August 12, 2022
By Xari Jalil
LAHORE: It all began when Anam Khalid got a call from a friend from Balochistan’s Qilla Saifullah, who told her that the entire area had drowned in the rain-floods.
“Everything had been submerged or had washed away; people were not only left shelter-less but also suffered due to lack of toilets,” she told Voicepk.
Anam, a student of Architectural Engineering at the Bahauddin Zakariya University (BZU) knew that much like many areas in her own Saraiki-Waseb belt, most remote areas in Balochistan were so under-developed that even in ordinary circumstances, finding a toilet was a rarity. People went out in the open, but now with rain bringing floods, it was impossible even to do this.
“As I began thinking about the lack of toilet facilities for everyone, almost instantly my mind drifted towards how the women there must be managing the situation. There must be pregnant women or ill women but perhaps most of all, women who were having their period.”
Meanwhile, Attock resident Bushra Mahnoor who is currently studying Psychology at the Punjab University Lahore also feels very strongly about this issue.
“I still remember when I first experienced menstruation I was just 10 years old,” says Bushra. “I also remember that it had been raining and some areas were badly hit and to help the flood-affected survivors, my family was collecting things. But when I questioned about how women would be tackling menstrual and hygiene problems, the answer I got was that food and shelter were a more important consideration.”
For 10-year-old Bushra the thought that menstrual hygiene was considered a ‘first world problem’ was very disturbing. In fact, she says women often tend to hear such things, and menstruation is such a taboo that anyone mentioning it is stereotyped as ‘shameless’.
And because it is ignored or treated as a topic unmentionable in polite society, there is little practical or medical attention given to it. Women continue to suffer because of issues related to menstruation and hygiene as well as access to washrooms.
So when the 2022 Monsoon rains flooded parts of Pakistan, Anam and Bushra were both reminded of the miscarriage of justice that women counter in these times:
Female flood survivors who are marooned in places surrounded by water had no toilet facilities, so how did they cope? No one was addressing their needs as the narrative still remained that it was food and shelter that was most important. Menstrual issues came much later.
“Menstrual hygiene is a necessity, not a luxury,” says Anam. “Even the government has looked upon sanitary napkins as luxury products and has imposed taxes on them. Women should be getting essential products such as sanitary pads free of cost, and if not entirely free then they should not be taxed.”
Now Anam and Bushra have begun an informal campaign, titled ‘Mahwari Justice’ where they are helping by providing ‘sanitary kits’ to survivors in the flood-affected areas. Their friends in the flood-affected zones are doing their part in distributing the items ensuring that they reach the women. Each kit has two packs of sanitary napkins, and a pair of undergarments and for those who want to contribute costs only three hundred and fifty Rupees (Rs350). They also encourage people to donate kits themselves if they want.
“We are trying to buy these items wholesale from open markets, so we can have lower costs, but as students, there is only so much we can buy ourselves,” says Anam. “We would appreciate it if people step forward to help us out.”
Till now, the campaign has not been associated with any corporate organization or any big name even though they have asked for one of the brands which has an international presence, to donate. Sadly it only donated 150 packs.
Bushra says they have not eliminated the prospect of working with organizations for purposes of cost, but they prefer to be known as an ongoing campaign meant to be for women’s health concerns, rather than a corporate organization or an NGO. “We are not a formal structure and we prefer it that way,” she says. It is difficult though, to gain traction if something is not a man’s issue.
“This is a male narrative, that pads are non-essential,” she says. “The culture is that you can’t even talk about it, let alone give it importance. But we have successfully managed to send around 2000 kits to both Balochistan’s and South Punjab’s flood affected areas.”
They have also pinpointed which vendors to work with, especially transporters who are allowing them to transport these free of cost because they are being packed as essential non-food items. “We are given the concession of no charge since its for flood affectees,” says Anam.
Anam comes from a conservative family who has no idea about the work she has taken on, but she says that by now the kind of activism she has been doing, such as taking part in progressive politics including Aurat March (Multan), her family might not be too shocked. In any case, her experiences with social work and politics such as climate justice have led her to recognize that age-old social constructs are merely a proponent of patriarchy and that such topics are only taboo because of this.
“It has been tough working in a society like ours, where this is not considered a serious issue,” she says. “We are all victims of internalized patriarchy. But we have to break the cycle to get somewhere. When we say Mahwari Justice is a campaign, we want this to continue, even after the emergent situations at hand. When hopefully the flood waters recede, we want to aim to provide awareness and education on this to the women in these areas, and also to expand our work to other places like South Punjab’s remote areas in the Thal and Cholistan desert, which is a climate hotspot and suffers from water and food scarcity.”
While Anam is working in areas surrounding Multan, including the Saraiki Waseb belt, Tank, Dera Ismail Khan, and even touching Waziristan, Bushra is working to provide kits to Balochistan.
One of the challenges is to deal with a sustainable option. Being a climate justice activist, Anam says there are major issues of garbage disposal, especially in flooded areas.
“We know this is a huge problem,” she says. “We also know that many women may not even understand the concept thoroughly, but for now, they will be taught by our student network there informally.”
Environmentally friendly options such as menstrual cups are being used more among socially conscious and educated people in urban areas, says Sadaf Naz, the CEO of Her Ground, an organization which has gained ground in the provision of sanitary napkins online. For many women, it is still a stigma to shop for these on their own, and even more of an ordeal to explain to a family member that they need them. Therefore online orders are a way of protecting the woman’s privacy.
But Sadaf says that menstrual cups may not be the answer to women living in rural areas as they would be a little more hesitant in accepting the idea. “The more exposed or education they will be on the issue the better, but that itself is another story,” she says. “Half of the service is spreading awareness and education.”
In ordinary circumstances, women usually use cotton wool or plain cloth for their period, but these encourage infections. Worse, in some places, women even use sand or ash and are treated as dirty for that entire time frame. This is not only undignified, it is also just another health problem for the woman. In flood-affected areas meanwhile, women cannot even use their traditional methods of cloth because the cloth cannot be washed and dried.
“Several reproductive health issues emerge because of such unhygienic practices,” says Anam. “I have myself seen school girls bleeding through their clothes because no one explained to them how to protect themselves. When such disasters happen, there is a high incidence of bacterial and viral infections, especially UTI. In 2010 when there were floods in South Punjab, we observed that in hospitals there was a very high rate of women coming in with vaginal infections. There are so many miscarriages and abortions because of bad hygiene.” Anam has visited places like Layyah and Basti Malooka where she says women from the working class plead for help regarding sanitation.
“They have no water supply, no washrooms, so they have to go to the fields and use tubewells. This is a compromise on their dignity; there is also a high chance of sexual violence they may face. In Balochistan, women can still use slopes like hills, but in plain areas, it is not possible.”
In a country where society is male-driven, its issues and concerns are also led by a male-centric approach.
“These would only be issues representing the tip of the iceberg as they say,” says Anam. “Women are suffering so much only on account of health especially female-centric reproductive health. But the only thing that troubles men is whether they are in ‘pardah’ (veil) or not.”