I Was Told Periods Were Shameful. Now I'm Leading a Campaign for Menstrual Justice in Pakistan
Bushra Mahnoor | Pakistan
I was ten years old when the 2010 floods hit Pakistan.
My most vivid memory of the floods is when I was at a flood relief camp in Khairabad where I came across a little girl who had a big stain of blood on her clothes. My mother approached this girl and learned she was having her first period. This girl, who was of my age, was completely clueless about what was happening to her body. She had torn a piece of her dupatta, a scarf worn by many Pakistani women, and was using it as an alternative for pads. But her dupatta was barely doing the job.
When I heard about the 2022 Pakistan floods, coincidentally I was also on my period and the image of that girl from twelve years ago surfaced in my mind. I thought about thousands of girls who would get their first period amidst the floods. That is when I got the idea to start a campaign advocating for the menstrual rights of flood victims, Mahwari Justice, alongside my friend, Anum.
Six million women lost access to a safe period as a result of the floods, forcing them to use dry leaves, sand and even cow dung to manage their periods. I have been visiting flood-affected areas for the past four months and giving dignity kits in Balochistan, Sindh, KP and South Punjab. My activism is solution-oriented and I am working to break period taboos while also providing period relief to flood victims in Pakistan. I have been working to help flood-affected women gain access to safe periods by providing them with eco-friendly rewashable pads alongside cotton-based biodegradable pads.
Even before the floods occurred, only 30% of those who menstruate in my country had access to safe periods. I grew up in a lower-middle income family with five sisters. Accessibility of period products was a huge problem in our house. I remember the countless instances where I was forced to use rags and miss school when I was on my period. But I was not alone in my experience: one in five girls in Pakistan misses school due to periods.
The recent floods only exacerbated the problem of period poverty. While the flood waters have receded, the problem of period poverty persists. Having personal experience with period poverty prompted me to launch a campaign for period rights in Pakistan and continue my advocacy even beyond the crisis.
Stories from on the ground
When I started Mahwari Justice, I was keenly studying the ways in which period relief was given in other countries during disasters. Studying the way humanitarian and relief work was carried out in different parts of the world helped me shape this campaign to reach out to the people in my country who were in need during the floods. While running this campaign we were always eager to learn and receptive towards constructive criticism.
A woman distributes Mahwari Justice's period relief kit at a flood relief camp (Courtesy of Mahwari Justice)
I remember talking to a mother who was caught in floods in Lasbela, Balochistan, back in July 2022. She told me that she has two daughters and her younger daughter was using the same old rag which her older daughter had used during her period. I remember feeling the sense of urgency to act. We made a GoFundme (thanks to my friend Ayesha) to collect funds for period relief. In a matter of weeks, we were able to collect funds. I asked a friend to accompany me to wholesale markets and we looked around all markets in Lahore to find underwear, soaps and detergents at a suitable price. We bought commercial pads as well because it was a situation of emergency and in my country women were forced to used cow dung in their periods. We wanted to go for eco-friendly options but (1) they were too expensive and we did not have enough funds initially (we switched to biodegradable and reusable pads later) and (2) no local business could supply these pads to us at such a short notice.
How Mahwari Justice is spearheading the fight against period poverty in Pakistan
After collecting the supplies we gave a call for volunteers on Twitter. A number of students joined us and helped pack period relief kits. Eventually people of all ages started joining us especially older people who brought their teenage sons and daughters alongside them.
On one hand Mahwari Justice is working to supply period products to the flood affected women; on the other, we are sparking a nationwide conversation on periods, a topic which is seldom discussed in the patriarchal society of Pakistan where periods are still stigmatized.
We are sending four several types of period kits at this moment. First kit contains reusable cloth-based pads which are packed alongside underwear, drawstrings, soaps and detergents. Our second kits contains the same supplies but packed with reusable microfibre-based towel sheets. The third kit comprises of biodegradable pads which our volunteers make from cotton and gauze and these are packed alongside panties, detergents and soaps. We have improvised the kits to add tiny combs and mirror, nailcutter, as well as needle and threads. For our winter kits we are packing sweaters, shawls and socks with our period kits for the flood affectees.
Bushra packing period relief kits with volunteers to send to flood victims across Pakistan (Courtesy of Mahwari Justice)
It is estimated that about 500 million individuals experience period poverty globally, rooted in the discrimination, humiliation, ignorance, and sexism women face when they menstruate. Period taboos limit access to safe periods for numerous menstruators in South Asia, and less than 30% of Pakistani women have access to safe menstruation. Lack of access to period supplies limits women's mobility, forcing them to skip school or work, preventing economic parity with men and causing health and reproductive issues. Mahwari Justice envisions a gender-just society and we are prepared to address the issues that impede women's advancement. We believe that relief work is a political issue. A right to safe period is a fundamental human right which must not be compromised for anything or anyone.
How you can help
Here are the links to our social media pages where we share all updates regarding this campaign, as well as ways you can get involved in breaking taboos around menstruation. The GoFundMe Page for Mahwari Justice is linked below as well.
Bushra Mahnoor is a socialist feminist, student activist and co-founder of the Feminist Students Collective. She recently co-founded a period rights movement called Mahwari Justice, which is working in Pakistan to ensure safe periods for victims of the 2022 floods. You can connect with her on Twitter @bushramaahnoor