Our Talk at Voice of Slum

Dear reader,

Voice of Slum is a non-profit that focuses on transforming a generation of children in slum settings with education and opportunities to participate in mainstream society.  It is located in the middle of an overcrowded shanty town and is cloaked by clusters of small shops and houses. Our second offline talk of 2022, held on the 8th of August, was conducted at this small NGO.

The journey to the NGO was surprisingly eventful. Since none of us had been to a slum before, we weren’t sure what to expect. Almost getting run over by an autorickshaw wasn’t a part of our plan. Thankfully we had no other mishaps, and the nervousness we felt washed away once we saw the children eagerly waiting for us at the door. 

We gave our talk to a group of 25-30 girls between the ages of 12-17 and their teachers, who were present and listening throughout.

Before jumping into the meticulously planned script, we started with a ball game to break the ice. This was an easy way to introduce ourselves and ensure our audience was comfortable with us before we began discussing personal topics. We asked the girls what bodily changes they had noticed in themselves over the last few years. Most of the girls looked too nervous to say anything, so we didn’t get too many answers. However, after encouragement from their teachers, a few girls listed observations like growth in their height, widening of their hips, development of breasts, increased rates of sweat, etc. 

This conversation initiated our introduction to the phenomenon of puberty. We talked about the changes associated with puberty and how the sexes are affected by it in different ways. We repeatedly ensured them that what they were experiencing was completely normal, they were not alone, and there was nothing to be ashamed of. 

Discussing the difference between male and female reproductive systems was crucial. However, we feared they would be uncomfortable doing so since it is not openly discussed in their environment. In fact, we were also stressed about being interrupted and stopped by the teachers. However, our fears were tranquilised by their constant responsiveness and active effort to understand what we were talking about.  We used diagrams to avoid any communication gaps since we learnt this biology in English and didn’t want any sensitivity or accuracy to be lost in our conversational Hindi. 

We also retained our portion on the excretory system. We were of the opinion that it was essential to inform the girls that the organs involved in reproduction differ from those engaged in excretion. This further clarified their understanding of their bodies.

We then moved on to a section the girls were somewhat familiar with and also the most eager to understand: menstruation. We went over the basics of what a period is, why it happens, how long it lasts etc. The girls were more attentive during this section, grasping onto every word and enthusiastically asking us questions. One girl asked us if it was normal to bleed a lot more than the rest of her peers during her cycle. We were extremely glad she felt safe enough in this environment to ask us a question specific to her. We then explained to them how different people have different bodies and different flows. Until and unless your flow is too high or low, there is no cause for concern. 

Moving onto vaginal discharges, we realised this was a conversation they were being exposed to for the first time. We went over the different types of discharges, reiterating their normalcy since it’s simply a tool used by our bodies to clean themselves. 

The topic of cleanliness leads us to discuss the importance of maintaining hygiene during the menstrual cycle. We explained some critical steps to be taken while one is on their period, like regularly changing a pad every 4-5 hours. By showing them how to wear and dispose of a pad properly, we explained its importance so as not to cause any infections.

We closed our talk with a dialogue about consent. Like our last talk,  we were unsure whether we should discuss such a sensitive topic, but since the girls at our previous talk responded well to our view on consent, we decided to include it again. We approached it by talking about good and bad touch. To our surprise, the girls there were already aware of these concepts. This allowed us to have a conversation rather than a speech from our end.

To conclude our session, we gave the girls an open platform to ask us all their questions. After resolving those, we distributed packets of pads and a pamphlet describing the proper way pad disposal method. After this, it was time for us to say goodbye. The girls thanked us, and the teachers showed their appreciation for our efforts and the talk’s turnout. 

Towards the end, we also had the opportunity to talk to the organisation’s co-founder. Her insights informed us of how we can improve our talk and cover missing aspects. She expressed her gratitude for positively impacting the girls. Her final comments and the girls’ smiles as they waved goodbye made our day. 

