Lack of support for menstruating girls in schools a big concern

Menstrual Hygiene Management refers to the ability of women and girls to manage their menstrual cycle safely and confidently while maintaining their dignity. In our society, menstruation often carries stigma, stress, and embarrassment, which creates barriers for girls and women to effectively manage their menstrual cycles in a safe and healthy environment. Menstruation is a crucial aspect of every girl’s life, and prioritising menstrual health and hygiene is essential for the well-being and empowerment of adolescent girls. Therefore, it is important to ensure that schools provide a supportive and menstrual hygiene-friendly environment.

Are schools in India menstruation-friendly? 

No. The schools in India are not menstruation-friendly. Many schools fail to meet the safety, hygiene, and sanitation needs of girls, preventing them from feeling safe, dignified, and ready to learn in their school environment. This lack of support can contribute to school absenteeism, dropouts, and other negative consequences. Insufficient infrastructure leads to poor menstrual hygiene practices, which can result in various health issues, including infections, rashes, and long-term complications.

I have worked in the Palghar district of Maharashtra, focusing on menstrual and sexual reproductive health in schools and communities. This district is predominantly inhabited by tribal communities like Warli, Koli, Kokana, and Katkari. Moreover, being an informed insider, as I was  born and brought up in this district, I have a better understanding of the region and the menstrual and reproductive health issues faced by women there. My work primarily involved residential schools, where I actively engaged with over 300 girls. I conducted surveys, interviews, and sessions on menstrual health and hygiene to raise awareness and provide support to them.

The specific area or location where I was assigned to work is one of the most marginalised blocks in the Palghar district. The majority of (tribal) families in this region fall below the poverty line. Moreover, it is a hilly region, which further contributes to the scarcity of employment opportunities. As a result, people migrate to other parts of the state throughout the year in search of better livelihoods. In many cases, both parents migrate, leaving their children in public residential schools. These students are generally admitted to schools from the 1st standard and live away from their parents from a very young age.

Given these circumstances, it is crucial for schools to provide a friendly environment for students with adequate basic facilities. Moreover, a supportive environment should be created for girls to effectively manage their menstrual needs, including emotional support.

During my visits to many schools, I observed that some of them had basic facilities, including separate bathrooms or toilets for girls. However, it is important to note that merely having separate toilets is not sufficient. Factors such as privacy, cleanliness, safety, and the availability of water, soap, and dustbins are equally crucial. I have come across schools where boys do not have proper bathroom/toilet facilities, which is a big concern. I believe that boys should also have access to these facilities.

WHO guidelines

According to the recommendations by the World Health Organization (WHO), there should be one toilet for every 25 girls, one toilet for female staff, one toilet and one urinal for every 50 boys, and one toilet and one urinal for male staff. These guidelines aim to ensure adequate sanitation facilities for everyone within the school environment.

In a region like Palghar, availability of free sanitary pads in schools, having easy access to these products is crucial. Girls should feel comfortable asking their teachers for pads whenever they need them. Several countries, such as Scotland, New Zealand, and South Africa, have taken the step to provide free sanitary napkins to school girls. It is worth noting that providing free sanitary pads is not enough; it is equally important to have safe disposal facilities and promote sustainable menstrual products.

One option is to provide training to girls on making reusable pads. In Palghar, I found that girls were willing to learn how to make pads, and a few schools even had tailoring machines. This could be incorporated as an extracurricular activity, allowing those interested to be a part of the process. By promoting the production and use of reusable pads, we can address both the accessibility and sustainability aspects of menstrual hygiene.

Waste Disposal

Disposal of menstrual waste was a significant challenge in the region where I worked. In schools and communities, waste segregation was not practised, and there was no proper waste collection system by the government or panchayat. Menstrual waste, including used sanitary pads, was often thrown in landfills, into waterbodies, or burned. Such practices can lead to the spread of diseases. Although a few schools had incinerators provided by NGOs, they were not in working condition. Again, merely providing these facilities is not enough; it is important to educate people on how to use them correctly and ensure their maintenance. Addressing the issue of proper menstrual waste management requires a comprehensive approach that involves creating awareness about the importance of safe disposal, advocating for waste segregation practices, and collaborating with relevant stakeholders to establish an effective waste collection and disposal system.

Providing information about menstrual health and hygiene is not only essential for girls but also for boys. During my sessions with girls in schools, I noticed that boys would pass by out of curiosity to learn about what was being taught. At times, they even requested to be included in the discussions. Boys often feel excluded from these conversations, but they are genuinely curious and interested to know more.

Educating boys about menstrual health has multiple benefits. It helps foster understanding, empathy, and support for girls. When boys have knowledge about menstruation, they can play a vital role in creating a supportive environment for girls to manage their menstruation hygienically and with dignity. Therefore, it is important to ensure that both girls and boys receive education and awareness about menstrual health and hygiene, fostering a culture of inclusivity and support.

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