Sachin’s gift to his sisters

Sachin with his four sisters in UP WaterAid/Dhiraj Singh

He’s neatly dressed in his school uniform, poring over his class ten textbooks in school. Indeed, at first glance, this 16-year-old seems like any other ordinary schoolboy. But Sachin Gupta of Sonva village (Bakshi Ka Talab block of Lucknow) is anything but ordinary. For this young boy has given his sisters Juhi (18), Mansi (16), Sanjana (15) and Jaya (14) an unusual but thoughtful gift — a sanitary napkin incinerator that he has built with his own hands.

“I used to wonder why my sisters became so withdrawn during certain days of the month,” he says. Like most other boys in the village, he too had no idea what menstruation was all about. “Then I saw a girl throwing what I now realise must have been a used sanitary napkin in the fields,” he recalls. “The farmer saw her and chased her away shouting abuses!” What was this thing which made women so vulnerable to oppression, he wondered?

Then, when he underwent training as a Peer Educator conducted by WaterAid India and its field partner Vatsalya, he finally understood. “I went to my sisters and mother and asked all sorts of questions about menstruation,” he says. “Initially they all laughed in embarrassment and sent me packing!” Slowly, he gained their trust and started buying sanitary napkins whenever they needed them. During these training sessions, Sachin realised that sanitary waste disposal was also critical to his sisters welfare. “I realized that if my sisters also had an incinerator at home, they won’t have to throw their waste in the fields,” he says. “So I built them one from clay I collected from the local pond.”

As a Peer Educator, Sachin advocates for safe menstruation practices in his community. Not surprisingly, many in the village ridicule him for being so empathetic. “Some of my friends snigger at me and ask why I do such dirty things,” he says. “I tell them it’s they who need to change their mindsets, not I!” Over time, he has become more and more confident in dealing with such attitudes. “I tell myself that perhaps such conversations will help break the silence that surrounds this perfectly normal phenomenon,” he says. 

In Sachin’s house today, thanks to his efforts, menstruation is no longer a taboo topic. Not only are his sisters comfortable talking about periods with him as well as their mother Suman, they even joke about them with their feisty grandmother Lakshmi Devi. The old lady regales them with stories of her own girlhood, when in the absence of any other options, she would wrap ash from the kitchen hearth inside a long piece of cloth and tie it between her legs. They burst into laughter as she rolls out a sample using an old dupatta for them to see, but immediately sober up when she tells them how uncomfortable it was.

“We used to get cuts, infections, itching and worse because of them,” the old lady says. “The worst thing is that since menstruation was considered to be `dirty’, we weren’t even allowed to bathe during those days in the village pond…”

Lakshmi Devi is happy that the atmosphere in their house today is so different today. She pokes at the incinerator that Sachin has built as she tells her grandchildren that in her younger days, menstruation was something they didn’t even speak about among friends. “This crushing silence and embarrassment is the reason why so many women have such a hard time, fall ill even,” says she. “Which is why I feel so happy when I see the change that Sachin has brought in our house,” she says.

Meanwhile Sachin is thinking about what he would like to do once he finishes school. “Right now I’m just focusing on doing well in my class ten board examinations!” he says. Acceptance from his community and the change he has been able to achieve in his own house are motivating him to continue working in the field of sanitation. His parents Suman Devi and Prem Chandra Gupta, are extremely supportive: “I’m so proud of my son,” says Suman Devi. “He’s the best brother his sisters could have hoped for — and I know he’s going to make some girl very happy in the future!”