Here are some links for you to check out Voice of Slum’s work: 


Website

Instagram

Twitter

LinkedIn

Facebook

Article by Prathna Anand from the REDefine Team

My Grandparents Think They’re Synonyms

The Distinction Between Sex and Gender

Sex and gender. At first glance, these words seem to be synonymous, but that is far from the truth. These two powerful words have drastically different meanings and cannot be used interchangeably. “Gender” is a range of characteristics a person identifies with, like a social construct, which is not objective but rather created and agreed upon by people. However, when we refer to the “sex” of a person, we are talking about the biological attributes derived from their chromosomes. 

‘Gender’ in itself is a big term and is best defined as a spectrum. This reinforces the idea that gender varies past the binary definition. Some examples of genders under this umbrella:

  1. Cisgender: When people identify as their sex assigned at birth.
  2. Gender queer or non-binary: A range of gender identities outside of binary denotations; left more open for interpretation.
  3. Transgender: Those whose gender identity is not the same as their sex
  4. Genderfluid: people who do not have a fixed expression of gender, causing it to shift over a period of time.

*This is not a complete list of all identities under the spectrum 

Males are born with one X and one Y chromosome. Females are born with two X chromosomes. Intersex people have certain chromosomal differences resulting in the reproductive organs of both males and females in some cases. This is their assigned sex (a label given at birth based on medical factors, including hormones, chromosomes, and genitals) and is often confused with their assigned gender (the gender assigned to an infant at birth, meant to correspond to the assigned sex) and assumed gender (the gender others assume an individual to be based on the sex they are assigned at birth, as well as apparent gender markers such as physical build, voice, clothes, and hair).

The differences are crucial to note, as confusion between them leads to the categorization of people under the ‘default’ binaries of male and female, which may be inaccurate and enforce gender roles or harmful stereotypes.

In India, an estimated 4.8 million people identified as non-binary in 2011, and yet the stigma around this identification persists. They were initially confused as transgender as both these terms overlap in some, but not all, cases. This confusion stems from the sheer lack of awareness of the gender spectrum and the numerous identities under it. The confusion was corrected after recognition of the need for differentiation and clarification that the transgender identity overlaps with the umbrella of non-binary. However, this still doesn’t mean that every transgender person identifies as non-binary and vice versa. 

People have started to become more conscious of ‘gender’ as a whole. Most of us have come across, or perhaps have, gender pronouns (they/them, she/her, he/they) mentioned in Instagram bios or Zoom names, but not all of us fully understand their purpose. While they not only allow other people to refer to us with our preferred pronouns, it also indicates that we will not assume any person’s gender. That’s why it is not just the non-binary community that needs to identify itself but the binary too. 

It may seem trivial, but certain terms (e.g. ladies and gentlemen, his and hers, etc.) are exclusionary and may leave those not neatly fitting into the designated categories out of the conversation. Getting rid of gendered terms or assumptions of another person’s gender and replacing that with gender declaration at the beginning of an interaction is the beginning of the path towards gender inclusivity, whether that is in a work, school or social environment.

Neglection of the gender spectrum has various consequences, particularly for mental well-being. Gender dysphoria is a common result. It is the sense of unease due to the mismatch of assigned sex and gender identity. This may occur in adults and adolescents, but it may not be consistent, occurring over certain periods of time. Despite its prevalence, it’s not necessary that this occurs in all people whose gender identity is different to their assigned sex. Varying in intensity, it can negatively affect someone, causing problems such as depression and anxiety. Some people may also experience pressure to go through with corrective surgeries to ‘properly fit’ into the category of male, female or any other. These types of surgeries are increasing in popularity all over the world, but the impact that comes along with them must also be taken into account. They may lead to excessive loss of blood, infections, and loss of sexual sensation, among many other unwanted and detrimental consequences.

People should not be forced to fit in boxes and conform to the predetermined binaries in society. Can we all truly say that identifying as a man or woman adds to a person’s character? No, it doesn’t, and that is why we all must be more conscious of our actions and language and be mindful of any gendered greetings in a conversation. The only reason we do so is because of the numerous attributes and roles we have assigned to genders, but in reality, are restrictive and inessential.

