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Sada-E-Watan

Pervez Saleem (Producer/Director)

Menstrual rights are human rights. Period

Courtesy: Dawn News
By Bushra Mahnoor

When I gave her period kits, her eyes filled with a mix of relief and pain. She took off her glass bangles, her only remaining possession that survived the floods, and handed them to me as a token of gratitude.

As a young girl, I had firsthand experience of the devastating effects of the 2010 floods in Pakistan. Floodwaters had swallowed entire villages and towns adjacent to my own, leaving people stranded on rooftops, desperately waiting for help.

My parents were engaged in relief efforts at a camp in Khairabad, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. I was 10 years old at the time and I still remember coming across a young girl, no older than myself, whose clothes were stained with blood as she struggled to manage her first period in the cramped relief camp. It was a heartbreaking sight that stayed with me over the years.

On hearing news of the devastating 2022 floods in Pakistan, I was struck by the thought of the thousands of women who would be struggling to manage their periods amidst the chaos of the disaster. I knew I had to take action.

Alongside my friend Anum, I founded Mahwari Justice, a grassroots movement that aimed to not only raise awareness about menstrual rights in Pakistan, but also provide flood affectees with access to menstrual hygiene products.

Making it happen

To achieve this, we set up a GoFundMe account and within a few weeks, we were able to collect sufficient funds to purchase supplies. I remember scouring wholesale markets across Lahore, searching Anarkali, Mochi gate and Shalmi market for underwear, soap, detergent, and period products.

The next step was to pack these supplies into relief kits. We called out for volunteers via Twitter and the response was overwhelming. People from all walks of life came forward to help, each one eager to contribute.

Volunteers packing period relief kits in Lahore. — Photo provided by author

Our office, a small room, hummed with activity as we packed these kits every weekend. Volunteers worked tirelessly, carefully selecting items and packing them with care. There is one moment that truly touched my heart: a father and his daughter came together to help pack relief kits, breaking patriarchal norms that shun any form of talk about menstruation between father and daughter. It was a powerful moment that showed just how far we’d come.

Shelter first, bleed second?

Our efforts did not, however, go without challenge. We faced criticism from people who questioned the necessity of such aid. Others believed that necessities like food, water, and medicine should take precedence over period products. We understood that menstruation is a taboo topic, which made it even more difficult to convince people of the urgency of our cause.

When faced with criticism, my team and I made a conscious effort to remain open-minded and listen with an open ear. I recognised that as students, we were undertaking a massive endeavor with limited resources and that we had much to learn. We listened to our critics and used their feedback to refine our approach, turning some of them into supporters. Our willingness to learn and adapt was critical to our success.

The impact of our work extended beyond just the distribution of relief kits. I remember receiving a call from an old woman who lived in a village near Hyderabad. She had heard about our work on TV and wanted to contribute, despite having limited means. She didn’t have access to any digital payment platforms, so she sent me Rs500 as mobile credit. The gesture may seem small, but it was immensely powerful. It reminded me that our work resonated with the average person on a personal level. We weren’t just a faceless group delivering aid, but rather a group of young people working together to make a difference.

We also faced resistance from men during the early days of Mahwari Justice. Alot of the men we contacted said they didn’t want to work with us because we were only supplying period products. They disregarded these items as a genuine need for flood-affectees, so we decided to pivot our approach and started reaching out to women who were already doing relief work in flooded areas. We also contacted doctors who were arranging medical camps and midwives who were providing essential healthcare services to the flood-affectees for the initial distribution of period relief kits.

Of the many challenges my team faced, the one that stands out the most is the sheer scale of the task at hand. We knew we had to reach as many people as possible, but the enormity of the flood-affected areas left us feeling overwhelmed.

Team Mahwari Justice distributing period relief kits in Gandakha, Balochistan. — Photo provided by author

Yet, we refused to be discouraged and with the help of 130 dedicated volunteers, we were able to reach over 100,000 flood affectees across 80 areas including but not limited to Sohbatpur, Naseerabad, Jaffarabad, Lasbela, Qilla Abdullah in Balochistan; Dadu, Umerkot, Naushahro Feroze, Sanghar, Badin in Sindh; Muzaffargarh, Layyah, Rajanpur, DG Khan in Punjab; Swat, Charsadda, Chitral, Nowshera, Dera Ismail Khan in KP as well as Ghizer, Nagar, Diamer in Gilgit, all within a span of six months.

This would not have been possible without the tireless efforts of our volunteers, both on the ground and online. It is a testament to the power of community and the impact that a group of determined individuals can have when they come together for a common cause.

Building on our theoretical framework

In organising relief work to provide menstrual kits, I was careful to ensure that we were addressing the actual needs of the people we were serving. Rather than imposing our ideas on them, we took the time to connect with the affected communities and learn about their specific needs. This approach allowed us to tailor our menstrual relief kits to the unique needs of the women in these areas, creating a more impactful and effective relief effort.

