Islamabad: As the Pakistani government, armed forces, aid organisations and individuals work round the clock to provide relief for over 33 million flood affected victims, two young girls are spearheading an initiative to ensure provision of menstrual health products for women in the male-dominated society of the country.
Anum Khalid, a student of Multan’s Bahauddin Zakariya University Multan, and her online friend Bushra Mahnoor, a student of University of Punjab in Lahore, are running a social media campaign called “Mahwari Justice”, primarily focused on collecting menstrual products and funds to be provided to women and children of flood-affected areas across Pakistan.
They have taken it upon themselves to challenge and break the taboo and stigma of perception that is associated to this important issue.
As per estimates of Untied Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), among the 33 million people affected by the floods, there are at least 1.6 million women and young girls who are in dire and immediate need of menstrual health aid.
These include about 650,000 pregnant women who are due to give birth during the month of September and are currently in need of immediate maternal health and reproductive services.
While medical camps have been set up at flood-hit areas, menstrual health and the required products to manage menstrual hygiene is either not part of the policy of private non-government funded organisations or is not put as a priority in relief aid alongside food, shelter, water.
“In 2010, I was only 10 years old when the floods hit Pakistan. As I am originally from Attock city, there were many areas in our surrounding that were hit by the floods. I went there with my parents to provide relief. There, me and my mother saw a girl whose salwar (pants) had blood marks. My mother took her into the tent and found out that her periods had started and she had nothing to handle it,” narrated Bushra Mahnoor as she spoke on why they felt the need to start the campaign.
“This year, when these floods are even more worse than that of 2010, I got a call from a woman from Lasbela in Balochistan. She said the floods have washed away her home and the entire village. She said she is living in a tent with her family and her periods have started and she has nothing but a plant leaf to use as a pad,” Bushra said.
It was this telephone call from Lasbela that shocked both Anum and Bushra, who despite living in different cities with not even a single in-person meeting with each other, decided to start the campaign through social media.
“Till now, by the donations of friends and concerned people, we have already provided menstrual aid kits to at least 12,000 people. The kit is a package that also has a pictorial description of how to use the pads for even illiterate women to see and understand,” said Anum Khalid.
“We are hoping to increase the outreach to at least 50,000 more women. I don’t know how, as we do not have any funding or resources and we are not an organisation also. We are two concerned girls who want to help those women with menstrual hygiene aid. Like almost every other household women in Pakistan, they do not have the luxury or freedom or even permission to even speak about their menstrual hygiene issues in front of their parents or family,” said Bushra Mahnoor.
However, it has not been smooth sailing for the duo and they have been trolled on social media for raising their voice on menstrual health.
In fact, they have been criticised by on social media mainly by women, who called them out for talking about what they perceive a very private matter. The young girls have been made to feel like outcasts for even having the guts to keep their campaign name “Mahwari”, which means menstrual periods.
“We approached NGOs, companies, organisations and many others from the corporate sector. Unfortunately, menstrual health is not part of any NGO’s policy, it is an uneasy thing to be associated with for other organisations and when we requested a reputed company (menstrual pads manufacturing company) to donate us and support us with menstrual pads, we were donated 150 pads and were asked to buy pads from them,” said Anum Khalid.
But despite facing such serious challenges of societal neglect and criticism, Anum and Bushra are adamant to not lose their focus on their target, which is to provide menstrual relief aid to women in flood-affected areas.
“Menstruation is like pregnancy, like childbirth… it does not stop during floods or a disaster or during droughts. Periods do not stop. Women need assistance and we will make sure that they get it at the earliest,” said Anum Khalid.
“Menstruation is a big taboo in Pakistan. My own family is not talking to me because they are not happy with what I am doing. But I know that this is important. We cannot let women use dirty cloths, leaves and other unhygienic things during their periods. This will trigger more diseases in them,” said Bushra.
“Our focus is to take heart and confidence and courage from the people who are with us, who volunteer for us and who support us and provide the pivotal relief for thousands and thousands of females with menstrual hygiene products,” she further said.