Article written by Tara Karni Devi Bajaj and researched by Gia Arora

Featured Artwork by Sanvee Jatia

Tolland, Laura and Evans, Joanne. “What Is the Difference between Sex and Gender?” What Is the Difference between Sex and Gender? – Office for National Statistics, Office for National Statistics, 21 Feb. 2019, https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/environmentalaccounts/articles/whatisthedifferencebetweensexandgender/2019-02-21.

“Intersex.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/science/intersex.

“Its Intersex Awareness Day – Here Are 5 Myths We Need to Shatter.” Amnesty International, 11 Oct. 2021, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/10/its-intersex-awareness-day-here-are-5-myths-we-need-to-shatter/.

“Non-Binary Genders Need More Visibility in India’s Census 2021.” Down To Earth, https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/governance/non-binary-genders-need-more-visibility-in-india-s-census-2021-78844

Cohen, Cathren. “Surgeries on Intersex Infants Are Bad Medicine.” National Health Law Program, 13 Jan. 2022, https://healthlaw.org/surgeries-on-intersex-infants-are-bad-medicine/

Camburn, Kylin. “9 Young People Explain What Being Non-Binary Means to Them.” GLAAD, 25 July 2019, https://www.glaad.org/amp/9-young-people-explain-what-being-non-binary-means-them.  

NHS Choices, NHS, https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/gender-dysphoria/ 

“68 Terms That Describe Gender Identity and Expression.” Healthline, https://www.healthline.com/health/different-genders#a-d

Anderson, Ryan T. “New York Times Reveals Painful Truths About Sex Change Surgery.”  https://www.heritage.org/gender/commentary/new-york-times-reveals-painful-truths-about-sex-change-surgery

The Heritage Foundation, 26 Nov. 2018, https://www.heritage.org/gender/commentary/new-york-times-reveals-painful-truths-about-sex-change-surgery

Our Second Talk with Parkshala

REDefine, with its new heads, returned to Parkshala after four years to give a talk. 

Dear reader, 

As a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were forced to give talks online for almost two years. We waited with bated breath for the 10th of May to arrive, a very special day for our team at REDefine: our first offline talk after an unwanted hiatus!

Our audience was a group of 25 girls between the ages of 13-16 taught at the NGO Parkshala™

Parkshala™ is a charitable organisation in Noida that tutors students who belong to lower-income groups and, in its own words, aims to “bridge the educational and moral gap between economically weak children and their affluent peers.” On the 9th of April, 2018, REDefine gave its first talk at Parkshala, where the founding team discussed menstruation and sex and ended the conversation with a distribution of reusable pads.

Since the talk in 2018 was an excellent experience for our founders, we decided to go back to Parkshala for another talk to track our progress along Parkshala’s.

We started with an introduction, and after playing a ball game to break the ice, we began discussing puberty. Before we went on with our planned script, we asked the girls what bodily changes they had noticed in themselves over the last few years. They were hesitant to speak, but some soft, unsure answers trickled in. They mentioned growth in height, hair growth, widening of the hips, etc. Their responses are what we used to kickstart the talk: by introducing puberty. We distinguished between pubertal changes within males and females. We explained to them that it is crucial to know about these topics since these changes are natural and shouldn’t be taboo. 

It was crucial for us to discuss the differences between a male and female reproductive system. We compared the two diagrams to differentiate between the testes, ovaries, penises and vaginas. Although we anticipated unstoppable giggling, the girls were incredibly mature throughout our discussion. 

We discussed how the vagina differs from the urethra, as this distinction is often unclear. In such a situation, using menstrual products like tampons, menstrual cups or disks without this knowledge could be harmful. Translating each biological term into Hindi was challenging, as there was no room for error while discussing such a critical topic. The diagrams we used to assist our talk prevented any miscommunication.

We then moved on to the much-awaited portion of our talk: periods. We talked through all its essential aspects, from what they are to how they occur or the symptoms they trigger. Our conversation included basic facts about periods, but most importantly, some medical concerns during menstruation that might require a doctor’s consultation. 

We went over the various types of vaginal discharges that ranged from simple bodily cleansing to signs of infections. The topic of infections led us to discuss hygiene during periods. For this, we first explained some critical steps to be taken while one is on their period, like regularly changing a pad or wearing it safely and comfortably to prevent the risk of infection.

