We Shall Stand in South Africa

Content note: this post contains references to sexual violence.

South Africa is a fascinating country with integrated cultures, beliefs and traditions, painted with exquisite coastlines and majestic mountain ranges. But there is a very dark and complex shadow following this fair face.

In South Africa, a woman is killed by an intimate partner every eight hours.

In 2015, 55.5% of South Africans were living in an appalling state of poverty, with no food, clean water or proper housing. That’s 13 million children living in poverty. The sad reality is that many of the South Africans who could make a difference are too far removed and unaware of the dangers that exist in our townships. We believe we are faced with the issues on a daily basis, but are often oblivious to the reality of the circumstances and brutality people are facing around the country.

All around us, women are the victims of sexual crimes. All around us, women are being murdered. Earlier this year, a student was brutally raped and murdered on the outskirts of a very elite town, and the whole country was up in arms. Influential and successful people spoke out against the crime.

But, my fellow South Africans, this has been happening for many, many years to girls and women all over our country. The only difference is that there is no funding, media outlets or organisations willing to help when the victims live in poverty. It is deeply disturbing that privileged South Africans only start realizing the severity of a problem once the monster creeps into their own circle. I too am guilty of this.

Why don’t we hear about the little girls who are abducted and raped while walking home from school, or the countless victims of gang-rape in the townships? I’ve struggled to find accurate statistics for this blog, as the government has not funded any research for years.

Gender-based crimes need to become a priority in South Africa.

Last month, a spark of hope was ignited when South Africans united in a plea to have all charges dropped against the courageous ‘Lion Mama’. She had caught three men raping her daughter near her home. She killed one and severely injured the other two. Social media was flooded by support and crowd-funding to help with her legal fees.

It’s time to get real. We too often believe that it can’t happen to us, or that sexual harassment has never happened to anyone close to us. Do we subconsciously stay distanced from the ugly reality for our own sanity?

In the light of the recent #MeToo movement on social media, I think many of us were shocked by the scale of sexual harassment that has happened right in front of our eyes, to people we thought we knew well. To me, this is the first step in changing our attitudes –  becoming aware of what is going on around us.

Let’s face the reality of the situation. 

Women and girls are crying out for help. Becoming aware of abuse taking place around us can drive us to make a change and offer a helping hand to those who need one. We each have resources that others may not have, so let’s use our individual privileges to shed some light. To the girls in South Africa who need a safe haven: this country and the authorities might let you down, but I never will.

Interaction, education and communication are golden. So, this is my call to fellow South Africans as well as people around the world: let’s become more aware, get more involved and speak up more loudly about the wrong doings in our communities. Don’t get caught up in your own bubble – there are so many people out there that need us. Let’s stand together and protect each other. Let’s form a united front that nobody can hurt, damage or break.

We are women.
We are powerful.
We are fearless.

United we shall stand – a phrase that can no longer be just a line from our national anthem.

#MeToo: We’re all in this Together

For a long time, sexual harassment and assault have remained unspoken, well-kept secrets that women have felt ashamed of acknowledging.

A major shift has taken place this year, alongside the accusations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. A decade ago, I couldn’t have imagined that so many women around the world had experienced sexual coercion or intimidation. Now, I’d be surprised if I could find a single woman I know who hasn’t.

Earlier this month, actor Alyssa Milano took to Twitter and wrote:

Personal stories quickly began pouring in from women and men all across the world. The hashtag #MeToo has become a rallying cry against sexual assault and harassment. Before long, it had become about so much more than Harvey Weinstein.

I remember being subjected to harassment long before I even knew what harassment or assaults were. School-going boys. Middle-aged men. Married men. A policeman. That boy who considers himself a ‘feminist’. Colleagues. On the bus. Across the pavements. In a queue. At a temple. The touch that was made to look accidental. That ‘friendly’ squeeze. The head-to-toe stare that makes you feel uncomfortable. The offensive comment, the explicit remark. Cyber-bullying. The list goes on.

There’s a long history of victim-blaming in order to protect perpetrators of violence, and to legitimize and normalize sexual harassment and assaults. We are raised in a society that tells us girls get assaulted for a reason. Her skirt was too short, her smile too wide, her breath smelled of alcohol, she was out too late.

Society has long been trivializing sexual violence with dismissive phrases like “boys will be boys”. We have been defining masculinity as dominant and sexually aggressive and femininity as submissive and passive. We’ve spent our energy teaching women to avoid being raped, rather than on teaching men not to rape women.

I think the worst part of being harassed or assaulted is that it makes you forget to be kind to yourself. It makes you question your own existence and forget how to accept yourself. For me, it has taken years of ignorance, silence, self-blame, and internalization, as well as thousands of conversations with friends and family, to feel ‘worthy’ again.

Too many of us choose to suffer in silence because we are afraid speaking up will reduce our identity to being ‘just a victim’. But sharing your story does not make you a victim. Sharing your story, if it’s what you choose and what feels right for you, can be one the bravest things you will ever do. You are a survivor – setting the world on fire with the truth. And you never know who else will benefit from your light, your warmth and your raging courage.

The goal of #MeToo was to give people a sense of ‘the magnitude of the problem.’ The power of #MeToo is that it takes long-standing silence and transforms it into a movement. On one hand, it’s a bold, declarative statement: “I’m not ashamed of what I have been through.” On the other, it’s a reassurance from survivor to survivor: “I feel you and we are all in this together.”

There’s still a monumental amount of work to be done, but exposing the colossal scale of a problem we have kept swept under the rug and hidden in our darkest corners? That is revolutionary in its own right.