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Indian Girls Break Taboos on Menstrual Hygiene

Nasreen Jehan, a high school student in eastern India, studies a leaflet on menstrual hygiene. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

BETTIAH, India, May 28 2014 (IPS) - 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.

“My mother and my aunt never stepped out of the house when they had their periods. That was our family tradition." -- Soumya Selvi, a 10th-grader in southern India
Finally, they gave Jehan the most important message of all: that menstruation is just as natural as hunger or sweating, and that there is nothing to be ashamed or afraid of.

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.”


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  • Geetika Silwal

    Very happy to read this story. We need a change and the change has begun!

  • Vestias

    An educated citizen is likely to fall into poverty


  • wordscanhelp

    So happy for them. Until science explained the menstrual cycle, women themselves bought into the idea that it was an animal function, lower than the male standard for humans. Now we know that it is the cleanest function, and tied into the mystery of life itself, because of the formation of the egg. The blood encounters oxygen and begins to smell, but it is life essence. We are all sacks of blood walking around, lose it, or breath, and we are dead. So this trickle is of the life essence tied into the mystery of how women make humans of flesh out of seed, egg and the divine spark.

    So the denigrate this and make this whole process a systematic badge of shame, fear and deprivation for half the human race shows just how depraved the urge for domination and commodification of other human can e.

achieve read and practice