Lastly, we talked about consent. We debated whether this sensitive topic should be a part of our talk or not since our audience ranged from the age of 13-year-old girls to 16-year-olds as they have not had the same exposure to relationships as we did. At the same time, it was an extremely crucial topic for them. We decided to take a light approach by talking about “good touch” and “bad touch”. Since we thought the girls might not fully comprehend it in one go, we used the analogy of two people in a car. We asked them to visualise the effects of someone taking over the control of a car they’re driving without their permission and how the consequences of this can be mirrored with non-consensual touch.

In closing, we handed out a short survey to the girls asking questions like “Do periods happen to everyone?”, “Do periods stop after a certain age?” etc. The aim was to evaluate whether we got across to them through our discussion. Afterwards, we discussed the answers with the girls. While there were some misconceptions that we promptly resolved, most of the girls had a thorough understanding of menstruation and its related topics.

To take our efforts further, we distributed some pads, purchased using funds that were raised by the founders, to the girls along with a few snacks and were met with delighted faces. 

We also received an innocent question from a young girl who asked, “How will you know if your period has happened?” and an older girl instantly responded by saying that one day she will experience pain near her stomach and when she goes to the washroom, she will notice a little blood on her undergarments. That is when she will know that her period has started. Seeing that simple exchange was incredibly uplifting as the girls seemed to have a sound support system and comfortable environment. We were welcomed to Parkshala with nervous faces, but we bid goodbye to smiling ones! 

Here are some links for you to check out Parkshala’s work: 

Website

Instagram

Facebook

Linkedin

Article by Sia Aggarwal from the REDefine Team

Combatting Taboos with Education

In today’s progressive times, menstruation, and sexual health and hygiene, are still not as widely discussed as they should be, especially in countries with low literacy rates. The subjects carry a lot of stigma and taboos, particularly in rural areas in India. These beliefs commonly stem from misinterpreted religious beliefs. They can spread false information and create other issues such as an imposition of restrictions and rules by the community upon a menstruators lifestyle. Another such problem is the lack of awareness around non-binary and transgender male menstruators and women who are unable to menstruate due to infertility. All these issues impact menstruators negatively, whether that means worsening mental and emotional health or causing adolescent girls to drop out when they reach their menarche.

In many parts of the world, menstruation is still known as ‘dirty and impure’, even though this lacks any scientific reasoning. Many such beliefs perpetuate this ideology. A prominent one, existing in India since the Vedic times, is that menstrual blood is a manifestation of Indra’s guilt (God of the Sky) for killing a Brahman (a Hindu priest), creating a negative association with menstruation. 

Another harmful belief is that menstrual blood is dangerous and can allow a woman to impose her will on a man. Due to the solid patriarchal structure prevalent everywhere, this belief prevents women from entering sacred places/puja rooms. Even though there is no scientific evidence to back up this fact, such flawed information spreads rapidly, especially among rural communities. 

In many cases, menstruators associate their own body with ‘dirt and impurity’, as they know no better, which can have implications on their mental health. Girls in certain villages even drop out of school after getting their period out of the fear of being ostracised by the community and the lack of facilities. 

In most families, a mother is heavily relied on to guide an adolescent through puberty. Still, these topics are considered so personal that it is considered vulgar to even speak about them, labelling them ‘forbidden’ issues. Adolescent girls are left behind with unanswered questions and doubts, causing them to further perpetuate the passing on of these socio-cultural taboos and beliefs. The root of the issue is the false narrative assigned to menstruation and sex, notions looked at through a negative lens. Growing up with limited knowledge leads to ill-informed decisions regarding one’s menstrual and sexual health.

Another global problem is the exclusion of non-binary and transgender male menstruators. Young children who identify as anything other than cisgender females are excluded from the education about such topics, leaving them in the dark about various biological processes, mainly because schools only focus this education on girls. The students are separated based on their assumed gender for these sessions, so while the girls may have information on these topics as preteens, menstruators of other genders may not have access to the same. This extreme ignorance is even reflected in government campaigns and initiatives that only provide support to women. Retail is also a concern as period products like pads and tampons are often flagrantly marketed as “for women” or as “feminine hygiene products”. Although this does not stop menstruators of other genders from purchasing these products, it preserves the notion that all menstruators are women, ingraining it in a customer’s mind and making this mindset a systemic issue.

