Saleha Khan, who grew up in a slum in Mumbai city, is breaking taboos on menstruation in her community, and challenging the hush-hush attitude with parents, teachers and the wider community.
First learning about menstruation at age 12 at school, Saleha recalls: “We were taken to a separate class for the session and boys were not a part of it. I think even if boys don’t menstruate, they too should be educated about it.”
In India, only 12% of 355 million menstruating women use sanitary napkins, a shockingly low statistic. For many women a lack of awareness about menstruation means a lack of menstrual health and hygiene.
Challenging the taboo
As an active member of a Save the Children child’s group in her area, Saleha has been at the forefront of a unique child-led campaign called ‘WASH4LIFE’. In this campaign she has strongly advocated on water and sanitation issues in her community. Over the last three years, Saleha has conducted more than 250 sessions on menstrual hygiene and other WASH-related issues, and has been able to influence more than 2,500 adolescent girls who have adopted healthy menstrual hygiene practices. She does it through innovative (and fun) methods such as street plays, photo exhibitions and talk shows – reaching over 10,000 community members.
How did it all begin?
When Saleha first joined the children’s group, she was very fascinated by the program, as it provided an opportunity for her and other children to understand the changes in their body at the time of puberty – something that was not discussed elsewhere. The girls also learnt how to use sanitary napkins. Saleha aspired to and then became a trainer very quickly after joining the group.
“Twice or thrice a month we conduct sessions for groups of 30 girls. We conduct these sessions after school hours, with each session lasting three to four hours. I made many friends here and also gained confidence,” she beams proudly.
Living in the Govandi slums, near Mumbai’s biggest rubbish dump, Saleha has faced many challenges in her efforts to break the stigma surrounding menstruation. After her elder sister was married, the family faced financial difficulties and she initially had limited support from her family in her campaigning.
Saleha remembers, “My father did not speak to me for days when I went against his wishes and conducted training sessions. My mother has only now begun to understand what I stand for. It was tough convincing her, but now she acknowledges the change this has brought about in all our lives.”
Today she has support from her family, peers and the community.
As one of our child champions, Saleha has been recognised for her campaigning by Save the Children, the community and the rest of the world. Saleha has now bee awarded the Savitribai Phule Award, and has been selected as an Ashoka Youth Venturer. She has also recently be nominated for the International Peace Prize, which she hopes will be a stepping stone for her future endeavors.