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Shame and stigma: The taboo of menstruating in South Asia

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Photo by Doug Swinson on Unsplash

The beliefs and practices that revolve around menstruation differ across societies. In some cultures, the menstruating women are victimised due to the regressive attitudes that exist around menstruation. In others, menstruation as a topic is not up for discussion; it is covered in layers of shame and stigma. Nevertheless, what remains common for the women who go under this natural biological phenomenon is that there exist different battles. Actually, these battles have to be fought primarily as a result of some concepts that render women dirty and their bodies polluted; as not sacred enough to befit daily activities. These beliefs reduce women into untouchables and sometimes compel them to live in isolation.

In the region of South Asia, the practices vary from culture to culture, and there is a stark contrast between urban and rural societies. In Hindu societies, families host figurines of deities in their houses that are worshipped regularly with full devotion. The concept of sacred and profane is very widely present in such families, and menstruating women are considered profane. Living in the same space as the god is sacrilegious.

In Nepal, 19% women are banished from their houses to ‘chhaupadi goth’, roughly translating to menstruation huts. Chhaupadi is a practice in the mountainous western Nepal that forces women to sleep and live in sheds for the duration of their period, due to the belief that menstruating women cause ill-luck to the family, crops, and cattle if the god is displeased.  The practice had been outlawed by the Supreme Court in 2005, and recently in 2017 was taken up in the parliament again because it caused death in huge numbers. In 2017 alone, the cases of Chhaupadi related deaths came up and it was immediately re-criminalised with a penalty for the offenders.

Despite this, the practice has not stopped. In interviews that were taken immediately as the nation was outraged by the frequent deaths that took place in western Nepal, the women were questioned if they would still practice Chhaupadior put their daughters through the same after the re-criminalisation and additional penalty. They responded that it was not up to them but on the very societies that coerced them to undergo such malpractice. Furthermore, criminalising the practice would mean filing formal complaints against the family members which is very unlikely. If the women had that kind of powers, they would not be banished to a shed in the first place.

Merely making and implementing of draconian laws is not enough because people house their belief systems in superstitious interpretation of religion. Vulnerable in those sheds, women fear snake bite and animal attacks, mosquitoes, asphyxiation due to inhalation of smoke from the fire built to fight the cold, and sexual predators among others. However, these families see it more deeming that a woman live in a shed outside the house in unsafe conditions just to prevent the house from being polluted by her presence. This all boils down to the fact that a death of a menstruating woman would be justified because at least, the god was spared from pollution, the crops and cattle were intact. It perhaps gets justified as a result of something she did, maybe touch a bottle of pickle, who knows?

A large section of the urbanised sectors lament, often in forms that take of troll posts and memes, about the so-called ‘feminists’ in the ‘East’ who limit their talk to menstruation to come off as empowered in contrast to the ‘feminists’ in the ‘West’ who battle real and important feminist issues like ‘equal pay’ and ‘glass ceiling’. Dissecting this, it dawns upon a realisation that people in these societies regard the women who talk about menstruation in the open as aggressively progressive. Moreover, they would rather dismiss the topic as something irrelevant and consider talking about it lesser important than talking about other inequalities. However, it is only fitting to be vocal about menstruation as much as required.

We forget to remember that women in remote areas with poor access do not benefit from the choice between various menstrual products at their disposal. In India, less than 16% of the women use marketed feminine products. In various parts of the country, women use sand, or wood shavings or pieces of cloth. Now, the issues that arise are of infections amongst other things. To begin with, these products are unsafe and pose a threat of infections like urogenital infection and bacterial vaginosis. The cloths are repeatedly used without being sun-dried because of the shame of exposure of the used cloths to men and other women. What also prevents these women from using hygienic safe products is due to unavailability for several kilometres, unaffordability arising out of poverty, and embarrassment to ask for even a sanitary pad, especially from male shopkeepers. In fact, 23% of the girls drop out of school upon starting their menstruation. The Indian government, along with entrepreneurs, and educators have worked hard to ensure all women have access to sanitary products. However, the lack of funds, expensive to afford one-use products, unable to maintain quality of the low-budgeted products, and failure to meet the needs of all women in the country are some problems that are faced.

