When 13-year-old Reema’s mother told her to change her clothes, she was confused. She had bathed and worn a freshly washed dress just moments ago. When her mother told her that her clothes had blood stains, Reema was only more confused. She could not see the stains, being visually impaired, and she could not understand why she should be bleeding when she had not injured herself in any way. Her mother tried to explain to her that this was a monthly occurrence in a female body, but it didn’t make things any clearer for Reema.
Reema is not alone in her confusion. Of India’s estimated 50,32,463 people with visual disabilities, 23,93,947 are women. If the silence and stigma around menstruation makes it hard for women with sight to manage their periods, it becomes far more challenging for the visually impaired. They are often pressured by their families to have their uterus removed so that they stop menstruating.
But now a tactile book in Hindi and English on menstrual hygiene management is helping these women visualise and understand their bodies and the physical changes that happen during puberty. There is also a video for the hearing impaired explaining the biology behind menstruation and telling them how to manage their period with dignity. This material has been developed by the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) in collaboration with IIT Delhi, the Centre of Excellence in Tactile Graphics, Saksham Trust, and the Noida Deaf Society.
An electronic and an audio version of the tactile book As We Grow Up is available for those who cannot read Braille. Most importantly, this innovative kit, which was developed last year, came into being after wide consultations with visually- and hearing-impaired women.
“I wanted to ensure that all women and girls would be able to participate in and benefit from breaking the silence around menstruation and menstrual hygiene. This included working with the blind, deaf, those with physical and mental disabilities, and transmen. The hope is that it will replace the shame and silence with information, confidence and pride,” says Archana Patkar, former head of policy, WSSCC.
The tool kit includes specially designed menstrual hygiene bracelets and a tactile apron on the female reproductive system that trainers can use in schools to help visually impaired girls understand puberty. This has proved to be a big boon especially for adolescent girls from marginalised communities whose parents are uneducated.
For Rita Rathaur, workshops on menstrual hygiene conducted by WSSCC trainers has reduced her stress and anxiety. Having studied only till Class II, explaining why women menstruate has been difficult, since her own understanding of the process is poor. She took her 14-year-old twin daughters to a workshop at Saksham School in Noida, which has students with blindness and multiple disabilities. Ridhima and Anupama have low vision. “Ridhima has just started her periods. She will learn why this is happening and Anupama will be better prepared when she gets hers,” says Rathaur.
The kits and workshops have also helped teachers shed their inhibitions while talking about periods. According to Anita Kumari, a teacher at Saksham, talking about the male and female reproductive organs was embarrassing for many of them. “Now with the Braille book and tactile apron, we don’t feel any shame. It has given us azadi (freedom) to talk about it,” she says.
WSSCC technical officer Kamini Prakash is elated by the positive response emerging from such workshops. “The endorsement by the ministries of water and sanitation and social welfare has boosted its reach. It is now being used to train students and facilitators working with hearing and visually impaired people across the country, including in government schools,” says Prakash.
The writer is an independent journalist writing on development and gender.