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Sunday, October 19, 2014
- Fifteen-year-old Nasreen Jehan, a student in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, proudly flaunts a yellow and red beaded bracelet encircling her wrist. This humble accessory, she tells IPS, is her most treasured possession.
“It helps me keep track of my menstrual calendar,” says the 9th-grader, who attends a government-run, all-girls school in a town called Bettiah. “Also, it helps me talk about menstruation with my friends.”
Of the 24 small beads that comprise the delicate adornment, six are read, symbolising the days of her monthly period. Jehan made the bracelet herself at a menstrual hygiene workshop in Bettiah last year, organised by Nirmal Bharat Yatra (NBY) – a nationwide sanitation campaign spearheaded by the Geneva-based Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC).
Educators at the workshop talked Jehan and her peers through the biological process of menstruation, offering tips on how to properly wash and dry menstrual cloths if sanitary napkins are unavailable.
It is rudimentary advice, but crucial in a country like India, where menstruation has long been perceived as a social taboo. In many parts of the country, a woman on her period becomes essentially “untouchable” – banned from cooking, handling water or entering places of worship.
According to a study undertaken by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) back in 2012, some 225 million adolescent girls attend one of the 1.37 million schools spread across the country. Of them, roughly 66 percent have no knowledge of menstruation before they reach puberty.
A full 88 percent of these girls do not have access to what the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) calls WASH facilities: water, sanitation and hygiene, including soap or sanitary supplies.
According to data compiled by AC Nielsen in 2011, the average Indian adolescent girl (between the ages of 12 and 18) misses 50 days of school a year as a result of inadequate facilities, or a lack of awareness of menstruation. Some 23 percent of all schoolgirls – over 50 million in total – drop out of school altogether once they hit puberty.
Of India’s roughly 335 million women, a mere 12 percent have access to sanitary napkins.
Because the subject is seldom discussed, even among families, peers or community members, many women resort to extremely unsanitary options during their period, including the use of unsanitised cloth, ashes or sand. Reproductive tract infections (RTIs) are 70 percent more common among women who engage in these practices.
This year, for the first time, the world will mark May 28 as Menstrual Hygiene Day, designed to address the very challenges countries like India are facing.
Against this backdrop, the NYB campaign is not only timely, it is essential if India hopes to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), development targets set by the world body in 2000 and set to expire in 2015.
Also known as the Great WASH Yatra, NYB aims to “improve policy and practice in an extremely challenging and taboo area of sanitation and hygiene: Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM).”
Launched in 2012, the 150,000-dollar campaign – generously supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – will continue until 2016.Already it has reached over 12,000 women and girls around the country, an overwhelming majority of who are adolescent students who say that being empowered to break the silence around menstruation is making a huge difference in their lives.
This process, though, has not been easy. Urmila Chanam, a Bangalore-based MHM educator who travelled to six states during the early stages of the campaign, said the stigma against menstruation runs deep, having been embedded for years in the minds of men and women alike.
“When a girl in India gets her first period, everyone tells her that she is impure because the blood flowing out of her is dirty,” Chanam told IPS.
“So, she grows up convinced that this is a shameful thing that she must not discuss. The first challenge of an educator is to have the girl overcome this sense of shame and fear. Everything else comes after that,” added Chanam, who also runs a web-based campaign called ‘Breaking the Silence’ that encourages both women and men to openly discuss the issue.
The determined efforts of a handful of NGOs and activists like Chanam have set the wheels of a full-blown movement in motion, with thousands of young women across the country coming forward to share their experiences.
A fine example of this is Soumya Selvi, a 10th-grade student in a girls’ school in Srirangam, a town located about 320 km south of Chennai city in southern India.
Three years ago, Selvi and her fellow classmates were privy to a UNESCO-led reproductive health campaign, and became virtual ambassadors for the issue. Selvi alone has shared her knowledge with nearly 50 other girls in her school and her neighborhood. She has also not missed a single day of school during her period.
“My mother and my aunt never stepped out of the house when they had their periods,” she told IPS. “That was our family tradition. But, I told them, ‘this will happen to me until I am 50 years old, perhaps older. Should I sit at home all my life?’
“After that, they never asked me to miss school,” she recounted with a wide smile.
Still, experts agree that independent efforts can only achieve so much. Without government support, it could take decades to reach every woman and girl who remains fearful and silent. What is needed, they say, are inclusive and targeted training programmes that can help scale up impacts of individual campaigns.
Mukti Bosco, an eminent activist and founder of Healing Fields, a Hyderabad-based NGO that works with schools on menstrual hygiene management, told IPS it is time for campaigns to target female teachers and mothers, who can “instill positive behaviour in the girls.”
Others emphasise the role of communication as in invaluable tool in spreading the message. Sinu Joseph, a Bangalore-based MHM educator, has so far trained 8,000 girls across the southwestern state of Karnataka using an animation video.
“Young girls often ask, ‘Why can’t I visit a temple when I have my period?’” Joseph told IPS. “To answer such questions, one has to first know the cultural history. [Educators] must earn the trust of women and girls, so that they are comfortable enough to speak. Then they… not only learn, but also feel empowered.”