Activists push to reform India’s dilapidated ‘period huts’
Pinky Karamgami’s first stint in a “period hut”, where girls and women in India are banished during their menstruation, was as bad as she feared.
The 13 year old was forced to spend five days and nights in the thatched hut with two middle-aged women, who had also been banished by their families in Tukum, a small village in the Gadchiroli district of India’s Maharashtra state.
“I could not sleep for those strange and painful five nights amidst those two strangers. I wanted to go home but no one would have taken me because that’s against our customs,” Pinky told The Telegraph.
The period hut she was set to, in a practice known locally as the kurma house, is some 150 meters away from her home. Roughly 100 square feet, the windowless mudroom has few facilities and no electricity.
Like other menstruating women, she must eat, sleep and bathe inside the hut throughout her period, in a practice replicated in nearly every tribal village in central India – where menstruation is still considered taboo. The women are considered impure and are barred from social and religious functions.
But as period-shaming continues, health activists across India are adopting a new approach to tackle the kurmas. Instead of confrontation with community leaders, they are instead focusing on education and reform.
“It’s better to avoid headlong confrontation with tribal people over their deeply rooted traditional practices because they will shut their minds and doors to you on other grave healthcare issues,” said Dr Abhay Bang, who for many years has been working in the tribal areas.
In particular, she said women in these regions are facing other acute health challenges – and intense confrontation could undermine efforts to combat them. Nearly 70 percent of tribal women have anaemia, for instance.
Bang and many other social groups are working with the tribal community to reconstruct the period huts and improve their facilities, instead of rejecting the practice outright.
“There is no toilet inside and we tie the cloth in corners of the hut to create space for it. During rains, the hut is filled with water and it becomes really difficult to live there,’’ said Kiran Dilip, 32, of Kanartalo village.
Dilip says she doesn’t want her three-year daughter to face the same unhygienic life but their deeply rooted customs were difficult to break.
For 20-year-old Karishma Sahu in Tukum village, going to the kurma is inevitable if she wants to avoid being publicly shamed by her family. She had taken it upon herself to persuade her friends to rebel after she was bitten by a snake three years before inside the hut.
“None of my friends want to go there but there is pressure from the families. We have to obey and live in those unhygienic and unsafe huts,” she said.
These unsanitary conditions combined with unhygienic menstrual practices – many women use strips made from leaves covered with paddy chaff as pads – often cause infections, illnesses, and sometimes even death.
“The school-going girls are getting sanitary pads now. So younger tribal girls are gradually switching away from unhygienic practices but they are forced to go to kurma. Now some of them are turning rebellious,” Bang said, adding the debate within the community should go on so that women emerge stronger.
Nicola Monterio of a Mumbai-based charity, Kherwadi Social Welfare Association, which is replacing the mostly-dilapidated huts, added: “[Korma] is a regressive practice and you want to put an end to it, but the whole change has to come from within the community.
“We are creating awareness to bring reforms instead of provoking them against the change.”