The perennial floods in Assam leave behind trails of destruction and hardships for the mankind every year. For the women in the flood-affected areas, life is even more tough as they try to meet the daily needs in a hostile environment which takes a toll on privacy and hygiene as well.
A 15-year-old girl, living in a flood-relief camp in Assam’s Nagaon district, once narrated a story to Tezpur-based entrepreneur for change, Mayuri Bhattacharjee, about her inability to find basic hygiene during her menstrual periods. “She had no choice but to bleed into her skirt for hours, until her aunt somehow found a piece of cloth in the camp. There were no separate toilets for the women living there… When I first spoke to her several months later after her nightmarish experience, she was able to recall every detail and the helplessness she had felt as a woman. In the absence of basic privacy in the common toilets, she and many teenage girls were harassed by men in the camps during their stay,” Bhattacharjee told The News Mill.
The compelling story led Mayuri Bhattacharjee to realize the importance of having women-friendly relief centres where they could get basic hygiene and privacy.
Aiming to better the situation of these flood-affected people, Bhattacharjee 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, which till now has been signed by more than 18,000, demands the Assam government to 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.
“Assam is affected by yearly floods. The government and other non-governmental organizations set up temporary relief shelters but they are not women-friendly. These shelters do not have separate toilets for women and no menstrual hygiene facilities are available for them,” she said.
She added that as the region is prone to floods, there has to be a way to provide safer and hygienic shelter to the affected women. “Women during floods remain in a very deplorable condition. We all know about it but probably we are not asking the right questions. While working in the grassroots, I along with my team of volunteers started asking these questions about toilets and menstrual hygiene where we came up with startling facts,” she said.
There are many reasons why Bhattacharjee, who is a Changemaker from the ‘She Creates Change’ programme of Change.org, believes that this mission is entirely achievable. First, floods are quite predictable in Assam and it hits every year and usually in 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 still male-dominated. We need more women at the forefront and in decision-making roles. This would improve the effectiveness in disaster management actions, disaster preparedness, rescue and relief plans,” she added.
Bhattacharjee got a major boost to her campaign when Assam minister of state for irrigation, revenue and disaster department, Bhabesh Kalita, responded to the petition online.
“I have read the petition thoroughly. It is a serious issue and it is good to find that this issue has been raised on such a good platform. I will look into the matter,” he wrote on the official page of the petition.
Thanking Kalita for taking up the case, Bhattacharjee said that she expects more awareness on the issue. “I am happy that Bhabesh Kalita gave a positive response to my campaign #DignityinFloods. I hope to get more awareness about this issue. He responded through the petition on March 6. I’ve gotten in touch with him over email to discuss the issue further and see what we can do. I am hoping that we can work together towards this campaign,” she added.
Bhattacharjee, who works at the grassroot level on the issue of climate change, menstrual health, gender and WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) in Assam and West Bengal, said that a pilot project can be set up in the flood shelters. She added that education on menstrual hygiene should be imparted as a pre-emptive measure rather than an after-thought.
The petition demands:
- Gender-segregated toilets and bathing facilities with provision of menstrual hygiene products and disposal facilities
- Special provisions for lactating mothers and pregnant women
- Periodic visits and feedback sessions by social welfare department officials to ensure safety of women 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