Let’s end the taboo

Menstruation is a topic that has been neglected for years by policy-makers, government organisations and NGOs. It has innumerable myths and misconceptions surrounding it and discussions on it is still a taboo. The Shift Foundation is making an effort to solve this problem through educative sessions with the community trying to bring a change in the mindset of the people.

Eleven-year-old Babita goes to school, loves playing with her friends, learning English and is one of the most popular girls of Sarvodaya Vidyalaya, Soami Nagar, which is in the heart of Delhi. A few days back, when she menstruated for the first time, she thought she had a fatal disease. She locked herself in a room and cried for hours till her mother came to her rescue. But why did she have to go through the trauma? It’s because no one had ever spoken to her about menstruation till that day.

The estimated number of adolescent menstruating girls in India is 125 million and the total number of menstruating women in the country is estimated to be 355 million. But 71 per cent of the girls in India have no idea about menstruation before its onset, which affects their quality of life and access to education. And only 12 per cent of the total menstruating women in India have access to hygienic sanitary products.

Menstruation is a topic that has been neglected for years by policy-makers, government organizations and NGOs. Only recently has there been a push for Menstrual Hygiene Management to be a part of the women’s health ecosystem. On an individual and family level, it is still a taboo topic with innumerable myths and misconceptions surrounding it. Keeping this in view, the Shift foundation has  developed tools for solving this problem in a fun and interactive way. With the aim of encouraging young girls to have open conversations, sharing and learning from their experiences, the “Dosti Forever” programme has been initiated by the foundation.

Kanika Sood, Programme Lead of Shift foundation, says: “The whole idea behind the initiative is to ensure that girls talk about menstruation and have reference material at home.” The initiative includes a training workshop and a ‘keep at home reference booklet’. The content of the booklet covers all the important topics like: what is menstruation, the emotional and physical changes that happen in the body, how to deal with period pain and how to hygienically dispose the used products. The booklet also busts commonly followed myths and misconceptions, what to expect during menstruation as well as when to seek medical attention.

The initiative encourages girls to share the booklet with their best friends, learn and understand about menstruation together and track their physical changes, leading to a conversation and sharing experiences amongst themselves. “We observed that most of the information that the girls have is either from their friends or from an elder sibling. With the booklet being handy, the girls can easily carry it around in their bags or purses and refer to it whenever in doubt. The initiative also encourages the girls to pass the information to others around them (young or old). The booklet follows a ‘pass-it- on’ philosophy, ensuring a larger reach,” says Kanika.

“There are some reference materials in the market but we realized that either these materials are too expensive, are in English, or are extremely text heavy for a child to follow. Also, during our research we observed that no one talks about the emotional changes that girls go through during puberty,” informs Maitreyee Narendra, Creative Lead at the Shift foundation.

Realizing that understanding emotional changes is as important as the knowledge of the physical changes, the programme explains premenstrual syndrome (PMS), food cravings, physical attraction and mood swings so that girls can be in control of their own bodies. “It is disturbing to see the amount of stress that girls go through during their periods—the stress of what to wear, should I skip school, avoid physical exercise, etc. Girls are taught to live in isolation during menstruation. This has to change,” says Kanika. “There are a high percentage of girls missing school during their periods which can be avoided if the girls are prepared for it.”

Disposal is another big challenge that the team faces when they hold sessions, both in schools and the communities. Most of the waste is not disposed of properly which can lead to unhygienic environments. Since the government has made sanitary napkins available in schools and incinerators are still not installed, disposal comes across as a big problem even in urban India. “We have had schools in Delhi asking us to emphasize on disposal and teach girls to wrap and throw the pad in the dustbins and not down the toilet or in the fields.” says Maitreyee.

“We like to have fun during the sessions to keep the attention of the young girls. Ice-breaking activities are conducted that are essential to get the girls to open up and participate in the conversation. This enables them to be less shy in asking awkward questions around the topic.” adds Kanika.

Awareness about puberty and menstruation is not just for the girls. The initiative also includes sessions with boys (ages 12-16) where they are sensitized about the topic, encouraged to support women and girls around them, and where their puberty related questions are addressed. “It is important for the boys to be included in this conversation, else the taboo   is  never   broken,” opines Maitreyee.

“You can’t break a taboo overnight. It takes constant effort, a lot of dedication and the will to bring a change. It is part education, part behaviour change and mostly a change in mindset,” she adds.

With successful training sessions with more than 1,000 girls in and around Delhi- NCR, the Shift Foundation is confident of the programme and its success and is looking for partners to collaborate and widen the reach.

The   foundation   has   also   worked on behaviour change campaigns and initiatives in the field of open defecation as well as sanitation and hygiene. Working with clients like the Gates foundation, WASH United and the Ministry of Urban Development, the team has gained immense experience in the field of social impact.

It was during these projects, some of which were implemented at the Kumbh Mela, the team gained insights into the topic of Menstrual Hygiene Management and the urgent need to address the issues around it.