Hiding the topic of menstruation in a cloud of secrecy and code words participates in keeping this topic in the margins and treated as a taboo subject in the society. This often comes attached with stigma and shame, as well as a ton of misrepresentations. But don’t fuss, things have started to change. Here are two girls, Mir Musharraf and Mubeena Khan, who are in their mid-twenties, rose in Kashmir’s orphanage, and began their innovative journey two years ago, knowing well the challenges they had chosen for themselves. They are battling the taboos attached to the routine biological process that every woman goes through, which is about the menstrual shame and stigma; They are not only creating awareness to de-stigmatise menstruation but also manufacturing and selling sanitary napkins to help shoddier women who cannot afford patented products.
Mir Musharraf says, “We have grown up seeing what women in Kashmir, particularly in the border and rural areas go through during their periods. It’s not only about the disgrace; but also about hygiene during periods. There are many myths surrounding a girl’s periods and most of them are based on the fact that the girl is ‘unclean’ during those days. We are trying to change the mindset of women by making them understand the importance of choosing the right method for sanitation during periods.”
More and more women are becoming more comfortable learning about the benefits of alternative options for menstrual care. This has increased comfort resources, many woman sharing their experiences with us. We are proud to be part of these important changes surrounding menstruation in our society.
Whereas Mubeena shares her experience stating that, “We knew that, what we decided to do was not easy. Breaking the set rules or barriers and bringing change is a process. Talking about menstruating is not easy with women in Kashmir. But we decided to empower them; it is probably the most important aspect of a girl’s life.”
Mir, hails from Keran village, which is known as a tourist resort in Neelam Valley, Azad Kashmir, Pakistan. Her father suffered with blood cancer and died. That time Mir was very young to understand life. Keran, has often faced the brunt of military skirmishes between the armies of the two countries as it is situated on LoC. Mir’s family relocated to Kupwara in the early 1990s, those days militancy in the Kashmir Valley was at its peak and Pakistan was actively pushing armed insurgents into the Indian side under the cover of border firing. Many Villagers transited those days and Mir’s family was one of them. Widow mother had no alternative to earn their living; she got her daughter admitted to Basera E Tabassum, an orphanage in Kupwara town run by Borderless World Foundation, a Pune-based non-governmental organisation that helps with the socio-economic development of people in border areas.
At the orphanage, Mir became friends with a “like-minded” Mubeena, who had also lost her father when she was just two and a half. The girls grew up in the orphanage that not only sheltered and fed them but also empowered them with innovative skills to bring socio-economic changes in Kupwara — an area where an estimated 40 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line.
Mir grew up with a dream to do something for women, particularly those living in border areas, those who suffered like her mother and she herself. Today, her dreams came true; she is creating awareness about menstruation and manufacturing sanitary napkins. Actually, Mubeena came up with the idea and you know why?
Meanwhile, Mubeena was little worried and concerned about the treatment given to woman menstruation. In many households girls are asked to stay away from rituals, payers, and anything remotely ‘holy’. No touching, because then everything will become ‘impure’. Many women are supposed to not cook food, or enter the kitchen during this time. It started as forced seclusion. Breaking these norms was not easy task for her.
She says “We, as women, too believe in the traditions and it is very, very difficult to break the norm. And believe me, many girls stop going to school once they reach to menstrual cycles.”
In a society where women deprived of many things, they live without proper sanitation and hygiene, which results in infections, and possible removal of the uterus (after which she is considered a ‘barren woman’) she lives under more of an unsaid rule during periods.
These two brave girls conducted hundreds of awareness camps in schools, colleges, and community centers talking about the issue. The next step was self-empowerment and enabling as many women as possible in their extended neighbourhood. Eventually, they spoke with the Borderless World Foundation and shared the idea of setting up a cost-effective sanitary napkin manufacturing unit in Kupwara. They began researching on the internet, reading about their proposed business, before travelling to NIRMA Industries training centre in Solapur, Maharashtra, where they were incubated for three months and taught how to handle machines, grinders and other nitty-gritties of the business by experts.
The real challenge was to raise the money needed for investment, and also the
working capital. Iqra Javed, project officer with the Borderless World Foundation in Srinagar, said the foundation itself invested nearly Rs 12 lakh to set up and run the unit. Apart from this, the foundation helped them win Rs 3,00,000 as investment at a 2016 startup competition by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and Chinar Internationals, a Srinagar-based NGO helping startups. And finally came the time to make a ‘Happy Choice’ — the name they gave to their business unit. Machines and raw material were brought and the unit was set up at the Borderless World Foundation-run women development and social entrepreneurship centre, Rah-e-Niswan, in a shanty structure in Solkute, six km from Kupwara town.
Right from the production purchases to the product, and then marketing, all were done by these two girls, Mir Musharraf and Mubeena Khan.
They still need funds to improvise, they needed a packaging machine and a machine that would make and attach wings to the pads. But it would mean another investment in some lakhs. Starved of funds, the two had to temporarily close their unit and have set out on an investment hunt. But the awareness campaign is on.
They will keep talking about menstruation till everybody talks about it without attaching a taboo. Their battle is on.
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