“There was a rise in menstrual health movements in India in 2015. It was inside the varsity campuses across the country, with the students themselves grouping up and raising their voices,” narrates Arjun Unnikrishnan, the Executive Director of The Red Cycle.
There had been repeated incidents of harassment on these campuses. “It was through the topic of menstruation that they were putting forth their concerns and reclaiming their basic rights,” he informs, as he opens up to us about his experiences and learnings of being a menstrual health educator.
They acknowledge that these movements were the catalyst that changed the conversation. The issue was not just about the availability of menstrual products, their costs or their disposal. Rather, there were deeper consequences of how menstruation had been addressed all this while.
The conversation around menstruation needs to go beyond menstrual hygiene. The Red Cycle, a grassroots movement working for the cause of spreading menstrual health awareness, aims to be able to do so. The need of the hour is sensitisation among people, not just in terms of understanding the phenomena, but also the socio-political aspects of it.
The Red Cycle henceforth made efforts to understand the issue of menstruation in a broader sense. “The important aspect is that we cannot see an individual merely as a consumer. These individuals have a set of rights that our constitution guarantees them,” explains Arjun.
In 2018, the debate around menstruation in Kerala gained momentum once again among the masses. The ban imposed by the Kerala High Court in 1991 on menstruating women, from entering the temple of Sabarimala, was being challenged. Even though the dialogues were highly polarised, these debates were heavily discussing the social and political angles of this biological process on larger scales.
But as a movement working for the cause of menstruation, these were testing times, recalls Arjun. The assessment of their accountability was stronger, they had to become more serious. “We figured that the way forward was to concentrate on providing our audiences with more scientific information,” Arjun recollects.
Individual rights and Menstruation
The Red Cycle concentrates on understanding the needs of a menstruator at an individual level. They also believe that menstrual management is an individual choice; a person should be given the right to decide for themselves.
“What we agree on is that we will build safe spaces to facilitate dialogue on menstruation and the various aspects related to it. Menstruating persons should be well informed about the biological process and must be aware of various services available to them,” insists Arjun.
Talking about menstrual products, they showcase all the menstrual products to their audiences and let them make an informed choice. One realisation they came to through interactions with people was that hygiene was a privilege for many.
For such people, their socio-economic conditions may be poor and needed improvement first, to bring relief to the problems of a menstruator. Hence The Red Cycle believes that the conversation around menstruation cannot be limited to hygiene and sanitation. That is not the solution.
“The issues related to menstruation vary between individuals, regions, culture and so on. The term we use right now is Menstrual Health Rights. In this, we look at many factors that affect the life of a menstruator. Like labour and land rights, caste and gender, food and nutrition, water and sanitation, literacy and so on. Our aim is to establish these rights and give form to specific and contextual programme planning and implementation to move forward,” Arjun explains.
“We seldom connect labour and wage to menstruation,” he points out. There are reports of menstruating labourers resorting to hysterectomies as a last resort to avoid taking leave from their work – which means a pay cut or at times even a hefty fine, on the days of their cycle.
“Such cases of severe discrimination towards menstruating labourers came to light in recent years, especially the story from Maharashtra’s Beed district. Here, a couple would be paid approximately Rs 400 as wages for their labour per day. And when the women did not show up because of menstruation, they would be fined approximately Rs. 1000, wages worth five days of labour,” Arjun narrates.
“We have to pay attention to the economical, political and societal aspects of menstruation as well to study and derive solutions to the problems,” he iterates.
The Red Cycle follows the practice of using the term ‘menstruator’ instead of women, keeping in mind the population who menstruate but do not conform to gender binary norms. “It has been established that it is not just women who menstruate, there are others as well. We try to include them in the conversation,” Arjun enlightens. This at times has made a certain section of people feel like the cause is being taken away from the women themselves.
Arjun clarifies that is not the case, The Red Cycle believes that this cause needs to be taken forward by women, but using the term menstruator is their way to make the conversation more open and welcoming to others who menstruate as well.
The Red Cycle also recognises the importance and necessity of including non-menstruators and people without uteruses, specifically men, in the conversation. “We think of how we can make them allies and build the movement,” he explains. The Red Cycle had produced a video; a compilation of men talking about their knowledge on menstruation.
Stigmatisation and Romanticisation
The stigma around talking about bodily functions of any type, make people link it to a sense of shame when someone does try to speak up. This sense of shame makes the spread of misinformation easy and rampant.
