The writing is literally on the wall now. Only this time, it isn't words but graffiti. And, its about menstruation.
Even in 2019, large sections of India continues to consider menstruation a taboo and denies it the medical attention it deserves. In fact, even flagship schemes like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan of the Narendra Modi-led NDA government, which embarked on its second term this month, have ignored menstruation as a topic worthy of highlighting.
Calling attention to this deficit in Swachh Bharat Abhiyan's creative outputs and messaging, a group of 35 young persons in Jharkhand have been painting villages red with menstruation-themed graffiti on the walls.
Srilekha Chakraborty, a gender rights activist who runs a campaign called #PeriodsPeCharcha in Jharkhand, teamed up with NEEDS along with two other independent artists Shruti Ghosh and Francis Xavier Mathew from the Sristhi School of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore. Together, the team held four workshops in which they trained around 35 young boys and girls in the art of self-expression and exploration through graffiti. The aim to include local youth from the community was primarily to include local communities so that they take ownership of the products thus created as well as internalise the messages espoused in the graffiti.
"Swachh Bharat wall art only talks about toilet building and waste disposal in their graffiti. They do not give nearly as much attention to messages about menstrual health," Srilekha said, adding, "This was an effective way to include local youth and break the taboo against discussions pertaining to menstruation within their communities, while also sending a larger message to the administrators of SBM."
The stories that the youth told through the wall art were stories that came out of the immersive workshops. For example, one of the stories on a wall was about the "unruly" and "hooligan" girls of Madransare village who were deft at climbing trees as a way to pass time. So the team came up with a story about a Gulmohar tree with flaming red flowers, symbolic of period blood. the mural depicting the tree had young girls climbing it and plucking its fruit, and generally having fun.
The mural is located beside the village's common tubewell and Srilekha feels it is sure to bring up conversations, especially about the restrictions that are placed on young girls who are asked not go out and play, denied entry to the kitchen and asked not to touch food when they are menstruating.
According to Mr. Murari Mohan Choudhury, Director of NEEDS, menstrual health is one of the most critical health rites of women. And yet, it remains relegated to pamphlets and guidelines. "This is high time communities start talking widely about menstruation and its implication on women's health," Choudhury said. NEEDS has for twenty years been working on several projects for women's rights and empowerment. It is also involved in the "Marriage No Child’s Play" project in Deoghar, powered by the More Than Brides Alliance and those rehabilitated and trained in life-skills as part of the project were chosen as participants for this initiative.
However, Dr Choudhury feels that only the government can bring about a conclusive change. "Artists, innovators, communicators and activists aside, it is ultimately the government who has to adapt these plans in mass scale and take things forward," he said.
For 15-year-old Anisha, who was one of the community members participating in the endeavor, the experience was wonderful. "When young girls get their periods in the village they are asked not to share it with anyone by the women in their house," Anisha said. "But if there is visual art in front of them in the village then the girls will not feel afraid to talk about menstruation," the teen hoped.
Some of the engaging artworks include depictions of the "Moon-cycle", in which the lunar cycle has been used to depict a girl's menstrual cycle. Another striking mural was painted on the wall beside the busy high road of Naya Bhadiyara village, depicting a young girl navigating a bright red sea while being perched protectively in a pad-shaped boat. The red waves symbolise period blood while the pad is projected as the girl's rescue boat. The idea is to stress the need for using proper menstrual and sanitary products.
As per a 2017 report by UNICEF, 88 percent of menstruating women in Jharkhand and Bihar did not have or were unable to access sanitary napkins. According to data published in a 2014 report by Dasra, as many as 23 million girls drop out of school annually upon reaching menstrual age (menarche) due to lack of awareness or resources to cope with it in public spaces. However, in the past quarter of the decade, more and more initiatives to highlight menstrual health have been coming up in states like Jharkhand.
In the state's Simdega district, the Ministry of Home Affairs’ Transformation of Aspirational Districts Program (TADP) spearheaded a campaign called "Garima Abhiyan" which will have volunteers called the "Garima Fauj" participating in awareness activities and campaigns aimed at destigmatising menstrual health, especially in educational institutions.