A Brief History of (Bodo) Time

One of the most volatile regions in all of India, Bodoland Territorial Area Districts or BTAD has seen sporadic uprisings and insurgencies for many years. The Bodoland Liberation Tigers (BLT) led an intense campaign, seeking territorial autonomy and a 50-50 division of Assam. Eventually, in 2003, the Assamese government and the BLT engaged in negotiations, leading to the formation of the Bodoland Territorial Council, with jurisdictions in BTAD. The areas under BTAD purview include Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa, and Udalguri.

Photo courtesy: Rudrani Ghosh Photography

Among its residents, Bodoland comprises of the Bodo tribe, other adivasis, and Muslim settlers who have emigrated from nearing regions in recent years. Herein, territorial acquisition and the formation of settlements have resulted in violent ethnic conflicts. In 2008, 64 people were killed in the Udalguri district, and riots in the autumn of 2012 displaced 4,00,000 individuals from Baksa, Chirang, Kokrajhar and Udalguri. These riots also  claimed the lives of 90 victims.

Yet, not all is bad in what seems to be a politically fragile battleground. The Balipara Foundation, a local non-governmental organization, is in the process of implementing a residential area for tourists, with a focus on conservation. Elephant Country – Udalguri Landscape Mission has worked in tandem with the Joint Forest Management Committee (JFMC) and certain women’s self-help groups, to plant trees, renovate a forested resort, and empower locals with employment opportunities. In this endeavor, Naturenomics ™ is working to create social mobility programmes to support the local working economy through sustainable economic and ecological development.

What’s (period) blood got to do with it?

As if it isn’t complex enough to navigate through ongoing insurgencies, riots, and political turmoil, trust our body clocks to come a knockin’ with fresh pools of blood every month. It is no secret that areas affected by conflict and populations affected by internal displacement or war are lacking in resources for sustainable human life and development. Enter: Sikun Relief Foundation. Upon invitation from the Balipara Foundation, our organization was presented with an opportunity to host two workshops on sanitation and menstrual hygiene management  in Udalguri. The first workshop saw attendance from six different women’s self-help groups, and the second was attended predominantly by school girls between the ages of 10 and 18. On the first day, we entered Gumgaon LP School unsure of what to expect.

As we began our conversation about menstruation, the women shared different cultural practices that accompanied periods, and their own superstitions around the phenomenon. Some of these practices varied between Bodo Hindus and Bodo Christians. While the Hindu women said they did not touch household items, cook rice or visit the place of worship when they were on their period, Christian women did not partake in these beliefs. In addition to unearthing period related stereotypes and taboos, we discovered the superstitions used by some women to explain away the occurrence of periods and the subsequent menopause in later life. One woman claimed that she was at first frazzled when her menopause did not arrive at the same time as her peers in the community. On the advice of others, she burned her mekhala sador, the traditional attire worn by Assamese women, and soon after she stopped bleeding.

As with any other workshop hosted by SRF, we start by assessing the extent of understanding the attendees have of why menstruation occurs and the female reproductive system. Many believed it to be a God-given feature, intended to make women capable of bearing children.

Photo courtesy: Rudrani Ghosh Photography

On Day 2, we conducted a second workshop, this time at Jorpukhuri High School, with young girls between the ages of 10 and 18. Some had not started menstruating yet, and others were already a few years into their periods. Most interestingly, the oldest girls were the shyest when it came time to discuss the female anatomy and the nuances of menstruation. The initial reaction of the girls when we drew the outline of a uterus on the blackboard was to cover their mouths in disbelief and embarrassment. These reactions from the young women and the previous workshop’s older women gave us some pause. For each workshop, we worked through the tabooed notions and iterated that periods were a natural phenomenon that ought not to garner embarrassment. Importantly, we discussed the state of resources in Bodoland, and various options for menstrual hygiene products that are environmentally friendly, cost-effective, and can make the monthly bleeding slightly more pleasant. Recognizing the infrastructural inadequacies in some parts of Bodoland, we talked about important sanitary practices and took part in an interactive handwash activity.

Blood, sweat and periods.

Whizzing back to the Elephant Country Camp at Bharaibkundo on a motorcycle, we saw signs that read, “Divide Assam 50-50”. We got to thinking about the volatile nature of conflict spaces and disaster stricken zones. Amidst all the divisive sentiments and hostility, however, one thing stands constant in all such spaces: a monthly blood-flow that means no harm to human life (except the occasional, excruciating cramps, headaches, and nausea…). This realization made the existence of period taboos and the disregard for menstruating women seem all the more unnecessary. Taking with us the character of the resilient Bodo women, we aim to spread our period positive narrative in other areas where blood has only been bad so far.