Breaking the taboo
March 8, 2018
Adolescent girls in rural Nepal miss schools for at least five days every month — 60 days in a year during their menstrual cycle due to the lack of access to sanitary napkins and unhygienic conditions at schools. Many of them fall behind in their classes leading to an increase in the dropout rate of girls.
In most places in Nepal, girls are treated as untouchables during their menstruation cycle. The period stigma runs deep resulting in girls not being able to enter the kitchen, go to temples or attend religious festivals.
Imagine a young girl, having to eat all by herself separate from her family and sleeping on a cold floor until her period is over. For many girls in Nepal, this is the reality. But three Teach For Nepal Fellows are altering the reality in three districts of Nepal – Lalitpur, Sindhupalchowk and Dhanusa.
Girl students at Bidhyadishwari Secondary School, which is just 40 miles away from Kathmandu where Teach For Nepal Fellow Puja Tripathi teaches English, were missing twenty percent of their school days and some even dropping out of school altogether.
“Menstrual health and hygiene was a neglected area in the school and the community,” said Puja. “As a nurse and their teacher, I needed to address the issue and educate my students about their bodies, health, self-care techniques, and choices concerning treatment options.”
Puja reactivated the Girls Club in the school which was in an inactive state to create a platform for the girls to open up about their reproductive health issues. In the beginning, she faced difficulties educating the students. As soon as she started the lesson, the girls would start laughing or whispering among themselves.
She used documentaries related to menstrual hygiene to promote visibility and action on this often taboo topic. With the support of Integrated Community Development Organization (ICDO), Puja has been able to provide access to sanitary pads free of cost.
“Puja’s strive has helped us curb absenteeism among girls students in our school,” say Thala Prasad Timalsina, the Principal. “Our girl students' have access to sanitary products, accurate information regarding their own menstrual health, and no longer feel shame or stigma to come to class when menstruating.”
In Dhanusa, Teach For Nepal Fellow Amita Sharma who teaches at Shree Secondary School, Mithileshwor, Dhanusa has started a project called 'Pad Bank' with her friends from Pro Law and Sano Paila to provide sanitary pads to the students and encourages open discussions in the school and community to break down stigmas surrounding menstrual hygiene.
“Sanitary pads that women use during menstruation directly concern their health and life. I have seen that many women in the Dhanusa do not have access to sanitary pads and have to use cotton rags while menstruating,” explains Amita. “In the rural part of Dhanusa it is even worse, women don't even have access to old rags, they use unhygienic substances such as sand, sawdust, leaves and some even use ashes.”
The workshop on menstruation and distribution of sanitary pad have created a revolution of sorts in students and community. The project had been able to break the stigma around periods among students both boys and girls reducing class absenteeism. It has also encouraged girls and women to feel confident about their bodies.
“Previously, during my menstruation cycle I feared to go anywhere,” says Ragini, an eighth-grade student. “Now after attending the workshop, I have developed a deeper level of understanding of menstruation and hygienic, and feel empowered to educate men and women in my community.”
Just like Amita and Puja, Kalpana Bhattarai who is in her second year of Fellowship at Chilauna Secondary School, Sindhupalchowk is not only empowering her students through a holistic and inclusive approach but also incorporating sanitary pads in her financial literacy project called ‘Chhori Project’. She is teaching her students how to make sanitary pads with the machine that was donated by Child Reach and selling them in local market within Nepal using their own brand name. The income generated from the project is being used for the students’ higher education after their Secondary Education Examination (SEE). In the project, she has also included boys who work alongside girls to make sanitary pads and educate the community about women’s health.
“To achieve gender parity, we also need to include males in the conversation. Along with the girls, we teach male students about the science behind menstrual cycle and advice them to be open-minded about changing traditions that serve no other purpose than gender discrimination,” explains Kalpana.
Every year we donate money and time to build schools, provide school supplies and scholarships, but more needs to happen to break down the hidden barriers. Some young girls are still bounded by menstrual taboos that have a serious effect on their life. In order to move forward to achieve gender equality, young girls should be able to attend school during their periods.
Achieving gender parity is always going be a struggle when women have limited access to education, employment and leadership opportunities. So let's make International Women’s Day your day by taking a collective action so that Fellows like Amita Sharma, Kalpana Bhattarai and Puja Tripathi can make a difference in the communities where the actual discrimination takes place and make a positive difference for women. Let's Press for Progress!
Amita Sharma completed her Bachelor's of Law from Nepal Law Campus and is currently teaching English in Dhanusa. Puja Tripathi completed her Bachelor's of Nursing from Asian College for Advance Studies and is currently teaching English in Lalitpur and Kalpana Bhattarai completed her Bachelor's of Science (Biological Science) from Asian University for Women, Bangladesh and is currently teaching science in Sindhupalchowk. Like Amita, Kalpana and Puja, 40 other Female Teach For Nepal Fellows are creating impacts through various project to reduce gender inequality in Nepal.