Anitha Rao: Busting taboos one period at a time

Women lack basic knowledge, as nobody tells them what a healthy period blood should look like, not even doctors, explains Anitha
Anitha explains about menstruation and menstrual hygiene
Anitha explains about menstruation and menstrual hygiene(Photo | Express)

BENGALURU: If Covid has taught us anything, it is hygiene and the relentless effort one must take to prevent viruses and infections.

However, women are always the ones losing out in this bargain. With a mission to create awareness around menstruation, address the taboos and encourage basic hygiene practices, Anitha Rao, a 40-yr-old social entrepreneur and activist, embarked on a journey about a decade ago.

Anitha took the first step after she visited government schools and slums near her residence. “I didn’t just want to do social service without understanding what Indians lack and our grassroots issues. On my visit, I saw that women lacked basic hygiene and had no information on menstruation and many deemed it to be unlucky,” Anitha told TNSE. 

She added that in India, about 355 million women and girls menstruate every month, however only 36 per cent of them know “why it happens, where it happens, and why it’s crucial to have a healthy body”.

She further explained that only 16 per cent of urban women practice menstrual hygiene. “Neither my mother nor my grandmother told me about menstrual hygiene. When I belong to an educated family and nobody told me, how would those living in rural areas and slums know,” she questioned. 

In 2019, she officially registered the Sakriya Charitable Trust, which conducts menstrual hygiene sessions for underprivileged women. A single-woman army of her Trust, she takes sessions on menstruation across various sections of society through unique initiatives.

Anitha Rao explains the function of reusable pads and menstrual cups to girls, in one of her workshops
Anitha Rao explains the function of reusable pads and menstrual cups to girls, in one of her workshops

Before she began taking sessions, Anitha spent six months understanding the subject. She spoke to several doctors, vetted her information and read about the taboos, not just in India but also around the world. So far, the NGO has impacted one lakh women.

With a background in aviation, Anitha was 19 when she started earning and travelled over 63 countries as an airhostess for Gulf Air, followed by a stint with Etihad Airways in Bahrain between 1998 and 2005.

She recalled some instances from her trips where she was taken aback by the unawareness among young girls and women. “In the interiors of Kolar, many women were not wearing underpants. They didn’t know anything about breast or cervical cancer. They had no knowledge about why it is important to change pads every four to eight hours.” 

Not just basic information, her sessions also create awareness on different kinds of blood flows and what they indicate.

“Pink blood indicates ovarian cancer and abortion, jam-like blood could mean fibroids, yellowish blood is due to hormonal imbalance, etc. Nobody tells women what a healthy period blood should look like, not even doctors,” she explained. 

Anitha Rao with women officiers at Bangalore Central jail during one of her visits
Anitha Rao with women officiers at Bangalore Central jail during one of her visitsPhoto | Express

She also conducts awareness campaigns in cemeteries. “I carry a small model with me and explain the process step-by-step. Many didn’t even know why women don’t menstruate during pregnancy. All they know is the pelvic region is used for excretion and reproduction.” Anitha said that most NGOs only distribute pads in rural areas, but do not impart knowledge about the process. 

The social entrepreneur visits Bangalore Central Prison 3-4 times a month. “There is nobody to take care of the inmates. They have become friends with me and are happy to see me. We’ve even screened them for oral and cervical cancer, dental checkups and recently we even organised eye checks, giving 37 women new glasses,” says Anitha. 

Anitha’s sessions have also been conducted across police stations, with prison police, traffic police, BMTC, KSRTC, and other groups. “Through the trust, we built a female-only washroom in one of the police stations. After my sessions at jails in Bengaluru and Kalaburagi, I am planning to visit Mandya and Mysuru’s prisons too,” she said.

In December 2020, her trust collaborated with local NGOs and volunteers from Kashmir to Kanyakumari to launch Sakriya Period Part Abhiyan. They created and screened a video on menstrual hygiene in regional languages and made it inclusive for speech and hearing impaired and other differently-abled individuals. They also screened it in orphanages and public spaces at the same time, across all states. During this one-hour programme in 2021, nearly 17,000 children and women benefitted. The initiative received a Kalam’s World Record.

A chart explaining what a healthy period flow looks like
A chart explaining what a healthy period flow looks like

“Not only rural but many urban government schools and colleges lack basic infrastructure for girls,” Anitha said, adding that school washrooms don’t have latches or dustbins. “If we want girls not to drop out, these steps need to be taken. Awareness needs to be spread vigorously,” she emphasised.

On sustainability, she said plastic pads need to be banned, awareness needs to be created that such pads are not biodegradable. “There is change, but it is happening at a small scale, and will take some time. Menstrual cups and reusable pads can be one solution. However, it’s very difficult to convince rural women to use these newer, more sustainable means,” she shares. 

Spread the word!

Sakriya became the first NGO to create a mural on menstrual hygiene on Namma Metro in Bengaluru. The NGO will create menstrual hygiene awareness at bus-stands, railway stations, airports and other public places through these murals.

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