In India, there have been schemes put in place by the government for women, but a quick glance would show you that a significant number of those schemes essentially revolve around women either belonging to the reproductive age bracket, or young girls and infants. Somewhere around the age of 10 or 11, the girl seems to disappear from the schemes. She resurfaces in the schemes only as a young woman, married and ready to produce children.
Menstruation is a natural, physiological function. A lot of women however, grow up being ashamed of their bodies. A large section of society considers women during menstruation as ‘impure’ or ‘dirty’. In India, about 23 per cent of girls drop out of school when they start menstruating. A large percentage of women are forced to use old cloth, newspapers and even mud during menstruation. Sanitary pads are expensive and about 70 per cent of women cannot afford them.
Kerala became the first state to ensure the installation of sanitary napkin vending machines in government schools. That’s a big boost for the country, for it empowers the young, school-going women. In as much as 150 government schools in Thiruvananthapuram, the vending machines known as VENDIGO, will dispense a pack of three sanitary pads when the student inserts a coin into the machine. VENDIGO will be seen at schools across Palode, Nedumangad, Vithura, Neyyatinkara and Kattakada, among other regions in the district. Under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, HLL, the manufacturer of VENDIGO, has installed about 200 vending machines in Kerala, including colleges, hostels, hospitals, the High Court and the Kochi Naval base.
This is a two-pronged effort. It not only enables young students to have access to sanitary napkins, who might otherwise be conscious of buying the pads from market stores, but it also sends out a positive message to girls, that the schools are sensitive to their needs.
Providing sanitary pads alone, however, solves only half of the problem. In schools, girls don’t have access to functional toilets. Twenty-three per cent of adolescent girls drop out of school since proper facilities are not provided to them when they are menstruating. Not only should girls have access to clean water and proper sanitation and disposable facilities at schools, they should have a clean, private space to change their sanitary pads.
In addition, the education system should work towards informing and educating girls about the menstruation cycle and body hygiene. On Monday, the National Menstrual Conclave (organised by NGO Sachhi Saheli in association with Aakar and Something Creative) was held in New Delhi. At the Conclave, Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister, Manish Sisodia spoke about how school text books do not include important chapters on menstruation – and if they do, the chapters are conveniently overlooked and not discussed in classrooms. “While children are growing up, they need to understand their body,” Sisodia said. “They need to have that knowledge to grow – and that knowledge is not provided in school textbooks; that knowledge is not given by teachers in classrooms… You will find other chapters and references in the book, you will find poetry and history in the books, but you will not find information regarding a natural process that takes place in a woman’s bodies every month. Why? Because all our textbooks are slave of our conventions.” He went on assert that girls should be given the confidence to be able to appreciate this phase in their life and not feel ashamed or shy about it.
It is crucial that schools impart knowledge relating to menstruation, among adolescent girls as well as adolescent boys. A paper titled, Menstrual hygiene in South Asia: a neglected issue for WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) programmes (published in 2010), mentioned that while there were girls who were aware of menstruation prior to menarche (their first menstrual period), a considerable number were not. The paper stated that, “A survey of 160 girls in West Bengal (Dasgupta and Sarkar 2008) found that 67.5 per cent were aware about menstruation prior to menarche, but 97.5 per cent did not know the source of menstrual bleeding. In Nepal, 92 per cent of 204 adolescent girls surveyed had heard about menstruation, but the majority of respondents reported that they were not prepared in any way for their first period (WaterAid in Nepal 2009a).”
While a number of girls learn about menstruation from their mothers, the onus should not entirely rely on them. A study performed by WaterAid revealed that in certain parts of the country, often it is the mother or grandmother who tells her daughter not to use the family toilet, since she is ‘impure’ during her menstrual cycle. Or a girl is given the same set of clothes to wear for years at an end, when she is menstruating.
Schools therefore, have a significant responsibility to talk about these bodily functions as well, and help adolescent girls regain their dignity. A student spends approximately eight hours of her life at school, every day. Unfortunately, several teachers shy away from discussing menstruation, hygiene and reproductive health in schools. Menstrual hygiene in South Asia reads, “Focus-group discussions with girls revealed that teachers generally avoided teaching reproductive health. One girl reported that her teacher had said: This topic need not be taught, you can self-study at home. It’s like knowing to go to toilet with slippers/shoes’ (WaterAid in Nepal 2009a, 6). The girls in this study also reported that the information they received was mainly regarding use of cloth, the practice of rituals, the concept of (cultural) pollution, and cautions about behaviour towards men and boys.”
The crucial issue at hand is to change the psychological landscape of the country – and that begins at schools. Girls should be encouraged to openly speak about menstruation without feeling burdened by fear or shame. Therefore, while the installation of sanitary napkin vending machines in government schools in Kerala is an exemplary step — and should be replicated throughout India — a lot more still needs to be done at multiple levels.This is just the tip of the iceberg.