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Sep. 20, 2018, 2:42 PM UTC

One man's journey to remove the stigma attached to periods and menstruation

The one sentence that started it all: “Because I am punished by God, so I don’t go to school.”

Comcast-NBCUniversal and MSNBC are the premiere media partner of Global Citizen. Global Citizen is a non-partisan organization dedicated to ending extreme poverty worldwide. The following is an opinion piece by Pravin Nikam, a human rights lawyer, an educator and a gender equality advocate. He is the Founder of "ROSHNI Foundation," a NGO working with adolescents, girls and boys, men, women, and transgenders on issues around menstrual hygiene, sexual and reproductive health, and reducing gender-based violence.

I have never had much to do with menstruation. It was not something that I, as a young Indian boy had to ever consider. Upon visiting a small village in Assam, India, in 2011, my perspective was changed forever. Coming from a major city like Pune, it was quite an eye opener to see that superstitions surrounding menstruation were still corroding the health of females in rural towns.

One incident though, stood out; and it proved to be a turning point in my life. I had gone to a home in the local community. It was here that I met Roshni. She was sitting in front of a wooden machine weaving a silk sari. Young Roshni had just given up school. When I asked her why she wasn’t at school, she replied, “Because I am punished by God, so I don’t go to school.” I was confused and I directed the same question to her father. He told me she had been cursed by the Gods with menstrual periods, and hence, he stopped her schooling. It was then that I knew I had to do something about this.

I visited the slums of Pune and investigated the challenges women face during their periods. The stigma faced by women was something that I had to face. Many people laughed at me and some even thought that I was a little mentally unstable. But, thanks to the support of my parents, I was able to block out the negative comments and move past the opinions of others. My journey to remove the stigma attached to periods and menstruation began here.

Not long after, I started the 'ROSHNI Foundation,” an organization that would educate women on the causes of menstrual hygiene and the physiological process that occurs. The Roshni Foundation also works towards empowering women as peacebuilders in the community. Roshni was the little girl I met who was being robbed of an education, a life and a future simply because of a lack of education surrounding menstrual health. I named the foundation after her so that her story can be the bedrock of our movement and highlight the impact this issue has on the most vulnerable.

I learned about menstrual hygiene and started conducting sessions on gender, sexuality, and menstrual hygiene management to help these young people “revalue menstruation as a clean and natural biological process.” It helped me to understand the environment of menstrual unawareness in India and its impact on a girl's life. Furthermore, this education helped me to reach out to schools, communities and also to other educators for information about periods using specifically designed and effective educational tools and resources

A staggering 68 percent of Indians still live in rural India as per the 2011 census data. If the population of people that reside in major cities are ill-informed and perpetuate the stigma that surrounds menstruation, it is even harder to comprehend the situation of female reproductive health all around rural areas of the country.

As many as 62 percent young women in India between the ages 15 to 24 years still use a cloth for menstrual protection, according to the national family health survey (NFHS). It was this statistic that made me advocate for the exemption of the tax on sanitary pads. At the Global Citizen Festival 2016 in Mumbai India, I had the opportunity to advocate for the cause of sustainable menstruation and tax free pads to an audience of more than 70,000 people. I spoke about the need to revalue menstruation as a clean and natural biological process.

Meeting Roshni in Assam gave me a different perspective on preconditioned gender roles in society. In order to achieve gender equality along with women’s equal participation, we also need to engage men and boys as change agents. Why has something as natural as breathing been kept a secret for so long? Maybe it is because the voice of more than 50 percent of the population of the world was indifferent and ignorant to it. We need men to talk about menstruation, and only then, will we live in a society free from the stigmatization of women going through a completely natural biological process.