Talking about Periods can Empower our Daughters

From my lifetime to my daughter’s, there have been significant and positive changes around conversations about menstruation in families, the media, schools, and wider society. More importantly, in India, periods have even become a policy and election issue for political parties.  

While we have a long way to go, menstrual hygiene management as a human rights issue has come of age in South Asia. Schools have made progress in providing decent toilets and washing facilities to their students and various countries have started to include menstrual hygiene in their curriculum.

But our work is by no means done. A new WaterAid-Unicef report shows that as many as 1 in 3 girls in South Asia say they miss school days during their periods every month, and up to two-thirds of girls in the region do not know about menstruation before starting their periods.

The biggest issues contributing to girls missing school are inadequate toilets lacking water, privacy and disposal options, and social and cultural restrictions imposed on girls when they are on their periods. We are working hard to change people’s perspectives, but many girls from my daughter’s generation are not allowed to play sports, go to school, or visit religious spaces when they are on their period.

Schools are the starting point for a lot of work on menstrual hygiene. In Bangladesh, the Ministry of Education has instructed all secondary schools to provide decent, girls-only toilets, which means they have to provide soap, water, and bins for the disposal of sanitary products. Many school teachers do not have the confidence to teach about menstrual hygiene, but efforts are underway to change this, by improving the knowledge and capacity of teachers.

Kishwar, 15, in front of a girl-friendly washroom in the village of Sinawan, Pakistan. Credit: WaterAid/ Sibtain Haider

The ‘touch the pickle’ campaign in India is a clear example of how far the country has come in making periods a topic of conversation – it encourages gender equality by stopping the spread of myths around periods, such as the idea that a pickle would rot if a menstruating woman touches it.

In rural areas of India, supported by the Ministry of Rural Development, women’s self-help groups provide safe and affordable sanitary products to women. Many of these groups are supported by the government to produce pads as a livelihood initiative. In many countries, women resort to using rags or even leaves as an alternative when they cannot obtain or afford pads.

Manisha, 16, studying in her room in Sirthauli, Sindhuli, Nepal. “As of now, I am still not allowed inside kitchen and touch water during my menstruation. If our mothers could understand it too then change would be easy.” Credit: WaterAid/ Mani Karmacharya

Nepal made headlines around the world last year when it passed a law that abolished the discriminating and age-old practice of banishing women from their homes during menstruation, known as Chaupadi. It comes from a belief that women are untouchable while menstruating; they were forced to sleep in basic huts, rather than their homes. Though banned by the Supreme Court more than a decade ago, it was still being practiced around the country. The new law is a huge win for women’s rights and has criminalized this ancient practice – those who defy the law are subject to a jail sentence and a fine.

We need to break the silence at both political and religious levels to counter myths around periods. Afghanistan took an important step last year when it celebrated its first Girls’ Hygiene Day. Under the theme, ‘Nothing can stop me going to school’, the campaign aimed to raise awareness about the importance of girls’ hygiene. A prevalent myth in Afghanistan is that showering during periods can cause infertility. Overcoming ignorance about the monthly cycle was one of the key messages of the government on Girl’s Hygiene Day.

In Pakistan, the involvement of politicians and prominent female athletes, as well as various social media campaigns, have helped to start a conversation about periods. Through a working group that includes government ministries and national and international NGOs, the government works on the implementation of menstrual hygiene management initiatives around the country. Menstrual hygiene is an issue that crosses sectors, from health to education to rural development, and they all need to work together to maintain the progress that has been made and ensure it is sustainable.

To make sure that my daughter’s children will not face the same restrictions and shame that have been prevalent in South Asia for such a long time, it is essential that talking about periods becomes the new normal.

This week, as we mark Menstrual Hygiene Day, together with WaterAid I call on women and men around the world to talk about periods and to challenge the myths and taboos surrounding menstruation that prevent women from reaching their full potential.

Vanita Suneja is Regional Advocacy Manager, South Asia at WaterAid.

Getting Personal About Periods in Uganda

By Libby Plumb, Senior Communications Advisor, WaterAid America

Relaxed and talkative, a group of 15 or so girls from Kasasa Primary School in Kampala, Uganda, showed no embarassment when their teacher introduced me as someone who’d like to talk to them about their school’s menstrual hygiene program.

Absenteeism among girls at Kasasa School in Kampala has dropped since a menstrual hygiene program was introduced. Photo c/o Lynn Johnson, Ripple Effect Images
Absenteeism among girls at Kasasa School in Kampala has dropped since a menstrual hygiene program was introduced. Photo c/o Lynn Johnson, Ripple Effect Images

I think back to my own early teen years and imagine the mortified silence that would have fallen if someone had asked my classmates and me about our periods: it was something we dealt with, but not something we felt comfortable discussing openly.

The Kasasa girls—all between the ages of 11 and 14—shrugged off the notion of this being a taboo topic.

“It’s not bad to talk about periods, it’s normal.”

I wasn’t surprised by their openness. I’d just visited another classroom in the school where I had watched rehearsals for an inter-school drama and public speaking contest about sanitation that was organized by the international development organization WaterAid, and one of its local partners. I was impressed at how unphased a young female student was by delivering lines about menstruation in front of a male teacher and 30-40 of her fellow students, both boys and girls:

“Menstruation is the process by which a female excretes unused materials from the body though the vagina,” she confidently stated. “Health-wise, to manage this process, the woman needs to be conscious about her hygiene.”