Illustrations of how to use a commercial sanitary pad included in the relief kits. — Source: Mahwari Justice

We took inspiration from previous disaster relief efforts and successful campaigns, such as the “Bleed With Dignity” campaign in the 2017 Assam floods in India, to inform our work. By leveraging evidence and research, we were able to address the unique needs of communities in a way that was culturally sensitive and appropriate. This experience taught me that effective relief work goes beyond providing supplies; it requires a deep understanding of the unique needs and cultural context of the people being served.

We carefully crafted our period relief kits to ensure that they were not only practical, but also offered a sense of comfort and dignity. Thus, we created four different types of period relief kits to suit the needs of the flood-affected women.

Products included in the period relief kits provided to flood-affectees. — Photos provided by author

The first kit included reusable cloth-based pads, as well as underwear, drawstrings, soaps, and detergents. For the second kit, we opted for reusable microfibre-based towel sheets instead of cloth pads, the third included biodegradable pads made from cotton and gauze and came with panties, detergents, and soaps, and for the fourth kit, we used commercial pads. We also included small items such as combs, mirrors, nail clippers, needles and thread, to ensure our kits were comprehensive and helped women feel taken care of.

During the winter season, we also recognised that the cold can make periods even more challenging for women in flood-affected areas. To help alleviate some of these difficulties, we decided to add warm clothing such as sweaters, shawls, and socks to our relief kits.

Impact beyond relief

Growing up with five sisters in a working-class family, period poverty was a constant battle in my early teenage years. During my period, I was forced to make a single pad last for hours, constantly worried about leaks and the shame that followed.

It was a daily struggle that left me feeling embarrassed and anxious. Nevertheless, my experiences made me realise that period poverty is more than just a lack of access to products. It’s the emotional toll it takes on individuals who are unable to access them, the constant worry and shame that follows them around like a shadow.

This is why I made it my mission to help women feel dignified and respected during their periods. As we distributed the kits, I saw the impact of our work first hand. The tears of gratitude, the hugs, and the kisses on my forehead from women who finally had access to menstrual products were a testament to the importance of this work.

While I was working in the flood-affected areas of Balochistan, I met Amala in Maanjothi village. Amala was a mother of five daughters and had lost her home to the floods. She told me about the hardships her daughters had to face to manage their periods amidst the flood. When I gave her the period kits, her eyes filled with a mix of relief and pain. She took off her glass bangles, her only remaining possession that survived the floods, and handed them to me as a token of gratitude. I stared at Amala, utterly stunned by her extraordinary act of generosity. It was at that moment that I realised the true power of the work I was doing.

Then there was the old woman in Foleji, Balochistan, who approached me, her eyes filled with desperation. In broken Urdu, she explained that her daughter was on her period and was using tree leaves as makeshift pads. I felt a lump in my throat as I witnessed the raw emotion and helplessness in her eyes. When I handed her a menstrual relief kit, she kissed my forehead. The weight of her kiss was heavy with the unspoken suffering and resilience of so many women like her.

Breaking the taboo

Overcoming the stigma around periods is a daunting task, particularly in small towns where cultural norms and practices have a strong hold on communities. When I started my journey, I faced opposition from an unexpected source — my own family. Despite being aware of the harsh realities of period poverty, my mother could not understand why I was talking openly about periods and advocating for menstrual equity. She was worried that my activism would bring shame to our family and harm my sisters’ chances of finding suitable matches for marriage.

At first, her words made me doubt my decision to take action. I felt unsupported and alone. But as I continued to work with flood affectees, I found solace in the courage and strength of the women I worked with, and their determination inspired me to push forward despite the obstacles.

Breaking taboos around periods is an essential part of the work I do. By addressing period poverty and ensuring access to menstrual supplies, my work challenges the stigma and shame surrounding periods. When we openly discuss periods, we create space for conversations that have long been silenced. Through my work, I hope to inspire others to break the taboo around periods and work towards menstrual equity. When we stop treating periods as shameful and start treating them as a natural part of life, we create a world where everyone can menstruate with dignity and respect.

Relief work is not just a humanitarian issue or a matter of charity, but a deeply political one. It is a reflection of the priorities and values of our society and the extent to which we are willing to recognise the dignity and humanity of all people, regardless of their socioeconomic status or gender.

By advocating for safe period products and raising awareness about period poverty, we are not only addressing an urgent and overlooked need, but also challenging the systemic barriers that perpetuate gender-based inequality and discrimination.

My work to address the menstrual needs of flood affectees is just the beginning of our movement for period equity. We recognise that providing immediate aid is not enough to create long-lasting change.

It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that basic human rights, including access to safe and affordable period products, are met for all. The work of Mahwari Justice is not only a political statement, but also a call to action for collective efforts towards creating a more just and equitable world.

Bushra Mahnoor is a 22-year-old student and co-founder of Mahwari Justice, a globally applauded period rights movement in Pakistan.

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