Menstruation is one subject many people try to avoid during conversations, including those centered on health. While it is a crucial conversation, especially to help young girls understand the phenomenon, cultural obstacles tend to put a clog in the wheel. Thankfully, there are people like Jafrin Akhtar who, using their works in menstrual hygiene management (MHM), are rising to the occasion and using their platform to educate women around the world on their inevitable monthly cycle.
Ahktar is from Balipara in Assam, and got her education in Guwahati. All through her childhood, Akhtar could be described as one who wasn’t afraid to try new things. She made the transition into social works while studying for her bachelors and got the full support of her parents. In the year 2012, Akhtar began community work by educating teenagers who could not afford additional classes. After a failed attempt in 2014 to kickstart her youth enlightenment programme, Akhtar founded an intersectional feminist-youth-led run organisation called Spread Love and Peace (SLAP) in 2018, with the help of some of her friends. Along with other passionate educators at SLAP, she aims to educate youths on leadership development and socio-civic responsibility. She is mostly focused on menstrual health and hygiene – a subject she is strongly advocating, and organises, collaborates on campaigns for sustainable menstruation.
The health worker has gone on to work voluntarily for organisations like We are Young Foundation, Khoon, Fridays for Future, Child Friendly Guwahati, and Sauhard, among many others. She recently got a chance to take part in a national workshop conducted by Youth Ki Awaaz to further amplify her campaign.
Akhtar has pioneered several campaigns like the #MyFirstPeriod which is as a result of the challenges she also experienced with regards to her sexuality and menstruation. She also began the digital campaign called #DOT, where she convinced artists to lend their powerful voices to create awareness for menstrual health across the country. She was able to raise over Rs 30,000 to buy sanitary products for menstruation, which she shared in the rural parts of Assam.
Her history in menstrual health has spanned several years, but she actively began her project in menstrual health enlightenment in 2019. This was a product of her passion for youth education on sensitive topics such as menstruation and the lack of organisations that are dedicated towards the cause. Asides the launch of several campaigns like #MyFirstPeriod and #DOT, Akhtar has gone on to do even more. In the events of natural disasters like flooding and the current pandemic, Akhtar has provided menstrual products in several locations in Assam and has created platforms that have connected menstrual health enthusiasts with menstrual health activists.
Speaking on her motivation behind the commencement of these campaigns, Akhtar says, “I think it was with finding out and realizing the lack of spaces to talk about menstruation for myself. I have my own childhood menarche horror story but while recovering from that I also figured out, I had almost no space to talk about my story or for my concerns and queries about menstrual health. Just after the campaign #DOT, I was terribly bullied by a gynaecologist where she questioned my virginity, sex life and marital status because of using a menstrual cup which were extremely horrendous and unrelated. She added that a menstrual cup must be used only by married women. And that’s when I realized I had to go forth on the way I took.”
“SLAP was not an intentional effort but it just happened with things falling into place eventually. I was constantly involved with working with my locality and finding ways to serve back after seeing a number of problems in my village, I thought it was high time that I brought more people to work along with me and for a larger community and diverse places of Assam with organized efforts from 2018,” she adds.
Starting initiatives like these can be challenging. Akhtar ‘s journey is not an exception. She recounts some troubles she encountered along the way. “Finding the ways and approaches towards community building”. She initially was lost as to how to proceed, as all she had were the right intentions. After a slight pause, she adds, “My parents also were not really supportive initially and had no understanding of why I do what I do. I had to explain to them at every step I took and they also tried channeling my career to a lot of other options but I was resisting everything, at times giving proper explanations too and just being consistent and determined,” she says.
On how she eventually gained the support of her parents, she says educating them on her reasons and intentions really helped. “I think that helped them believe in me even if not my work. But after years now my parents have started taking active participation in programs at SLAP through whatever medium they can.” Akhtar says.
For Akhtar finance is the biggest challenge to her project. “I am dependent on my family currently for all my finances and that has been quite a barrier for what I want to do and what I could do. Though my team, the community and networks around me have been quite a help and support to fund us at the times of providing relief and even if not funds but in the ways of encouragement and boost. That’s all what keeps me going. My team is extremely empathetic and encouraging,” she adds with a cheerful smile.
With her vision and tenacity, Akhtar has attracted several other voices and supporters, leading to numerous significant successes. Among the many, Akhtar highlights the success that meant the most to her. “We run a WhatsApp group to support all those who shared their menarche stories with us and have conversations on several things on menstruation and one of the menstruators there once said ‘Well I have been reading all your conversations and it feels great that we finally got a platform to talk about our emotions as well as our problems’, and her response as well as several others like this was a step of achievement towards building a safe space.”
Menstruators in this group talk about their food habits while in their period, their blood flow or emotions, friendships gained, while supporting other menstruators, period disorders and several other things around it. We have also gained nationwide collaborations with this campaign and I think that keeps our work flowing.”
There has also been a recent influx of men getting involved and participating in menstrual health awareness campaigns. Akhtar also has incorporated men into her project in several ways. “Men may not experience the menstruation first hand, but they also can contribute to getting the message out. They could take charge of working in the back end for content work, making memes, writing editorials and planning programs as well as taking part in the discussions and listening to the menstruators. Men also are involved in attending webinars or live sessions and engaging themselves to learn to talk about menstruation,” she says.
The level of participation among men and women was largely lopsided initially as men didn’t exactly show any interest. With renewed awareness with campaigns like those organised by Akhtar, the male gender is slowly turning up in numbers to show support.
Some pre-existing factors in Assam have obstructed Akhtar on her journey of enlightenment. “People here have celebrations over menstruation. Festivals like Ambubachi and traditions like tuloni biya (a ritualistic symbolic wedding) are followed and celebrated; even then the minds are nowhere open to talk about menstruation.”
Continuing, she says, “And this contradiction makes people think these celebrations are ways towards normalizing the period and people outside Assam and within believe that there’s no taboo, but that’s factually and statistically incorrect. A study by national family health survey (NFHS) shows only 47.27% girls were aware about menstruation prior to menarche in Assam and 59.9% used menstrual products, while 97.27% of menstruators faced restrictions during their menarche which tells us that saying menstruation is not a taboo by celebrating regressive practices is also a myth.”
Unfortunately, funding for Akhtar’s project has been limited. “It has been extremely challenging to balance our programs without any monetary assistance. We do not have any sort of fundings coming from any organization, even after trying for many proposals. We are simply functioning on shared interests, voluntary efforts of young people and good will and support by the community around us but practically it’s very challenging mostly at times of crisis like this when there’s so less motivation in people,” she says.
In her spare time, Akhtar catches up on fun activities like dancing, reading and learning, meme making, journaling and travelling to wonderful places. With more visionaries like Akhtar pushing forward with positive enlightenment for youths all over the country, we are definitely assured of a better tomorrow, especially with regards to menstrual health in Assam and the world at large!
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