Sixteen-year old Sparsh, a Class 10 student, does not shy away from talking about ‘menstruation’ or ‘periods’ and what his female classmates go through once a month for four to five days. As he speaks, he also gives out some advise.
“Girls should eat healthy food. They should take rest and boys should treat them nicely.. Girls feel pain too. They must not use cloth; only a sanitary pad, otherwise it can lead to infections. Even uterus cancer. Ladkiyon ke saath koi bhed-bhaav nahi hona chahiye. Aur mera ya maanna hai ki periods ke baare mein baat karna koi sharam wali baat nahi hai.. ye to natural hai.. (There should be no discrimination against girls. I believe there is no shame in talking about periods because it is natural)..,” says Sparsh, one of the “leaders” at his school’s Menstrual Hygiene Club.
This club is at the centre of a silent revolution that is taking place at Government High School at a small village Garlon Bet in district Nawanshahr (Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar). Here menstruation has become a gender-inclusive topic and boys are not only becoming a part of the ‘period’ discussions, but also leading an awareness campaign on hygiene and usage of sanitary pads. The school has 168 students of which at least 90 are girls.
The initiative, started by their teacher and in all likelihood the only one of its kind at a government school in the state, is seen as path-breaking in state like Punjab where hundreds of girls in government schools still do not have access to sanitary napkins. Further, the topic is still a taboo and even girls do not talk about it openly.
On Tuesday, as the school observed Menstrual Hygiene (MH) Day, which is observed worldwide on May 28, boys drew posters on the topic and also wore ‘Period Bands’ on their wrists along with girls. The bands had 23 white pearls and five red pearls to make students understand the menstrual cycle frequency. Five boys who are the ‘leaders’ (to talk about menstruation with other boys and take chain forward), were also gifted sanitary pads to gift them to their mothers and sisters back home.
The change that this initiative has brought in the attitude of boys is heartening, a teacher said.
Pardeep Kaur, the teacher who is leading this initiative at the school, said that she started the awareness drive with just two boys in 2017.
“Boys used to giggle and laugh. It wasn’t easy. Girls used to feel shy asking for napkin and would say they need a ‘toffee’. Boys would call it a ‘biscuit packet’. So, at least that code language is gone now and students confidently say ‘pads’ or ‘napkins’ without any shame…We have five boys as leaders in Menstrual Hygiene Club who also attend monthly meetings and discuss problems with girls. We have worked hard on making it a gender-inclusive topic in our school. These five boys (three from Class X and two from Class 8) further discuss it with other boys and this is how chain goes on to bring that attitude change. In two years only, a lot of change is already visible….”
“Now boys do not make fun of girls when she is in pain or gets her period in class. Instead, they help her in getting pad… Boys advise girls to have healthy food and take rest…,” she added.
Raju (16), a Class 10 student and one of the leaders, said that he has two sisters and earlier he did not know anything about periods. “Initially, I felt a little awkward when all this was discussed in class as girls were also sitting there. But now I don’t. Girls must use pads only.. We are also taking out rallies in our village to tell other women that pads must be used not dirty cloth..,” said Raju, a farmer’s son.
Navjot Singh (16), another club member, told The Indian Express that his mother was happy that he was part of such an initiative.
“A (sanitary) pad has to be disposed off properly too otherwise it can lead to infection to others. I am not hesitant to talk about periods with my mother or classmates now. My mother is happy that I am a part of this initiative. We must allow girls to take rest and not laugh if they stain their clothes. We should ask if they need help.”
The girls at the school feel that the “awkwardness” around the issue is no longer there.
“They are our friends and guide us. We discuss menstruation with boys and problems that we face. If we need any help, we tell them without any hesitation…Having periods is not a crime,” said Resham (16).
“We also tell boys that there are certain myths which should not be followed like girls cannot touch pickle, enter temple or sleep inside the house. There has to be no discrimination. Boys need to know this..,” added Pardeep Kaur.
Apart from discussing the issue at school, boys also accompany teachers and their classmates when they take out awareness rallies in the village. “Earlier just 35-40 per cent women in village were using pads. Now 80-85 per cent must be using them. We give napkins to village women for Rs two per piece whenever they need…,” revealed Kaur.
While an effort to make boys a part of Period Talk started with just two boys in this school in 2017, the overall campaign is under Khwahish Sewa Society (KHASS), run by Canadian NRI Gyandeep Singh, who has got pad vending machines and incinerators put up across at least 50 schools in Punjab.
“From this year, we are planning to start this at more schools…You cannot ignore boys if periods have to become a normal talk..,” says Gyandeep Singh.
The school head teacher, Sohan Singh, too says that “boys have to be a part of this talk”. “They must know what girls go through,” he said.
The state education department, meanwhile, says that the idea to include boys in the awareness programme cannot be implemented across the state as of now.
“Our focus is to cover girls first. Even that is a big task as of now. Agar hum ladkon ko ye sab padhane lag gaye to log humein maar ke khaa jayenge (If we will start teaching boys all this, people will kill and eat us). People in Punjab especially in border districts are still very backward,” said Surekha Thakur from the DGSE office, Punjab, who is supervising the free sanitary napkins project for girls started by Punjab government.
At the Garlon Bet school, however, the boys have already decided to break the menstrual taboo. A poster made by one of them reads: “Break The Silence..Become A SuperHero… And help ensure that no girl is every held back by her period.. It is completely fine to talk about it….”