In Pakistan, 80% women do not have access to sanitary menstrual products. UNICEF reported that the biggest hindrance to sanitary conditions was prevented by the lack of washing facilities. In fact, for a country frequented by natural calamities and insurgencies in some areas, women should be educated and encouraged about using hygienic productssince there is always the likelihood of moving to temporary shelters in such circumstances. It was reported that a stunning number of girls are shocked upon menstruating their first time because they were not aware about it. In only a few years to follow, many drop out of school or stay absent from school when they are menstruating, thus hindering their education.

To sum it up, menstruation has been evolved as a shameful event in this part of the world. Menstruating women are shunned and indoctrinated as inferior and unchaste and they do not even fight against the practices but accept it as normal. Firstly, religion has a significant part to play as it is due to the god-fearing purity seeking individuals that seek to maintain the sanctity of their surroundings from where the concept of sacred and impure arise. But, how can any practice be religious if it causes the already disadvantaged more detriment? Secondly, unawareness and equating menstruation with shame and secrecy has worsened the situations to where women are not comfortable with their own bodies so much so that they from birth to death are unaware of their own anatomies. Where mothers are themselves not at peace with their body and bodily functions, passing it on to their daughters is difficult and discussing about it with their sons unimaginable. Lastly, this exclusion of men and terming menstruation as a ‘woman thing’ has led to men genuinely having no idea what the deal is about and why is it important for women to be safe, clean, healthy, and rested when they menstruate. Thus, a change is necessary by educating women, by subsiding sanitary menstrual products, criminalising discrimination against menstruating women, and by including men in this drive.

Aryal is a student of Social Science and writes about social and developmental issues pertaining to exclusion, inequalities, and gender disparities in the South Asian context.

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New Social Compact

Prevent gender-based violence in humanitarian emergencies

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Top UN officials met in the margins of the 76th General Assembly on Thursday,  with a strong call to action to stamp out gender-based violence (GBV), amid a rise in forced displacement and other humanitarian emergencies around the globe.

GBV includes acts that inflict physical, sexual or mental harm – or other forms of suffering, coercion and limits on personal freedoms – and has “long-term consequences on the sexual, physical and psychological health of survivors”, according to the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency (UNFPA).

These are being driven increasingly by conflict, climate change, famine and insecurity, heightening vulnerabilities for girls and women.

‘Willingness to act’

UNFPA Executive Director Natalia Kanem told the meeting on Localizing GBV in humanitarian crises, that peace, justice and dignity are the “birthright of every woman and girl”.

She spoke of the agency’s “clear and ambitious” 2021-2025 Roadmap, which reflects a shared vision and underscored the need to create new pathways to ensure those rights.

Emphasizing the need for accountability “to ourselves and each other”, Ms. Kanem said that as the lead UN agency on the issue, “UNFPA is committed to standing strong”.

She said there was a strong will to act, “to do something about gender-based violence”, she added, stressing the importance of putting the voices of women “at the heart of what we do”

Ms. Kanem pledged to funnel 43 per cent of UNFPA’s humanitarian funding to national and local women’s organizations, saying “now more than ever, they need us”.

Afghanistan: ‘Important reminder’

Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths called the situation in Afghanistan “an important reminder of the primary vulnerability of women and girls in crises”.

He highlighted the vital role of women-led local communities, pointing out that they act as first responders to crisis.

Recalling a recent trip to Ethiopia, where he heard first-hand accounts of the traumas suffered by women in Tigray, he said that it was the local communities who first responded to the atrocities, which underscores the “absolute importance” of listening to women, protecting women and girls, and “protecting local communities to do what they naturally want to do”.

The protection of women is one of the least-funded parts of the humanitarian programme, Mr. Griffiths said.

Getting the word out

Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said to deliver on “the ambitious call to action”, it is important to “get the word out” to the girls and women on the ground about the services available.

“This has not been clear at all”, Ms. Fore stated.

She spoke of the UNICEF report We Must Do Better, which provides a global feminist assessment of the experiences of women and girls, and the organizations they lead, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report highlighted that the needs of women and girls are either ignored or treated as an afterthought; and that despite being on the front lines of humanitarian crises, women are not taken seriously enough.

And although the demand for GBV services has increased during COVID, the resources have not, said Ms. Fore, calling for greater support for local women’s groups, including financially.

Bureaucratizing assistance

Fighting GBV is an important priority for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), High Commissioner Filippo Grandi assured participants, especially in situations of forced displacements, which are “rife” with opportunities.