“When we go to schools or colleges for workshops, we get asked why we only talk about menstruation and not masturbation? Why are we only talking about ‘their’ issue and not ‘ours’?” Arjun mentions, throwing light on the scale of unawareness.
The people who raise such questions find no qualms in equating a natural and involuntary biological process to a voluntary sexual activity. The need to understand the different aspects of menstruation is a necessity for everyone, feels Arjun. The romanticisation of menstruation is of no help, as it creates an imbalance in how the phenomenon is perceived among people.
Menstruation is seen as a qualifier for womanhood, where motherhood is the ultimate goal. The association of enduring pain and discomfort silently which is regarded as a fine quality of a woman makes menstruation the first test a young girl needs to pass to gain societal acceptance.
Arjun indicates that such an attitude creates a disparity among women who reach menarche early, making them the desired ideal while those with delayed menarches become lesser ideals.
At the same time, it disregards and creates a sense of prejudice towards women who have medical conditions like PCOS, irregular cycles, which are beyond their control most of the time. “Also what about women who have reached menopause, are they not women anymore? Menstruation is used as a tool to measure womanhood, which is unnecessary,” Arjun warns, pointing out how this attitude is arbitrary and non-inclusive.
Scientific information for The Red Cycle is not solely collecting and dispersing facts that debunk religious taboos. They also try to understand how menstrual untouchability is still practised in our society. “Menstrual untouchability may not be as evident as before but still exists,” cautions Arjun.
“It is not just asking a menstruator to take a different path or not enter a pooja room. Menstrual untouchability also includes taking medicine to postpone a cycle,” he explains. “When we look for the reason behind such practices, we find that they are institutionalised. It is not just the religion or caste, but a family is also an institution in this case, which effectively creates impunity for discriminatory practices,” Arjun laments.
Forcing medicines on menstruators to delay a menstrual cycle in order to prevent them from entering certain places is a form of modern-day untouchability. It implies and reinforces the belief that a person is ‘impure’ when they are on their cycle and to avoid this impurity, it is justified to take medicines and delay a cycle.
Instead of using science and logic to understand and accept menstruation as a natural, healthy and vital process, people have started using it to extend the life of taboos that should have died down long ago.
Looking Back and Ahead
Describing how essential it is to have a dialogue to be able to help people accordingly, he says, “We need to concentrate on what each individual needs. So we organise people to help them realise that they are not alone in this. It is important to create spaces for the menstruating population to put forth their stories and problems freely, rather than us giving them solutions from top to bottom.”
Arjun credits this two-way communication in helping them evolve in 2019. “It was a great year for us, we got lots of appreciation and ideas for new projects as well. It was then that we started working in terms of quality. We compiled and consolidated what our audiences said and began to study about it,” he says.
The Red Cycle functions as a facilitator between the public and policymakers. “There are limitations to being just an educational group. Schools are equipped enough to provide education. We need to function beyond that,” Arjun says.
“This is not just our, a private body’s duty. This has to be an issue taken up by public bodies. What we can do is think about how we can help these public bodies,” he further explains.
Apart from conducting talks and workshops, The Red Cycle has many projects that they are working on. Uteri of Kerala Unite is one such project, which focuses on emphasising menstrual education starting from 6th standard and above, in all schools across Kerala. “We demand that there should be a comprehensive module for menstruation and also creating safe spaces within schools for children,” mentions Arjun.
Another major project they are working on is called Apna Time Aayega, which is meant for helping the nomadic Bagariya community, in the village of Kotri, located in Ajmer, Rajasthan. “That area has sanitation, water problems and no agricultural potential. It’s close to Sambhar Lake, which is salty. The people face all sorts of problems,” shares Arjun.
Apni Toh Pathshala is another project that they are conducting, focusing on identifying government schools that do not have water. This is in collaboration with Jignesh Mevani, the MLA of Vadgam constituency, Gujarat.
Elaborating on the plan of action, Arjun says, “We aim to get relevant administrative sanctions and accelerate their decision making. We will also help with funds if there are complaints of them going low. Fifteen schools will be shortlisted for this.”
The Red Cycle also plans to build a virtual community of taluk level representatives, to spread and share their ideas with each other, Arjun informed. They are also working on creating a comic book based on their research.
Apart from all this since last year, they have been conducting many social media campaigns for the cause of menstruation. Spreading the word and message that menstrual health awareness has to be inclusive and important for everyone.