Breaking the taboo

This school is one of many worldwide where WaterAid is helping to break the taboo around menstruation, not just among teenage girls, but also among male students and the girls’ families. At Kasasa School, menstrual hygiene is a core topic at the weekly hygiene club attended by all the school’s students.

As I talked with the girls, it was hard to keep up with all their quickfire comments. Interrupting each other, the students were keen to show off their knowledge as I asked questions about how they manage their periods.

“We learn to keep good hygiene when we are in the MPs [menstrual periods].”

“We should dispose of the pads privately in the latrines.”

“We should keep clean by bathing, washing our knickers [underwear] and cutting our fingernails.”

“We should change our pads at least three times a day.”

Menstrual hygiene facilities

Awareness is not enough. To put their learning into practice, teenage girls need access to sanitary pads, water, soap and somewhere to dispose of their personal hygiene products.

Female students at Kasasa School in Uganda cleaning their new latrines. Photo c/o Lynn Johnson, Ripple Effect Images
Female students at Kasasa School in Uganda cleaning their new latrines. Photo c/o Lynn Johnson, Ripple Effect Images

Alongside a new bathroom block, WaterAid helped Kasasa School build private, lockable, separate rooms for girls, where soap and water from a new rainwater collection tank are available, and pits where sanitary pads can be disposed of. Students are expected to provide their own pads, but spares are kept at school for those who are caught short, along with a spare uniform in case dresses are stained.

The teachers know that sanitary pads are unaffordable for some families. Instead, many girls use pieces of cloth, and teachers offer advice on keeping them clean by washing and drying them thoroughly, and ironing them to help kill bacteria.

Boosting school attendance

Evelyn Nakimbugwe, the school principal, explained how the provision of menstrual hygiene facilities was a turning point for reducing girls’ absenteeism.

“Before, some girls would use one pad for the whole day because there was no privacy. Some girls wouldn’t come to school at all when they had their period. They would miss four to six days of school a month. Now, they don’t miss school.”

Aspirations for the future

It’s abundantly clear that these girls are making the most of their education and there’s no holding them back. They’re bright, confident and articulate, and have ambitions to match. Their aspirations for the future include becoming accountants, judges, lawyers, journalists and Members of Parliament. I have no doubt they’ll succeed in life – the drive is certainly there.

Find out more about WaterAid’s work around menstrual hygiene.

Join the conversation on Twitter all month long using #MenstruationMatters.

Share your ideas about menstruation in the #PeriodTalk Twitter chat on Tuesday, May 20th at 10amET.

Cover Image c/o Lynn Johnson / Ripple Effect Images


Sanitation To Education – Inspiring Story of A Girl

Our campaign, which is to spread an promote awareness regarding sanitation, water and its effect on girls’ education has taken us to a school in a nearby urban slum area that is located in Gurgaon, India (New Delhi, National Capital Region).

Conditions which girls have to face everyday at schools while sharing the same toilet with boys,results in dropping out of the girls in huge numbers  which are close to 41 % in India
Conditions which girls have to face everyday at schools while sharing the same toilet with boys. School drop out rates of girls is close to 41 % in India!

As a part of our ongoing awareness programs we are teaching children on how to follow good sanitation & hygiene practices and ways of obtaining safe drinking water. Through the program, one of our team members, Ms. Chinu, came in contact with Sarita, a student in a group of girls to whom she was teaching good practices to be followed on menstrual days. Sarita told Chinu that many girl students here are unfamiliar with the good hygiene practices to be followed during menstrual days, one of the key factors to the drop out rate of girls from schools. These rates are increasing and ultimately bolts their education and career. The girls told our team member startling facts about menstrual practices they are following during menstrual days. In many areas the girls and their mothers use nothing! In some homes the girl and mother both use the same cloth. There are also myths associated to the practice, which makes it even worse. They say “if you wash the fabric and air dry it or if someone sees it you will become infertile” and as a result of this they dry it in the dark and it becomes subjected to germs and sometimes insects, which lead to illnesses, sometimes severe.

Considering it on our priority list, our female staff started giving awareness about sanitation practices to be followed on everyday basis at school, at home during menstrual days, and also the ways to obtain sanitary pads.

During our awareness campaign in schools Chinu came to know that Sarita is not regular in school. She was absent most days. One day Chinu asked Sarita, “why do you remain absent most of the time from school?” Sarita replied with a drenched face that most of the time she is ill due to stomach and intestinal infections, which is why she is not able to attend school, and stays at home. After the conversation with Sarita we came to know that she is living in an area where people don’t follow sanitation & hygiene practices and that she lives in a hazardous environment where diseases like Cholera, Diarrhea and Gastroenteritis are normal. These diseases are mainly due to bad sanitation conditions and unsafe drinking water!

The result of the awareness campaign was that Sarita’s frequent illness faded away, and now she is more confident in her studies and overall development. She is regular in her class and started scoring good marks.

Like Sarita many of the girls who normally skip school on a frequent basis due to lack of awareness regarding sanitation and menstrual hygiene are now regular in their classes.

After this intervention Sarita became a role model for the entire girl community in the area in regard to good sanitation practices and hygiene knowledge.

During this we came to know that there is a lot more need to be done regarding the awareness in other parts of India, like rural and urban slums, where people give more importance to mobile phones than to sanitation, girls’ education & hygiene.

Please also watch the below mentioned inspir­ing video for more information.

The Role of Sanitation in Girl Child Education – A Documentary Film by HEEALS from heeals on Vimeo.

Gagan Deep
Project Officer