He acknowledged that during humanitarian crises as everyone is moving quickly, too often the critical role of local women’s organizations are overlooked.

The top UNHCR official said that providing “substantive, flexible, direct and rapid” resources to women-led, community-based organizations without undue red tape is “one of the most important” ways to empower them.

He conceded however, “this is a difficult call” as humanitarian funding is follow the trend of being “bureaucratized”.

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The Death News of Sidharth Shukla: In the remembrance of Sidnaaz

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For most individuals, the death news of Sidharth Shukla seems implausible. Sidharth Shukla, popular actor, and 13 winner Bigg Boss died on Thursday 2 September suffering a severe cardiac arrest at Cooper Hospital in Mumbai.  Actor Sidharth constantly challenged the odds in his profession. For many in the TV and movie sector, it is a last-ditch and sometimes fruitless effort to stop a slide into irrelevance in the popular reality program Bigg Boss. But Shukla was the household name that became a feather reality TV sensation for himself who won the 13th show edition in 2019. For the first time, Shukla entered the television limelight, working on BalikaVadhu (2012), in which he tried the part of District Collector Shivraj Shekhar. Shukla portrayed the character throughout the space of three years and won several accolades. A few whiles later, in Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (2014), he was reputed to a costar, once again receiving acclaim. Born and reared up in Mumbai, Shukla began as a model by taking a position as a leader in the Manhunt and Mega model Gladrags contests and then starred in Bajaj and ICICI Banking television commercial campaigns. Shortly thereafter, he premiered on Babul Ka Aangann Chootey Na, followed by a range of dramatic TV shows such as CID and Aahat, which include criminal dramas. In 2016 Khatron Ke Khiladi won Fear Factor as well. Shukla has also been a popular television host with such series as Savdhaan India and the Got Talent 6 of India. His death caused a shock to the television and film industries.

Police authorities in Mumbai claimed that at around 9 a.m. before death, Shukla complained about cardiac pressure in his home in Oshivara, Mumbai.  At that time, his sister, his mother, and brother-in-law were in the house. A physician who came to the house found that he was pulseless. “The family went to Dr. RN Cooper hospital and requested an ambulance. They reached about 9.45 am and before admission he had been proclaimed dead.” The Forensic department leader, Dr. R Sukhdev, verified that on Thursday morning, Shukla was brought dead. The afternoon postmortem exam was performed. No external damage on his body was detected before the autopsy by physicians and police. The Dean of Dr. RN Cooper Hospital, Dr. Sailesh Mohite, refused to comment on the autopsy findings.

Many Celebertities Condolences

“Siddharth, gone too soon. You’ll be missed…” said Actor Salman Khan, who gave him the trophy of Bigg Boss. Kapil Sharma TV comedy host tweeted, “Oh god, it is truly shocking, my condolences to the family, and prayers for the the departed soul” Several TV and film fraternity members, like Rajkummar Rao, came to Mumbai to pay their final honors in Shukla Residence. On Friday his last rites will be conducted.

Shehnaaz Gill on Sidharth Shukla death

Sources close to the actor and individuals who went to his house and told Sidharth Shukla’s family that Shehnaaz is in a condition of shock and cannot cope with his loss today. Source further stated Shehnaaz was deeply impacted by the untimely death of the Balika Vadhu actor. Shehnaaz was very near to Sidharth, and she frequently publicly demonstrated her affection for him. Her compassion and caring for him never shied away. She said she was even in love with him openly. Fans liked their duo much after BB 13, and invented their moniker with affection, Sidnaaz. In two recent programs, Back-to-Back Bigg Boss OTT and Dances Deewane 3, the reported couple had featured.

Sidharth Shukla breathed his last in Shehnaaz Gill’s arms

Sidharth was still complaining of discomfort, and Shehnaaz and his mother begged him to relax. Sidharth was unable to sleep, on the other hand; thus Shehnaaz was requested to remain with him and pat on his back. Sidharth lay on the lap of Shehnhaaz at 1:00 a.m., and the latter walked away gently. She slept, too, and when she woke up at 7am, she found Sidharth sleeping in the same position without moving, and he didn’t stir when she tried to wake him up. From the 12th story to the fifth level, where his family resided, Shehnaaz was terrified and hurried. She notified Sidharth’s sister and phoned their doctor of the family, who told Sidharth that he hadn’t been there anymore.

