Meet India's vagina activists
Not all heroes wear capes
Trying to understand the complex workings of female genitalia can feel like exploring the Sahara without Google maps. Merely saying the word out loud makes eyebrows and blood pressure shoot up. So like a RAW agent hiding in enemy territory, our vaginas have code names: su-su, pipit, flower hoo-ha, vajayjay…
It explains why so many grown women aren’t sure if they have one hole or two “down there”, despite having owned a vagina since birth. Community myths help perpetuate this international air of mystery. Bleeding vaginas can ruin your pickles, destroy crops, cause earthquakes, communicate with aliens… our lady bits were victims of fake news centuries before Whatsapp was invented.
Cue the educators, medical professionals and entrepreneurs who are at the frontlines of changing this conversation. Taking things beyond textbooks and tall tales, they’re armed with empathy, cutting-edge technology and creative thinking.
Meet India’s vagina activists
Aditi Gupta and Tuhin Paul | Menstrupedia
While some of us were lucky enough to have parents who patiently explained the intricacies of our periods (no one ever warns you about mindless cravings and hysterical mood swings, though), others got the school-appropriate version with the boys shunted out of class. Some only get cloth pads and shushed superstition-laden explanations. During their year-long research project on menstrual awareness in urban and semi-urban areas, Aditi Gupta and Tuhin Paul found that most women were ill-informed.
The communication designers took it upon themselves to counter this misinformation and eliminate the shame surrounding the subject, by presenting it in a fun, creative manner. And so, the Menstrupedia Comic was born. Launched through crowdsourcing, it is a step-by-step guide that takes girls from puberty to maintaining hygiene during periods. The relatable illustrations are a lot less daunting than the scary black and white diagrams of vaginas most of us were terrorised with via PPTs in school.
Of the 355 million menstruating women and young girls in India, 71 per cent of them had no knowledge of menarche (the first occurrence of menstruation) before it happens. Naturally, young girls turn to their mothers for information and support but the taboo gets only further perpetuated with 70 per cent of them considering menstruation to be “dirty” according to NGO Dasra’s report titled Spot On!
Gupta and Paul tackle this lack of information and unhygienic menstrual practices through Menstrupedia. Today, Gupta and Paul are working with 5 state governments for the comic to reach more than 6,000 schools and it has been translated into 16 languages being printed locally in 5 different countries, with an online blog where contribute their own personal stories and journeys as well. This resounding success has spurred the duo on to their next comic—turning their lens towards boys and covering subjects like puberty and consent as well as another project on pregnancy.
Aarefa Johari | Sahiyo
Most of us associate Female Genital Cutting or Mutilation with remote villages in Africa. For Mumbai-bred Aarefa Johari it hits much closer homer — she was one of the young Bohri girls who was subjected to the archaic practice. This phenomenon still occurs today within the Dawoodi Bohra community, with girls as young as age 7 being made to undergo this ‘female circumcision’. And while WHO factsheets posit over 200 million women and girls to have undergone FGC/M around the world, this demographic doesn’t wholly consider FGC/M happening in Asian countries and its diaspora.
The Mumbai-based journalist co-founded Sahiyo, to spread awareness and empower the Bohra community from within to eradicate the practice of FGC/M, also known as khatna. She describes the foundation of their work as “empathetic storytelling advocacy” through the voices of women who have undergone the procedure to create positive change.
Johari’s goal is to also provide as much accurate information as they can. “You have to raise awareness rationally and sensitively, make sure the information you’re putting out there covers the questions people have from all angles – religious, legal and human rights. You need to create a body of knowledge that keeps growing and evolving. It’s important not to share information that is sensationalised or polarising,” she says. Sahiyo hosts workshops, activist retreats and community videos to spread information and it’s through intimate one-on-one interactions that people can talk and listen to each other, acknowledge and value each woman’s story.
When it comes to change, Johari agrees it’s been slow because when it comes to tackling a generations-old social norm ingrained in a community, change can only come for within. “It can’t be something pushed on it from outside. In the form of a law, for example. It can exist, but it can also be easily ignored.”
Sahiyo surveyed 385 women out of which 80 per cent had undergone khatna and varying rationales being given for its continuation, from religion and faith (56 per cent) to decrease sexual arousal (45 per cent), carry on traditions (42 per cent) and physical hygiene (27 per cent). One positive? 82 per cent of the women surveyed stated that they would not carry out FGC on their daughter(s), indicating that a change may truly be in place for the future Dawoodi Bohras.