Unsafe health practices, like using contaminated or dirty material when managing menstrual blood, are among the numerous issues arising from lack of education. They can lead to both physical and mental health issues starting from vaginal infections to sexually transmitted diseases or gender dysmorphia.

To avoid such problems in the future, the government must mandate education on menstrual and sexual health and hygiene for all students across the nation. This should also be taught as early as possible to inform all students about the gender-neutral biological process, as well as how to manage it. 

Rural villages facing these problems need to receive adequate aid and supplies to promote hygiene. Provision of pads and workshops on how to use them as well as medical facilities to treat infections and diseases must be provided by the government. Along with this, it’s equally important for people of all ages to be included in order to cut off the generational transfer of stigmas.

Whether it’s the fact that menstrual and sexual health and hygiene are deeply stigmatised in many communities, or the exclusion of certain groups of menstruators, all these issues have severe ramifications on the menstruators themselves. Proper education and immediate government intervention is the only way to eradicate such challenges and make space for well-informed individuals. It’s crucial for every person of every background to be more aware of the issues faced by menstruators so we can work towards a more knowledgeable and inclusive community.

Article by Tara Karni Devi Bajaj

Featured Artwork by Sanvee Jatia

Gordon, Ali. “Period Taboo: Why Can’t We Talk about Menstruation?” BBC News, BBC, 24 Feb. 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-47254222.

Garg, Suneela, and Tanu Anand. “Menstruation Related Myths in India: Strategies for Combating It.” Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, Medknow Publications & Media Pvt Ltd, 2015, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4408698/.

Admin, heydaycare. “Period Poverty and Lack of Menstrual Education in India.” Heyday Care LLP, Heyday Care LLP, 30 June 2021, https://heydaycare.com/blogs/period-care/period-poverty-and-lack-of-menstrual-education-in-india.

Hawkins, Kate. “Re-Imagining Menstruation under the Lens of New Normal > Gender & Covid.” 19, 26 May 2021, https://www.genderandcovid-19.org/editorial/re-imagining-menstruation-under-the-lens-of-new-normal/.

britSciAssociat. “Inclusive Menstrual Health Education Is Essential for Equality.” British Science Association, 28 May 2021, https://www.britishscienceassociation.org/blog/inclusive-menstrual-health-education-is-essential-for-equality.

Druet, Anna. “How Did Menstruation Become Taboo?” Clue Period & Ovulation Tracker with Ovulation Calendar for IOS, Android, and WatchOS, Clue, 7 June 2021, https://helloclue.com/articles/culture/how-did-menstruation-become-taboo.

The Government’s Role in Resolving Period Parity

Menstruators around the world, especially those from rural backgrounds, are not in a position to take care of their menstrual health and hygiene with the adequate means. This includes a lack of awareness about the utilisation of period products and the biology of menstruation. Globally, 500 million menstruators face these difficulties. In India alone, under 50% of the women utilise sanitary pads. It is crucial to address the stigma around menstruation, get involved in policy making and raise awareness to improve these statistics. Still, without an appropriate level of government intervention, there may not be a visible improvement in the life of menstruators.

Due to the innumerable problems faced by menstruators, several schemes have emerged on a national and international level. The movements which improved access to period products were extremely striking. Both in developed and developing countries, the aims were similar – to provide these products at subsidised rates or free of charge. Directed toward adolescent girls, fund reallocation was planned. These movements were led both in the UK as well as in India. Currently, in the UK, the PHS group is responsible for supplying sanitary products and in India the same is done by ASHA. The end goal for both these schemes is to abolish stigma, provide menstrual products and most of all make menstruators self-sufficient.

