It was a Saturday afternoon, and I was in the middle of a session on menstrual health when everyone burst out laughing. I was conducting a session with eight to ten adolescent Santali girls in the backyard of social worker’s house, in Deoghar, Jharkhand. I was trying to find narrations of first periods where Fulmoni, a 14-year-old girl declared that she thought ‘a leech had gone inside her vagina’. She narrated how she spent those five days of her life feeling scared and confused. While some in attendance laughed, and others teased her, the statement left me with a lot of anxiety.
I have been working with these young, tribal and Dalit girls on Sexual Reproductive Health Rights for the past five years and I am shocked at how little they know about menstrual hygiene, even now. What I realized while working with the Adivasi girls of the Santhal pargana in Jharkhand, was that Fulmoni was not alone. Several young girls in Jharkhand experience their first period with similar fear.
Jharkhand is one of India’s poorest states and is one of the most vulnerable, ranking 16 out of 17 in the Indian Hunger Index. 52% of girls get married before their 18th birthday in Jharkhand. Yet, it is surprising that there are blocks under Pakur, Sahibganj and Chaibasa (West Singhbhum) that have zero or very few programmes on Sexual Reproductive Health Rights for adolescents and youth, hosted by any non-governmental organizations. On the other hand, government programs are far from uniformly spreading the beneficiary schemes across the last corners of the village boundaries.
Lack of knowledge about menstrual hygiene leads to several myths and misconceptions about periods and severely affects these girls both emotionally and physically. I want these girls in Jharkhand to have access to knowledge and services on menstrual hygiene. Recently, I have started an online petition at Change.org, asking the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation of Jharkhand to ensure that young girls in remote communities of the state are provided with mandatory knowledge and services on menstrual hygiene in the Anganwadis. This may include brochures and posters with information on menstruation, availability of biodegradable pads and cloth pads, iron tablets and monthly checkups for anaemia.
The state already has a strong network of Anganwadi workers, who provide information on health and nutrition to women in villages. However, most of the Anganwadi workers are not trained to talk about menstruation and have no tangible material (like brochures, posters etc.) to pass accurate information to these girls. A report by UNICEF in 2015 claims that 67% of the state’s school teachers and 62% of frontline health workers are unaware about the cause of menstrual cycle and believe it is a mechanism to reduce body heat. The young girls that I have interacted with in Chaibasa and Pakur never had any discussions or sessions around menstruation in their community. The Anganwadi workers only distribute iron tablets to the girls on Village Health and Nutrition Days, and that too inconsistently.
The Central Government, under the flagship of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, promised to bring Comprehensive Sanitation and Hygiene amongst people in rural India since 2014. Given this initiative, the question is – what has been the training mechanism for Anganwadi Workers (AWWs) on Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM)?
There is an immediate need to facilitate proper training of Anganwadi workers on knowledge and practice of Menstrual Hygiene Management and promote mandatory monthly sessions in the Anganwadi. This should be followed by a mechanism to monitor the impact of the adolescent program run by Anganwadis on menstrual hygiene in the communities.
Since 2016, Jharkhand has funded ₹25 crores to promote menstrual hygiene among school girls, by distributing free sanitary napkins. However, there is little importance towards the disposal mechanism of these pads. During focus group discussions, young girls shared that they threw the pads either in the village ponds when they go to wash themselves or they throw them in open spaces. If these girls are not told about menstruation, how to use a sanitary napkin and how often to change it, if they have no idea about how to keep themselves clean during their periods or on disposal mechanisms that keep their environment clean, then these free sanitary napkins will not serve their intended purpose.
It is also important to question what the State’s regular outreach mechanism to all schools across Jharkhand has been. There are several schools that have not received regular sanitary pads over time. Given that 52% of girls get married before their 18th birthday, how are school dropout rates monitored amongst girls, and what mechanisms are in place to ensure that knowledge and services on menstrual hygiene are provided before they leave school? Girls who drop out of school suffer the most as they have no agencies left to help them deal with their menstrual health. They not only miss out on the knowledge but also on services available in schools. Furthermore, my petition asks the Jharkhand Government to publish an audit report on the outcome and impact of Menstrual Hygiene Management by the Public Health Engineering Department in Jharkhand. Additionally, the petition requests for an Impact Report to be made available, to inform the public on the expenses and the outreach to rural schools with the 25 crores sanctioned under 2015-16 and 2016-17 fiscal plan.
Despite several policies and mechanisms in place, young girls at the grassroots level are still struggling for basic hygiene.
It’s time we know the right facts. It’s time we intervene responsibly. It’s time all girls in rural communities of Jharkhand get access to the right information on menstrual hygiene. If you resonate with this cause, do support my petition.
Featured image for representational purposes only. Credit: AFP PHOTO/Noah SEELAM