“These are nuanced and complicated experiences. Change can only come when we build an atmosphere that enables empathetic conversations instead of high-pitched polarising communication, and that’s a real challenge,” she says.
Vikas Bagaria | Pee Safe
I have calves of steel from awkwardly squatting on public toilets in our country. I’m no germaphobe but the fear of the dreaded Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) has literally propelled me to stay off the lid. An experience Srijana Bagaria can well identify with because while on a road trip with her husband Vikas in 2013, she contracted a severe UTI and had to fly back to Delhi for urgent treatment.
Luck for Bagaria and the rest of us poor squatters, her husband, a seasoned business and serial entrepreneur realised that unhygienic public restrooms pose a severe threat to the health of women and together, they created Pee Safe, a toilet seat sanitation spray to solve this pressing issue. Goodbye, awkward squatting.
Initially tested by friends and family, it received tremendously positive reviews. From sample bottles to a range of products (tampons, hand sanitisers, vaginal washes and more), today Pee Safe has grown to be a formidable brand built by vagina activists. “Women are extremely susceptible to diseases such as UTI and we aim to provide comfort and convenience through our products. Our products are manufactured keeping in view that women will be in direct contact with the most vulnerable part of their bodies. Gradually, Pee Safe wants to shift towards helping the environment as well as women by creating biodegradable and eco-friendly products,” he says. Pro-vagina activists, in little bottles.
A ‘Toilet Seat Sanitiser Spray’ was unheard of in the country and creating awareness regarding the use and need of the product was quite a challenge in the initial few years till the setting up of the company in 2017. “For years, people have been concerned about the cleanliness of inside a pot but no one ever cared about the bacteria/germs present on the toilet seat. Everyone failed to understand the concept; clean does not mean sanitised.” Luckily, the ocean of misinformation is changing tides — one drop at a time.
Megha Kapur Gautum
On May 14, 2019, Megha Kapur Gautum got a status update regarding a PIL filed in October in the High Court of Himachal Pradesh. It called for the installation of sanitary pad dispensers and incinerators in all public offices.
This includes the courts, hotels, bus-stands, colleges and schools. Filed on behalf of local activist Prem Mohini Gupta, the implementation of Gautam’s request would be a landmark moment for the state, providing young girls and women with access to a basic sanitary needs.
“When you’re working in court all day and you suddenly feel that something’s not right, there wasn’t a lot you can do. The market is not close that you can rush there and back, leaving matters of work on pause, the courts don’t wait,” she says. Finding herself in such a situation herself, she realised that this is a case for all working women, those who were expected to always carry around sanitary pads and attempt their disposal in whatever way they can with no provisions made in public spaces.
While in Chandigarh she saw that the Municipal Corporation had independently raised funds and carried out such installations in washrooms and public conveyances. The Madras High Court issued an order in 2016 that all schools need to have vendors and incinerators. Returning to Himachal Pradesh, Gautam decided to introduce the same measure, broadening its scope, in her state as well.
Gautam shares that hotels under the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation have already installed the machines as has the High Court. Waiting on further implementation from the State, she hopes to see them in all public spaces.
The Himachal Pradesh Road Transport Corporation ( HRTC) took a policy decision to make it compulsory for all bus stands to have vending machines and Incinerators. The Tourism department has installed them in all the Tourism hotels/restaurants in Shimla and will be doing the same throughout the State.
She writes: “Coming back to the point of taboo and discussion, more often than not, advocates representing the State are men and it has taken me a year to explain to them how this is the need of the hour. However, I often find them mumbling when they use words like ‘Sanitary Napkins’, ‘Menstrual Hygiene’ and ‘Menstruation’ in court. I hope that till the matter is finally decided we have machines in all public offices and that the courtroom one day becomes an easier place to address matters such as these.”
Dr Munjaal Kapadia | She Says She’s Fine
The last thing you want when a doctor has their head between your legs is to hear that disapproving click of the tongue followed by, “Oh, you’re already sexually active”. If you’re single, it stings a little, no matter how liberated you are. Married? You may not be entirely off the hook—difficult sex and painful periods can be attributed to your bad lifestyle choices (you smoke, Satan?)—or will magically disappear when you give birth. Wink, wink.
