Last year, in collaboration with Sakriya Charitable Trust, a Bengaluru-based organisation, I organised an awareness camp on menstrual hygiene at Sawani High School in a remote area of Rajouri district in Jammu and Kashmir.
Women and girls from the Gujjar-Bakarwal community were invited to the camp. As soon as we started discussing menstrual hygiene, an uncomfortable silence took over. After persistent and strategic efforts, some of the women and girls present started sharing their experiences. Others followed the suit, albeit slowly. But as they started talking, they shared what menstruation means to them – a shameful and disrespectful subject.
While distributing sanitary pads, the girls were reluctant to take them as they associated them with taboo. Even though we tried to create awareness among girls and women regarding menstruation hygiene management, they preferred not to talk about it.
The nomadic tribes of Gujjar and Bakarwal comprise one third of the total population of Jammu and Kashmir, and their livelihood is mostly dependent on the rearing of cattle. They wander to higher reaches in search of fodder.They migrate to mountains, pastures and dunes in the summer and return to plains in the winter. In this process, they trek through rough hilly terrain, during which women and girls face several difficulties.
The biggest challenge is illiteracy among girls and women, which is the root cause of all the problems. These women’s lack of education is a chasm that cannot be bridged over centuries. During migration, women and girls from these communities have to face menstrual hygiene issues as soon as they reach adolescence. Due to unavailability of water, cloth material used as absorbent material during periods is not washed and dried properly. Dirty clothes are used repeatedly. Most Gujjar Bakarwal women believe that they should not take baths during menstruation. Although awareness of menstrual hygiene is crucial to women’s health, women from these communities avoid talking about it, leading to various health issues.
According to the World Health Organization, girls between the ages of 13 and 15 reach puberty. Information on menstruation and hygiene should be imparted beforehand so that girls are aware of the process and know how to take care of themselves while menstruating. Gujjar Bakarwal girls, on the other hand, are completely unaware of this natural process of life. Due to fear, shame, and hesitation, these girls bear the pain of period cramps alone for many months. They do not even inform their mothers about their condition, nor do the mothers have any knowledge to educate their daughters.
Dr. Sangeeta, a gynaecologist from Rajouri who specialises in menstrual hygiene, said, “Women and girls from these communities need guidance on such issues. Menstrual hygiene is very important, but we do not have any scheme through which we can educate women from these communities. Nor do they have the resources and skills to benefit from the webinars and schemes run by the ministry of health.”
The Tribal Affairs and the Social Welfare Departments, along with the Health Department in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, can play a key role in spreading awareness on menstruation among girls and women from these communities. As the nomadic Gujjar Bakarwal community lives in remote rural areas and mostly migrates, the department should organise awareness camps on menstruation and arrange sessions with psychologists in schools in remote areas and primary health centres. These sessions should target at creating safe spaces for adolescent girls where they could share their personal experiences. After understanding their challenges, professionals should help break their idea of ‘menstruation’ that has been forced upon them by the society. Besides, gynaecologists can provide information on menstrual health and hygiene and educatethe mothers to save the future generation of girls from myths around menstruation.
To reach these women, the administration can establish menstrual hygiene and awareness centres on different routes that these communities take while undertaking their seasonal migration. At least medicine and pads should be provided to these women either at subsidised rates or free of cost at these centres. Sincere steps are required to address the health concerns of women and young girls of the Gujjar Bakarwal community.
(The author is editor ofGojri Literary Magazine and a teacher at Government High School Sawani, Rajouri, Jammu and Kashmir.)