Correct information and open communication have helped eliminate myths and misconceptions around menstruation for adolescent girls at Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya in Mahoba district of Uttar Pradesh. Hygiene teachers like Kirti Thakur lead the way with open discussions on menstruation to promote menstrual hygiene. The result: confident adolescent girls who are now effective communicators for the younger pre-pubescent girls.
That day Ankita was missing from the hygiene class. She is an active girl and takes part in all school activities. Her conspicuous absence worried me. I went to the girls’ room, where I spotted her lying on the bed. She said her stomach was hurting, but what I saw in her eyes was trepidation and not pain. Alarmed, I cajoled her to get up so that I could take her to a doctor. She refused bluntly. Her reluctance reinforced my suspicion and I insisted she get up. What I saw when she arose was something every young girl fears. Her menstruation had caught her unaware and had thus petrified the poor child,” Kirti Thakur, a hygiene teacher narrates the delicate moment in the adolescent Ankita’s life that she witnessed.
Young and energetic, 30-year-old Thakur has been teaching basic computer skills and environment related subjects at Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV) since 2011. For the last three months, she has been functioning as a Hygiene Teacher and the medical in-charge as well. Ankita is her student in class 7.
“Apparently terrified, Ankita told me that she had been repeatedly checking for any boils or injury that was causing the incessant bleeding,” recalls Thakur who had to do a lot of wheedling as well as quote her own example to ease the young girl’s confusion about what was happening to her. Thakur is frank, open, and possesses a friendly approach that encourages girls to confide in her. They communicate their personal issues in the same breath and manner as they talk about any other subject, without any hesitation.
However, in earlier times the teachers and students were not always so open as they are now.
How the change began
“I must admit that before these didis (sisters) started coming to our school, even I was not so frank with the children,” recalls Thakur about her initial inhibitions, indicating to hygiene facilitators of WaterAid and its partner organisation. “We started getting information and education on menstruation through open and frank discussions when they started an intervention on Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) under their WASH in Schools or WinS programme (WASH: water, sanitation and hygiene),” she adds.
The students examining the available menstrual absorbents and discussing its benefits.
The technical support on MHM awareness and behaviour change to KGBV, built the capacities of teachers and students.
To initiate the process in a more systemic manner, separate meetings with teachers and the school children were organised regularly, followed by combined ones. In the meetings, flexi charts were used to display information as well as innovative education cum entertainment tools like the Paro-kit – which tells the story of the girl Paro, or the apron kit – which explains through simple diagrams, the biological process of menstruation. Besides these, educative movies and magic shows were also organised to inform girls on the issue.
As the next step, the teachers of the school were trained and equipped with proper information about MHM. Thakur introduced daily hygiene classes into the school’s timetable. She has also decentralised the monitoring work among students. Different teams, having 12-15 members each, were asked to supervise handwashing, drinking water storage, campus cleaning, and personal hygiene practices, including MHM.
Thakur admits that, “In KGBV, children come from villages, with very different backgrounds, and hence teachers found it challenging to train them in hygiene practices.”
Substituting myths with facts
Girls in KGBV have been getting free sanitary napkins under a government scheme since 2013. “But their knowledge about MHM had been practically zero before this intervention,” acknowledges Thakur.
Believing in the myth that burning used napkins would make them sterile, many girls would slyly dispose of their used cloth or napkin in toilets, choking them in the process. The ordeal to clean the choked toilets fell upon the sweeper – an old man, referred to by all as ‘Chacha’ (uncle).
Kirti Thakur explaining the various aspects of menstrual hygiene management to her students.
“I held an open dialogue with the girls and pointed out that even though they felt embarrassed to talk about menstruation, they had no qualms in compelling ‘Chacha’ to clean up their used napkins!” Thakur reasoned with them and it clicked with the girls.
Just like Ankita, another girl from class 8, Puja Sahu, always avoided going home while menstruating. The hitch was her grandmother who forbade any menstruating girl from touching pickles or even stepping into the kitchen.
What KGBV teachers did was to ask girls having their period to serve food, including pickle. Thakur recalls that they always reasoned in order to challenge the myths, “We then argued that even the aunty (the cook) menstruates yet she cooks daily, touches food and pickle, which we all eat.”
Nonetheless, there has been strong opposition which many times confused the girls and forced them to believe in the myths. But the teachers always found simple solutions to such cultural differences with examples from their own lives.
Right on track
The knowledge the girls have gained on Menstrual Hygiene Management has been spreading among their peers as well as being passed on to their families.
The school maintains a record of sanitary napkin distribution and thus keeps a track of the girls’ menstrual cycle as well. A woman doctor also visits the school every Saturday to conduct a general check-up of all the girls.
“The regular check-up and daily hygiene classes have helped in the diagnosis and treatment of a few problems which the girls would have kept under wraps otherwise,” says Thakur adding, “the girls have reported problems, such as leucorrhoea or common genital infections, such as itching or a rash, all of which were treated before they had a chance to flare up”.
Confident girls of Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya practicing judo
The result of the intervention: The girls are now forthright with a strong balanced mind and a robust physique. The same can be witnessed in the early morning judo class where they display their physical verve and vigour, and even in the music class, which showcases their musical talent.
Thakur believes that correct information and open communication has helped girls in breaking the shackle of myths and misconceptions linked to menstruation for centuries.
She gave the girls much more than health, she gave them vigour, strength and the confidence of doing what’s right.
All photos by Mansi Thapliyal