We learnt more about our vagina and ‘holes’ from Sophia Burset in season 2 of Orange Is the New Black than we did in sex-ed. Gynaecologist Dr Munjaal Kapadia is on a mission to change the misinformation and mystery that shrouds women’s health. The podcast She Says She’s Fine is a culmination of his love for the medium and gynaecological expertise. He teamed up with Mae Mariyam Thomas and Shaun Fanthome of Maed in India. They’ve created a safe place where one can listen in solitude to issues they’ve gone through themselves, where they can relate, empathise or even just laugh, free from judgement (except perhaps from the rickshaw uncle watching as you cackle to yourself, with your headphones plugged in).
These are real people with real-life experiences you’re listening to, which is what makes this podcast produced by unabashed vagina activists so incredibly relatable. Pain, PCOS and the perils of motherhood don’t make it into our dinner table conversations. The topics that the podcast cover are things that plague women daily. They’re sourced from Kapadia’s own interactions with patients and ones that the team themselves have had to face, either personally or through friends and family.
Kapadia engages with people through their experiences, without the medical jargon, scoldings you’d expect from a doctor or sermons of good womanly behaviour. The personal narratives are supported by a range of experts, community leaders, academics and more, who bring their knowledge and insight to the conversation. This podcast comes as a breath of fresh air in a society that cloaks the female form with mysteries like it is the Holy Grail.
No conversation about feminine hygiene and health would be complete without talking about the tremendous work done by Arunachalam Muruganantham, India’s very own menstrual man. The social entrepreneur, TIME magazine’s most influential people in the world and Padma Shri winner embarked on this journey in 1998, attempting to create a safe alternative for his wife to use during menstruation. His ‘interest’ in ‘women’s issues’ quickly condemned him to the status of a social pariah.
Undeterred by the hurdles, he kept experimenting with his creation. People grew weary of this strange man who would walk around with a goat blood-filled rubber bladder strapped to his body, pumping out blood to self-test the sanitary pads he created. His blood-stained pants were quite a gory scene. Some thought him to be crazy and possessed by demons, others saw him a pervert dissecting pads to study.
The more he learnt about menstrual hygiene in rural areas (or lack thereof) and the impact that inaccessibility to sanitary pads has on young girls and women, his mission became clearer.
Muruganantham realised just how expensive the machine was that made these pads. His focus shifted on created low-cost machines to make napkins. He succeeded, not only in making this machine but in involving women in the production process. Creating accessible sanitary pads, menstrual hygiene awareness and employment for rural women.
His story exploded onto the mainstream with Twinkle Khanna’s bestseller The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad. A lifelong member of the vagina activists club, Khanna also turned producer on the film adaptation, Padman, which went on to win a National Award and travel to countries around the world, including China.
“I tried to do a small good thing for my wife,” he said at a TED Talk in Bangalore. “What is my mission? I’m going to make India a 100% sanitary napkin-using country in my lifetime… I don’t want to make this a corporate entity. I want to make this a local sanitary pad movement across the globe.” Today, his start-up, Jayaashree Industries has installed over 1,300 machines across the country in 27 states and seven other countries.
Dr Nozer Sheriar
No woman takes abortion lightly. It can be a life or death situation for some women, for others, it’s a matter of choice. Their choice. It would easy to leave it at ‘no uterus, no opinion,’ but if only life worked that way. One of India’s most vociferous vagina activists, Dr Nozier Sheriar, obstetrician and gynaecologist, has been more than just an ally in the fight for women’s reproductive rights. He’s an advocate for safe abortions and has been actively involved in policy-making.
“An estimated 70,000 young women die each year undergoing unsafe abortions. And this silent tsunami reaches doorsteps day after day, year after year, claiming the lives of young women, daughters, sisters, wives and mothers. A safe abortion can save almost all these lives. So where is the controversy — moral, ethical, political or religious — in the provision of a life-saving, health-protecting technology or option?” he wrote in The Hindu.
The numbers go up with each study. Another survey puts it at 1.8 million when looking at the number of unsafe abortions and abortion-related deaths in India. It’s astounding, and yet, the global debate still centres on the ‘morality’ of it. Like the rest of us, Sheriar understands that regardless of whether it is legal or not – abortions will keep happening. Properly supervised abortions are among the safest medical procedures there are, he stresses.
“I am pro-life and pro-choice — I am ‘pro’ a woman’s life, to protect her from the disruptive consequences, risks and dangers of an unwanted pregnancy. I am also ‘pro’ a woman’s choice for her to decide what she wishes to do with her mind, her body and her life,” he says.