Guwahati, 17th March, 2019
Floods are a perennial problem in Assam and it brings a lot of hardship to the people affected. The problems are even more for women and girls because of lack of privacy and basic amenities in the flood shelters for them.
A 15-year-old flood victim’s ordeal in a crowded relief camp more than a year ago has taken the shape of a campaign for period-friendly flood shelters.
Behind this campaign is social worker Mayuri Bhattacharjee, whose team came across the 15-year-old in a relief camp during a survey conducted after the 2017 floods that had affected almost half of the Assam’s 33 districts.
“This girl was bleeding into her skirt for hours in the crowded relief camp, a community centre about 2 km from her village Hatbor in (central Assam’s) Nagaon district. She had no time to grab sanitary pads or a clean, dry piece of cloth in her hurry to save herself,” Ms Bhattacharjee, 32, said.
Like most relief camps, the Hatbor centre had neither any separate toilet for women nor menstrual hygiene management facilities.
The study that the Sonitpur district-based Sikun Relief Foundation, Ms. Bhattacharjee’s non-governmental organisation, was on menstrual health and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH).
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Interviews with 84 women between 15 and 50 years in relief camps across Sonitpur, Biswanath and Nagaon districts made Ms Bhattacharjee launch a campaign for creating 50 model women-friendly flood shelters, equipped with menstrual hygiene-related facilities.
Mayuri Bhattacharjee, an entrepreneur for change has started a petition on Change.org to build 50 women-friendly flood shelters in Assam to ensure #DignityInFloods for women of rural Assam.
Her petition demands that the Government of Assam build 50 women-friendly flood shelters in the 10 most flood-prone districts in the state for the safety and dignity of women in those areas.
“We have floods in Assam and everyone knows that. I have been working in rural Assam and these flood shelters come up but they are not women-friendly. There are no separate toilets for women, no menstrual hygiene facilities are available and most times, it is very unsafe. A lot of diseases in the camps can be avoided by providing the basic facilities to the women staying there.” Ms. Bhattacharjee explained.
“Floods aren’t new to Assam and the deplorable condition of women during floods isn’t new as well. It’s just that we weren’t asking the right questions to them. Me and my team of volunteers started asking these questions about toilets and menstrual hygiene during our sessions on Menstrual Health in Assam.”, she further adds.
There are many reasons why she believes that this mission is entirely achievable. First, floods are quite predictable in Assam and it hits every year and usually in more or less the same areas. Most often, the same schools and community centres are turned into designated flood shelters. This means that the Assam government can use the predictability of the situation to its advantage by being better prepared. They can improve existing structures and build new ones to provide basic safety, hygiene and dignity to women who are already battling these floods.
“Disaster management is mostly handled by males. We need more women at the forefront and in decision making roles to provide the teams with insights about real problems. This would improve the effectiveness in disaster management actions, disaster preparedness, rescue and relief plans.” she told our correspondent.
The campaign at www.change.org/DignityInFloods launched a few days ago has garnered more than 20,000 signatures. Some 10,000 of them were after Assam’s Minister of State for Disaster Management, Bhabesh Kalita responded to the campaign recently.
“I have read the petition thoroughly. It’s a serious issue and it’s good to find that this issue has been raised on such good platform. I will look into the matter,” he wrote on the official page of the petition.
“I am happy that Sri Bhabesh Kalita gave a postivie reponse to my campaign #DignityinFloods on change.org platform. I hope to get more awareness about this issue. He responded through the petition on March 6, in the morning and I’ve gotten in touch with him over the email to discuss the issue further and see what we can do. I’m hoping to get an appointment with him so we can materialise our campaign.”
“I believe we need a pilot project of these flood shelters and I am willing to work with government or any other organisation willing to take up this cause. I am a Climate Reality Leader and a World Economic Forum Global Shaper, I believe we can make this happen together and become a role model for other regions which suffer from such disaster every year.”
“Assam Disaster Management Manual 2015 has guidelines for a gender-sensitive approach, but the Annual Joint Needs Assessment report reveals a lack of concrete action on ground,” Ms. Bhattacharjee said.
“Interventions should have to start before hand in menstrual hygiene rather than an afterthought. So we have to focus on education even during times of normalcy.”
“We celebrate women’s day, mother’s day, etc., but we forget about the women who have to battle for basic necessities. This is something that is actually in need, and no one is talking about it. You have films that talk about toilets and we have a film that recently won an Oscar for periods, but in our homes, we forget to even talk about these basic facilities,”
Mayuri Bhattacharjee is a 32-year-old Tezpur-based social worker. She works at the grassroots level on the issue of climate change, menstrual health, gender and WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) in Assam and West Bengal. She is a Changemaker from the She Creates Change programme of Change.org. In January 2019, she represented India as a Global Shaper at World Economic Forum 2019, Davos, Switzerland.
The petition demands:
1. Gender-segregated toilets and bathing facilities with provision of menstrual hygiene products and disposal facilities
2. Special provisions for lactating mothers and pregnant women
3. Periodic visits and feedback sessions by social welfare department officials to ensure safety of women and girls in the flood shelters. Take necessary action and provide security if cases of harassment are reported.
To contribute, you can sign petition at https://www.change.org/DignityInFloods