The issue of menstruation is not only wrapped in myths and taboos, but lack of awareness and education on menstruation is ingrained in both urban and rural parts of India. Safe menstrual hygiene practices are often guided by right knowledge, awareness, and access where all three are intertwined.
My previous blog dealt with the condition of menstruating women and girls in slum communities of Mumbai and how they are affected by the lack of safe sanitation and proper infrastructure. Situations are different in different areas and are rooted in knowledge and access to the proper material. Talking about menstrual hygiene, it is essential we also look into problems that are faced by semi-urban and rural areas.
To provide last mile access of menstrual hygiene product and information, we collaborated with Precision Foundation to reach out to 625 girls in low-income schools in Solapur district. Through this project, I got a chance to interact with girls from slums communities and semi-rural areas in their schools to understand their perspective on menstrual hygiene and their awareness about their monthly cycle.
Initially, it was difficult to start a conversation on menstruation as the girls wouldn’t interact, they were shy. When teachers intervened and motivated girls to start a conversation, it gradually broke the ice and thus begun a healthy period talk.
With the baseline done already with 250 girls, interestingly, a majority of them were using sanitary napkins as opposed to home-made cloth pad or rags. I already had an idea about their demography and backgrounds. The percentage of girls using sanitary napkins was a whopping 89%. Unfortunately, 35% of these girls did not follow safe methods for disposal of soiled sanitary napkins.
These Zilla Parishad schools are in the vicinity of the slum communities of Solapur and according to the teachers, the situation is worse than it appears. Families of these girls have a meagre income. Although most of them use sanitary pads they use one pad for the entire day, or at the most two pads a day, which is an unhealthy practice. There is also the problem of disposal. Waste collection in slums happens only once a week, due to which the surroundings become unhygienic.
To understand the knowledge improvement in girls, at the end of the project, we conducted an end line survey. The findings were encouraging — 68% girls passed the knowledge they received from these sessions to at least one woman/girl, and 18% spoke about it with two women. And that’s not all — 48% respondents said they were now confident about menstruation, and 69% had begun to follow prescribed practices for pad disposal.
Although a lot has changed with our intervention, I was disheartened to know from the teachers that there were still girls dropping out of schools during menstruation or remaining absent during those days. Furthermore, parents discouraged girls from going to schools and married them off early. Sarita (name changed), a teacher in ZP school says, “earlier teachers would talk about periods, but girls were very shy, with a project like this and young girls coming to educate, these school girls started opening up. But it shouldn’t stop here. More such conversations are needed, more awareness is required not only among the girls but their families too. Sessions should be conducted for boys also so that they are aware of periods at an early stage. True that the absenteeism has reduced and attendance is almost 90%, but there are still 10% dropping out and married off early. That needs to stop somewhere for which parents should be aware of menstruation”.
Another teacher Nandini (name changed) suggested that “Girls need to talk more. In my school, they do not talk much about periods. They are even shy to ask for sanitary pads. That needs to be changed somewhere”.
If access to the right knowledge is provided at an early age, girls become educated about sensitive issues early as well. Awareness sessions need to reach every household in low-income communities in rural and urban areas, municipal authorities need to act and improve the sanitation situation. Providing access to affordable menstrual hygiene product is one side of this larger issue, while other side includes informed masses, awareness in households, and openness to accept the information. In Solapur schools, absenteeism and dropout is 10%, situation maybe grave if we consider entire Solapur, but one thing necessary to change immediately the constant involvement and information sharing. Organisations like Precision Foundation are constantly involved in providing access to education and intervening where necessary and thanks to them that we got to shed light on menstrual hygiene issues in Solapur and for helping us change the picture.
“I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved” – Dr. B. R. Ambedkar