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Why Girls In This Bihar Village Will No Longer Have To Miss School Due To Periods

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This post is a part of Back To School, a global movement supported by Malala Fund to ensure that access to education for girls in India does not suffer post COVID-19. Click here to find out more.

The onset of menstruation is one of the most important changes occurring among the girls during the adolescent years. The first menstruation or menarche occurs between the age of 11-15. In many parts of the country, especially in the rural areas, girls are not prepared and aware about menstruation, so they face difficulties and challenges at home and school. There is little, inaccurate or incomplete knowledge about menstruation.

Girls have little or no information about reproductive tract infections caused due to ignorance of personal hygiene. Adolescent girls constitute a vulnerable group where they are neglected. Menstruation is still regarded as something unclean or dirty in Indian society. Moreover, some view it as a disease and feel the need to shun those undergoing it.

Image for representation only

Menstrual hygiene practices are affected by cultural norms, parental influence, personal preferences, economic status and socio-economic pressures. Many girls face restrictions on cooking, work activities, bathing, worshipping and eating certain foods. These restrictions are due to the overall perception of the people regarding menstruation as they consider it dirty and polluting. These prohibitions are more in rural areas than in urban areas. The girls are also not allowed to participate in religious activities or to touch religious articles. Unprepared girls confused and embarrassed about menarche are likely to develop a negative attitude towards menstruation.

Azad India Foundation (AIF), as part of the girls’ education program supported by Malala Fund, has introduced adolescent sexual and reproductive health and life skill sessions in 30 villages, covering 1200 girls. We decided to use our Non-Formal Education (NFE) centres as a platform to talk to the girls.

But the path has never been easy for the organization. Talking about SRH (sexual and reproductive health) that too about menstruation is still a taboo and something not to be discussed in open. The interaction with the girls revealed that most of them had no previous or sketchy knowledge about menstruation—besides, they felt hesitant to talk to their mothers about this.

The girls are forced to use an unhygienic cloth or whatever is available at home. They are not allowed to go out of homes during their periods and aren’t allowed in the kitchen. They are forced to sleep in separate rooms, can’t eat or touch pickles. They are not even allowed to touch soap in some instances!

“Every month, I miss a week of school when I get my periods, and this throws me off track from my studies.”

There is another reason girls drop out of schools: most of the schools do not have functional toilets or facilities for disposal of sanitary pads. Some of these girls could afford to buy sanitary pads and were instead forced to use cheaply available synthetic cloth. Mariam was one such girl we came across who was uncomfortable going to school during her periods.

During our interaction, she told us, “Every month, I miss a week of school when I get my periods, and this throws me off track from my studies.” When we asked her the reason, she replied, “Our school doesn’t have a functional toilet, and I’m afraid if I stain my clothes, I’ll be shamed.”  Because of the lack of hygienic toilets and sanitary napkins, Mariam is forced to miss a week of classes in a month. This means she ends up missing three months of a school year. This takes a toll on her education. A lot of girls face the same problem as Mariam. Missing so many classes will eventually lead to dropping out of school.

Another challenge came from the maulanas (religious leaders) who play a crucial role in influencing the decisions of the community. They opposed all our efforts to talk about issues like menstruation with the girls. They argued that information about their bodies or talking about reproductive and sexual health would pollute the minds of the young girls.

AIF started interactions with the parents, community members and religious leaders. We organized an orientation program for the selected Maulanas and Madrasa teachers to inform them about the objectives and benefits of holding these sessions for the girls and to seek their support for the continuation of these classes with some success.

During the SRH sessions, the girls also showed their interest in learning how to make reusable cloth sanitary pads.

Project supervisor Gitika Sharma, who leads the SRH program and sanitary pad training for the girls, says: “Teaching girls how to make sanitary pads is very challenging. Most of the girls come from poor backgrounds where using commercial pads is a luxury they cannot afford. They are forced to use unhygienic and synthetic material. It is one of the main reasons for the girls to miss school or drop out altogether. It is important to teach them to make reusable cotton pads that do not affect their health besides being affordable. I am trying to involve more and more girls in this program.”

Making their own pads help the girls talk about their health issues more openly. In the process, they also get to learn about how to use and change the pads more often. The need to wash it properly and dry them in the sun and keeping it safely in a clean place are some of the other things that they are learning. This is also helping in debunking some common taboos related to menstruation.

The girls have become more confident in talking about their bodies and changes they undergo. They have become more regular in attending their school. Rosy from village Darnia says, “I am learning to make sanitary pads, as my parents are unable to buy me expensive pads. These are durable, and I do not need to miss my classes now.” At least 100 girls are now making their own reusable sanitary pads at home. Though their number is still small, but it is a beginning that will bring positive behavioral change among the girls.

Image for representation only

The pandemic caused a nationwide lockdown in India for weeks at a stretch. People were allowed to go out to buy only essentials with very strict guidelines. Rural India was scared to go out because they had little knowledge of the disease and the guidelines. This made them fear the police as much as the virus. Many families faced monetary issues as their family members were forced to return back to their villages. Sanitary pad is a luxury which many could not afford.

Not being able to go out to buy sanitary napkins was a huge problem as it wasn’t counted as an essential item during the early days of the lockdown. The pandemic has led to school closures, and many girls are facing socio-economic difficulties at home and in the community. Personal hygiene takes a back seat, which, in turn, gives rise to a host of other health issues.

Some of our girls who had learned how to make sanitary napkins didn’t get as affected as others because they were able to make their own napkins, and they even made some for their locality! This instilled confidence in them, and they learnt to be self-reliant. We need to eliminate all the causes that hamper girl education or force them to miss or drop out of the schools.

The state and central government needs to focus on building the infrastructure of the schools as per mandated in the Right to Education Act. Fighting taboos and bringing behavioural change is a long drawn and complex process involving several stakeholders. It needs to be taken up with more intensity and determination in the post Covid period.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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