Kurma Ghar to Mahila Visava Kendra – a much needed MHM initiative in Maharashtra

In a move that will significantly contribute to empowering women, providing them with a safe space and opportunities they urgently deserve, the District Administration of Gadchiroli in Maharashtra with technical support of UNICEF Maharashtra has started a unique initiative by which it will put an end to the concept of Kurma Ghar or period huts where menstruating girls and women were exiled; and construct in its place a Mahila Visava Kendra or a women’s rest centre.

A tradition recurring from generations, Kurma Ghar with unhygienic living conditions, is often linked to poor health of girls/ women, given that it is based on a lot of misconceptions about menstruation and health care, lacking scientific evidence.

The Mahila Visava Kendras (MVKs) would provide women a space of their own where they could go at any time and join in activities of women groups, even when they are not menstruating.  In essence, they are safe spaces offering a friendly environment to all girls and women of the district to manage their menstruation with dignity.

Shri Sanjay Meena, current District Collector, Gadchiroli commented on the trailblazing initiative.  “Sometimes solutions to socio-culture traditions do not come from their eradication, rather they come from the scientific accommodation and its propagation by government agencies systematically. Kurma Ghar is one such government intervention where local-tribal traditions are aligned with proper health facilitation.”

“We have already constructed 23 MVKs and 28 more are in the pipeline. Our aim is to cover all 400 villages with the prevalence of Kurma Pratha in the coming two years. We hope that this will prove to be a game changer for women’s empowerment in these villages,” Shri Kumar Ashirwad, Chief Executive Officer, Zila Parishad, Gadchiroli said.

On the reaction of women to this unconventional initiative, Shri Vijay Rathore, ex CEO ZP Gadchiroli said that the step was being welcomed by local women.  They are delighted with the new spaces that offer them safe living spaces and a chance to pursue their hobbies with the provision of water, clean toilets, lights and books.

Background:  Women of the Gond and Madia tribes residing in the aspirational district of Gadchiroli encounter many social, cultural and religious constraints during menstruation.  Each month, they are forced to spend a few days in a Kurma Ghar or period hut, most of which are located on the outskirts of the village.  In the absence of hygienic conditions and access to safe sanitation, they are unable to maintain personal hygiene.  Not allowed to cook or draw water from the village well during those days, they have to totally depend on the food and water sent to them by their relatives or family.  With many of the huts situated close to forest areas increases their vulnerability to attack by insects and wild animals, the situation further complicated during monsoons and bad weather conditions. 

The need:  Elaborating on the need for MVKs, Collector – Satara, Shri Shekhar Singh (Collector of Gadchiroli in 2018 when the initiative began) said, “When we started analysing the whole ecosystem of ‘Kurma Ghar’ the first reaction was to put a stop to the practice which ostracised women, forcing them to live in deplorable and inhuman conditions.  However, we realised that it was a multi-layered issue intertwined with thousands of years of Madia and Gond tribal culture and tradition.  

“That’s when we decided on an SHG led Kurma Ghar refurbishment and construction project – by which the facility would be transformed into a MVK,” he said. The facility should have all basic amenities – a clean room with toilet, bathroom, running water, a small library and drinking water.

Challenges:  To convince communities to get rid of the practice of exiling women and bring about behaviour change required a movement that was accepted by the women, inspiring them to push for it from within.  It was not an easy task that could happen overnight.  It required capacity building and training of young women and adolescents to denounce the tradition of menstrual exile.

Baseline Survey: With support from UNICEF and the Education department, Additional District Health Officer (ADHO), Mr. Vinod Mhashakhetri led the process of conducting baseline survey.  Following awareness generation on the biological phenomenon of menstruation and the importance of menstrual hygiene management, a total of 7895 adolescent girls gave their feedback in the baseline survey for MHM programme implementation from 765 schools of 12 blocks of Gadchiroli.

Funding:  Initially, 23 Mahila Visava Kendras were sanctioned with a fund of INR 69 lakhs from the District Planning Development Committee at an outlay of INR 3 lakhs for each Visava Kendra.  The architectural plan, layout, construction style, and material specifications were designed taking into account the local housing style.  SHGs were encouraged to be a part of the designing process in line with tribal traditional homes – right from contributing labour hours to purchase of material, etc.   

Capacity building:  Involving all concerned departments, training and capacity building of teachers, frontline workers dealing with health issues as well as those in direct contact with adolescents followed.  In schools, MHM sessions were conducted by trained teachers with the support of frontline workers. A funding of INR. 1,903,700 was used from the health department for the programme implemented in 765 schools for 55556 adolescent girls along with 9470 out of school girls with the help of 1161 trainers from the Departments of Education, Health, MSRLM, RKSK and Anganwadi workers in all the blocks of Gadchiroli district with technical support from UNICEF.

Key focus areas:  The primary focus was to reduce urinary and reproductive health problems; to strengthen and foster the implementation of adolescent-centric programmes on health, nutrition, child protection and education; to bust period myths and provide the necessary care for menstruating girls and women.

The first fruits:  The first unit inaugurated in June 2021 satisfied the yearning for such a change amongst the women, and contributed to a belated realisation by village elders and men regarding the need for such transformation of the Kurma Ghar, added Shri Shekhar Singh.  However, he emphasised that the final aim, a few years down the line, would be for women to remain in the comfort of their homes during periods – while still using these MVKs as a common space to meet, discuss and engage with each other regarding their activities and much more –– regardless of if they were on periods or not.

Way forward: Many of the GPs in Gadchiroli have more than one village. The implementation of a model Mahila Visava Kendra sanctioned in one of the villages is creating demand from other villages, as women are feeling proud to have such a facility.

Mr. Kumar Ashirwad aspires to scale this initiative by building over 400 such Mahila Visava Kendra in villages prominently populated with Gond and Madia tribes in the next two years.

“Menstrual Hygiene Management addresses gender, safety and health issues. It allows women rights over own their own body.  Changing social norms around MHM is time intensive and one single line department is not in a position to lead this programme. In Maharashtra, led by the Collector and CEO, it is being implemented in 12-15 districts in convergence with SBM, DWCD, Education, RDD,” Shri Yusuf Kabir, WASH Specialist from UNICEF Maharashtra said.

Outcomes:   The facility will increase the confidence of menstruating girls, their attendance in schools, address the absenteeism of school-going girls and improve the overall health of approximately 64000 school and out-of-school adolescent girls from Gadchiroli.  The programme will go a long way to help women understand the scientific facts about menstruation and the importance of personal hygiene and the need to use clean menstrual absorbents.

Credits: Gadchiroli District Administration and Unicef Maharashtra Office

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