11 October 2018 marked the annual International Day of the Girl Child, a UN day carrying a reminder to renew our commitment to support every girl and non-binary child to develop their skills, enter the workforce on equal terms and reach their full potential. As well as many other obstacles, one particularly all-pervasive obstacle that limits children in realising their full potential is misogyny.
The Global Picture
One particular factor limiting children’s potential is poor menstrual acceptance and management around the world.
The Indian born Canadian artist and poet Rupi Kaur spoke out after Instagram removed a fully clothed portrait in 2015, because it featured a small amount of menstrual blood. Kaur posted, “I will not apologise for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in underwear but not be OK with a small leak.” Instagram later restored her photograph, claiming the removal was accidental.
Periods are a natural process part of life. But without access to toilets or sanitary products in schools, women’s lives are put on hold every month. Girls have little choice but to stay at home during their menstruation. This has a huge impact on their education. Missing days at school can lead to dropping out altogether. The consequences are of great concern: women are at risk of child marriage and a greater risk of getting pregnant at a young age.
A UNESCO report estimates that one in ten girls in Sub-Saharan Africa misses school during their menstrual cycle. By some estimates, this equals to twenty per cent of their school year.
Nepal and Chhaupadi
Particularly prevalent in the rural areas of western Nepal, is the social tradition of Chhaupadi, which subscribes to the idea that menstruation is a taboo. Although it’s been illegal in Nepal since 2005, deeply-held views mean it continues to impact those menstruating. The tradition prohibits Hindu women and girls from participating in normal family activities while menstruating, as they are considered impure and are forced to live alone in isolated huts.
A participatory photo project was run by WaterAid, in rural Sindhuli, Nepal. Sushma and six of her friends documented the impact of the social taboos on their daily lives and relationships. Manisha writes, “During our period we are not allowed to eat fruits like papaya, mango and banana.” Sabina writes, “During my first period I was kept in my friend’s house. I was told not to see male members of my family.” And from Bishesta, “During my period, I am served separately and have to eat on a rug on the floor. I feel very sad.”
Menstruation and Education
WIB interviewed the team behind the Nepalese NGO MITRA (Measures for Intervention Training Research and Action) Samaj, established in 2006, about their MITINI initiative. The main objective of MITINI is to provide hygienic menstrual solutions to young girls aged 10 to 25 years old enrolled in schools, in both rural and urban areas, to reduce school absenteeism. MITINI works to improve girls’ self-esteem and confidence. Meanwhile, they provide well managed menstrual facilities in workplaces and schools.
One particular cause of concern for the MITINI team is how Chhaupadi can become a threat to educational attainment. The more prevalent social taboos around menstruation are openness and a lack of access to appropriate sanitary products. These factors compel adolescent girls to remain absent from their regular schooling. This is adversely affecting academic results.
The team is adamant that “it’s high time Nepal should work towards breaking the silence of menstruation and let girls continue their education in school. The time has come to promote the role of good menstrual management without any shame for the development of woman and girls. Also for the country’s development.” Although MITINI was started with the primary objective of providing hygienic menstrual solutions to improve beneficiaries’ self-esteem and confidence, it seems they can start shifting the culture at a root level.
To fund the procurement of the sanitary pads which they distribute free of cost to school children, MITINI initiated a sanitary service at both commercial outlets and development organisations in Nepal. The sanitary service includes menstrual pad management in corporate houses and various organisations to keep their bathrooms and toilets clean and hygienic.
As a service charge, MITINI collects minimal fees from the organisations. MITINI makes use of these funds to run counselling classes on menstruation in schools and distribute free pads for students.
Integration for a social shift
Through orientation and counselling classes, the MITINI team provides knowledge on the process of menstruation and menstrual hygiene. The information is integrated with reproductive health education in schools. Also, through different activities and icebreakers, the team motivates the students to fight against the social taboos by breaking the silence on menstruation.
“The more the students are empowered, the better they can think about the things happening at their surroundings. MITINI targets to change the attitude and behaviours of both girl and boy students because we believe also men have to understand the menstruation process for its facts.” MITINI told WIB.
The intention is to eventually extend the reach of MITINI to other important stakeholders such as teachers, family members, community members, civil societies, government bodies etc. in western Nepal, where the discrimination is extensive and more prevalent.
A need for a change in mentality
The MITINI team left us with the reflection that “the attitude towards menstruation needs a change and it should be accepted for what it is -‘a natural process’. The discrimination and all of the restriction starts from the lack of education, hence with proper knowledge and attitudes towards menstruation, slowly but gradually the mentality towards menstruation can be changed.”
Certain cultural practices like Chhaupadi can be hard to shift, and this stems from the ever-present patriarchal leanings of most societies. This mentality does not just need to change in Nepal. The global squeamish attitude around the world towards menstruation is just another symptom of the thinly veiled misogyny that so many still hold dear. Frank dialogue amongst one another and amongst generations is needed to break down these social barriers. To give room for anyone to have their periods in peace without fearing that time of the month.