Ye ‘Dil’ hai Muskil

Why are young people suffering from heart attacks? The death of Siddharth Shukla, 40 years old, has stunned everyone. Initial stories indicating that a heart attack is the reason for Thursday’s death were killed, along with the big boss winner Season-13. In recent times, heart disease has been a worry for health professionals among young Indian people. The question is why in very young age groups in India there has been an increase in cardiac attack.

Concluding Remarks

The greatest way I can escape the trap of thinking that you have anything to lose is to remember that you will die. No excuse to not follow your heart. Nobody wants to die. Nobody wants to die. Such people don’t even want to die to go to paradise to get there. And yet death is our common destination. Nobody has ever avoided it and this is why death is perhaps the finest invention of existence. Life is the agent of transformation. The old one is clearing way for the new one.

Death is, however tragic, probably God’s most beautiful creation. Death is merely another trip; birth and life will never take place without death. It’s unavoidable to lose somebody. Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, illustrates this wonders: Death is transitory and the meaning of life and death. Death is temporary. Death is a normal part of life, we have to realize. Death gives life its full significance. Let life be like summer flowers, let life be lovely and death be like fall leaves. But would it not be much easier to face our own mortality, rather than being unhappy, knowing that our life has been fully and without regret? Even if we don’t want to go to die, it’s just as unavoidable for the sun at night. In conclusion, when your time comes, you don’t have to die happy but you need to die satisfied, since from start to finish you have lived your life.

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4.1 billion lack social safety net

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More than four billion people live without any welfare protection today to cushion them from crisis, the UN International Labour Organization (ILO) said on Wednesday, while highlighting how the COVID-19 crisis has pushed up government spending by some 30 per cent.

Leading the call for countries to extend social safety nets far more widely than they do now, ILO Director-General Guy Ryder insisted that such a move would help future-proof workers and businesses in the face of new challenges.

“This is a pivotal moment to harness the pandemic response to build a new generation of rights-based social protection systems,” said Mr. Ryder.

“These can cushion people from future crises and give workers and businesses the security to tackle the multiple transitions ahead with confidence and with hope. We must recognize that effective and comprehensive social protection is not just essential for social justice and decent work but for creating a sustainable and resilient future too.”

In a new report the UN body acknowledged that the COVID-19 crisis had led to greater social protections worldwide, albeit mainly in wealthy countries.

It noted that only 47 per cent of the global population are covered by at least one social protection benefit, while only one in four children has access to national welfare safety nets.

Newborns’ needs unmet

Further research indicated that only 45 per cent of women with newborns worldwide receive a cash benefit, while only one in three people with severe disabilities receive a disability benefit.

Coverage of unemployment benefits is even lower, ILO said, with only 18.6 per cent of jobless workers effectively covered globally.

On retirement welfare, the UN body found that although nearly eight in 10 people receive some form of pension, major disparities remain across regions, between rural and urban areas and women and men.

Regional imbalances

The ILO report underscores the significant regional inequalities in social protection.

Europe and Central Asia have the highest rates of coverage, with 84 per cent of people having access to at least one benefit.

Countries in the Americas are also above the global average (64.3 per cent), in stark contrast to welfare roll-out in Asia and the Pacific (44 per cent), the Arab States (40 per cent) and Africa (17.4 per cent).

Highlighting differences in government spending on social protection, ILO said that high-income countries spend 16.4 per cent of national turnover (above the 13 per cent global average, excluding health), while low-income countries budget just 1.1 per cent.

Billions more needed

The UN body noted that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments have had to increase spending massively to ensure minimum social protection for all, by around 30 per cent.

And it maintained that to guarantee basic social protection coverage, low-income countries would need to invest an additional $77.9 billion per year, lower-middle-income countries an additional $362.9 billion and upper-middle-income countries a further $750.8 billion annually. That’s equivalent to 15.9 per cent, 5.1 per cent and 3.1 per cent of their GDP, respectively.

“There is an enormous push for countries to move to fiscal consolidation, after the massive public expenditure of their crisis response measures, but it would be seriously damaging to cut back on social protection; investment is required here and now,” said Shahra Razavi, Director, ILO Social Protection Department.

Underscoring the multiple benefits of social welfare protection, Ms. Razavi insisted that it could promoted “better health and education, greater equality, more sustainable economic systems, better managed migration and the observance of core rights…The benefits of success will reach beyond national borders to benefit us all”.

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