The scheme implemented by the Indian government was primarily directed towards adolescent menstruators in rural areas, providing them with products, and training them on how to make them. Unfortunately, a study conducted by the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in 2018, revealed that the scheme was inefficient with the distribution of napkin packs. It also failed to address how it would educate rural women, a crucial step considering that this could be an entirely new product for many menstruators in that area. 

The UK’s program was more focused on adequate provision of menstrual products in academic institutions, to ensure that students have access to menstrual products, free of charge. Implementation of the scheme was highly encouraged by the government for all schools and colleges.

The US too implemented a scheme to promote the provision of menstrual products in women’s prisons in Arizona. It planned to increase the current number of tampons allotted to each inmate, from 12 to an adequate number. A menstruator approximately uses five pads a day, six times a week, needing 30 pads per cycle; 12 doesn’t meet the requirement. Due to the restricted access to sanitary products, they relied on unsanitary solutions, which increased their risk of contracting vaginal infections. State representative, Athena Salman, took the motion forward and enlisted numerous women’s rights advocates to testify before an all-male congressional committee. The bill was later shot down due to “logistical issues” in the prisons. It was supposed to introduce a free flow of sanitary products in women’s prisons but instead just increased the number of pads to 30 per person.  A more diverse congressional committee could have worked in the representative’s favour. Such candidates would have been sensitive to the concerns. Though the scheme did not achieve its intended aim, its partial dismissal was able to encourage thousands of Americans to advocate for women’s rights in prison.

From a more widespread approach, Menstrual Health and Hygiene (MHH) programmes have been developed and incorporated into multiple organisations and institutions in many countries.  Such programmes prepare young menstruators for overcoming obstacles throughout their lives, whether it’s a health issue, child marriage or gender-based violence. MHH is a crucial component in fulfilling menstruators’ rights, a key target of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. UNICEF makes the value of collaborative action clear in making gradual progress in the plan by communicating that schools assign high priority to MHM actions during their virtual conferences. This scheme focuses on adequate resource allocation in schools, prioritising relevant policies and developing their guidelines in the best interest of menstruators across the globe. It also seeks to advance MHM in school activities, create an adequate budget, assign responsibility to the government to implement the scheme in more schools, and integrate MHM into the schooling system to ensure inclusivity. Progress has been made regarding these five objectives, and MHM is now a widely recognised public health matter.

The various schemes discussed in the article have accelerated the journey to equal and sufficient sanitation for all menstruators in need. Each one was different, ranging from the scale; national to worldwide to the audience; prisoners to rural menstruators. India is still a country with inadequate menstrual facilities, so programmes targeting problems such as provision and training on making sanitary products can be beneficial. Conversely, policies centred around education and improving current laws dealing with MHM can be seen more often in developed countries. Such policies will only work if the government is responsive to the concerns of menstruators. 

Our collective responsibility is to ensure that we continue moving closer to that goal. A central way to make progress is by introducing more such schemes and laws targeted specifically towards the individual problems of a menstruating community, to better their standards of living. Voting for parties and individuals with similar policies in our own country and keeping track of all schemes introduced related to MHM globally allows us to support this progress.

Article by Prathna Anand, Tara Karni Bajaj, and others from the REDefine Team

Featured Artwork by Saanve Jatia

White, Kaila. “After Backlash, Arizona Prison Raises Minimum Number of Free Pads for Incarcerated Women.” The Arizona Republic, The Republic | Azcentral.com, 15 Feb. 2018, https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona/2018/02/13/after-backlash-arizona-prison-raises-minimum-number-free-pads-incarcerated-women/335698002/. 

Held, Amy. “Arizona Department of Corrections Changes Sanitary Pad Policy Following Backlash.” NPR, NPR, 16 Feb. 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/02/15/586134335/arizona-department-of-corrections-changes-sanitary-pad-policy-following-backlash. 

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Jurga, Ina. Ina Jurga International Coordinator Menstrual Hygiene Day POLICY LANDSCAPE for MENSTRUAL HYGIENE & HEALTH.

2019.Patkar, Archana. “Policy and Practice Pathways to Addressing Menstrual Stigma and Discrimination.” The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies, 2020, pp. 485–509, 10.1007/978-981-15-0614-7_38. Accessed 11 Oct. 2021.