Breaking silence on menstruation
It was May 2018 when two sisters in Karachi formally set up their dream project in a bid to help underprivileged women improve their menstrual health and hygiene. Enter HER Pakistan, a not-for-profit organisation which aims to shatter the myths and taboos surrounding menstruation through programmes that educate young girls, women and the society about a subject that is rarely ever talked about.
“I was working with a not-for-profit school network in Karachi and during a visit to one of the slums, I found out that girls were being forced to miss school, and at times, even drop out of school when they started menstruating,” says Sana Lokhandwala, co-founder of HER Pakistan. “And it wasn’t just that. I also came across a lot of myths and misconceptions around menstruation that prevail in our communities,” she adds. A communication specialist previously affiliated with the news industry, Sana now runs the project with her sister, Sumaira Lokhandwala.
During her eight years of experience as a healthcare marketeer, Sumaira says she realised how sexual and reproductive health, a major component of women’s overall health, was being largely neglected in Pakistan. “Subjects as normal as menstruation are considered taboo. Thousands of women do not have access to information and facilities in order to live a healthy and empowered life,” says Sumaira.
A research by Real Medicine Foundation in 2017, a non-profit organisation working to improve the health sector in disaster-hit regions, found that an alarming 79 percent of Pakistani women were not properly managing their menstrual hygiene due to lack of information. During their fieldwork, the Lokhandwala sisters made the same observation.
Their dream soon turned into reality and HER Pakistan was founded with an objective to improve sexual and reproductive health, particularly menstrual health and hygiene, for girls and women in Pakistan regardless of their socio-economic background. To date Sana and Sumaira Lokhandwala have successfully reached out to schools and communities in areas like Old Golimar, Rehri Goth, Machhar Colony, Kemari, Lyari, Gulbai, Moach Goth, Steel Town, Malir, Baldia Town and Qayyumabad.
The initiative is running as many as three projects simultaneously, starting with the School Puberty Education Programme, which prepares adolescents, their parents and teachers for puberty and associated changes and challenges.
“The programme takes a holistic approach by training parents and teachers simultaneously, so they can ensure a safe and healthy environment for adolescents after the sessions,” explain the Lokhandwala sisters. The basic components of the session include understanding gender and gender roles, introduction to puberty, physical, psychological and social changes during puberty, hygiene management, myths and misconceptions related to puberty, body positivity, bullying and harassment and a special focus on menstruation for girls. “The sessions are mostly tailored according to the needs of the students and the schools’ management.”
The initiative has reached out to as many as eight schools in Karachi and two in Gilgit Baltistan. The founders, however, believe that this is just the beginning. They aspire to take it to schools and communities all over Pakistan.
The community education programme, Menstrual Hygiene Drives, focuses on awareness sessions through peer-to-peer counselling and interactive teaching tools. The sessions are held in underprivileged communities in which women of all ages and backgrounds meet to discuss menstruation and it being a natural phenomenon, and its hygiene management.
The organisation has also launched a digital community group – Oh My Period! The Facebook group aims to provide a safe space for women to talk about everything related to menstruation, to be able to learn from one another’s experiences and to help each other.
“The aim is to create a friendly space where anyone can talk about their periods freely and ask questions without being judged,” says Sana.
The journey wasn’t a joy ride. It came with its set of challenges. But the Lokhandwala sisters say these challenges were not strong enough to unnerve them or shake their commitment. The sisters say that they faced harassment, bullying and even death and rape threats from men on digital platforms and in the real world.
“Everything related to a female body that does not serve the patriarchal needs of pleasure and procreation is considered a taboo. Everyone loves to objectify a woman’s body but no one wants to talk about menstruation or breast cancer or women’s other health-related problems,” says Sumaira.
She says the stigma exists because the society has attached shame to women’s bodies. “It’s these taboos that have conditioned the society to view menstruation as something shameful or as something to be ashamed about. It is because of this that the way we view menstruation is going to change very slowly because of our deeply ingrained cultural taboos,” she adds.
They acknowledge the role their families and friends have played in supporting the organisation and its work. “HER Pakistan is a community-driven initiative and we wouldn’t be where we are without the support we received from our generous supporters, volunteers, partners and donors.”
“Discussing and educating people – men, women, girls and boys – about menstrual hygiene and dismissing taboos associated with it, in a patriarchal society, are things that scare a lot of people. We would be lying if we say we weren’t scared,” says Sana. “We were. But we were adamant to change the menstrual health situation in Pakistan. And we can confidently say that the change is happening.”
The writer is a human rights reporter based in Karachi. He covers conflict, environment and culture.