Going beyond the hygiene taboos: It’s really simple!

March 4, 2013

Reading Time: 3 minutes

“On average a woman is menstruating about 3,000 days of her life. “This opening sentence of the presentation by Maria Fernandez (WaterAid India) during the bi-annual practitioners learning and sharing workshop in Dhaka (2006) was a harsh confrontation with a hidden taboo for the 50 practitioners that were present.  Ever since this rude wake up call, the BRAC WASH programme has fought the taboos around menstrual hygiene management as part of its WASH in schools activities, during meetings with adolescents girls in the communities, and through the production of low-cost sanitary napkins.

“On average a woman is menstruating about 3,000 days of her life. “This opening sentence of the presentation by Maria Fernandez (WaterAid India) during the bi-annual practitioners learning and sharing workshop in Dhaka (2006) was a harsh confrontation with a hidden taboo for the 50 practitioners that were present.  Ever since this rude wake up call, the BRAC WASH programme has fought the taboos around menstrual hygiene management as part of its WASH in schools activities, during meetings with adolescents girls in the communities, and through the production of low-cost sanitary napkins.

Schools in the 248 Upazilas of the BRAC WASH programme in these areas have poor sanitation facilities or even, in many cases, no facilities at all. BRAC WASH is now reaching out to more than 4.000 secondary schools. Through joint funding by the school and the BRAC WASH programme  separate latrines for girls are built at these schools. All these toilets have running water inside the latrine and there is a disposal facility for the sanitary napkins.

Adolescent cluster meeting

Adolescent cluster meeting

In addition, the programme conducts students and teachers training and ensures a supply affordable sanitary napkins to schools by the shasthaya sebikas (Health Volunteers).  These health volunteers work as community volunteers for the different BRAC programmes; the BRAC WASH programme is one of them.  In return for their work and support they are allowed to keep a margin on the various health products that they are selling in the community.

This has brought in many amazing changes both within BRAC staff, in more than 4.000 schools and in the lives of millions of girls and their families. Many teachers and students confirm that absentee rates for girls dropped Moreover, there is an increased awareness and openness on the issue. Even men both in schools and in BRAC WASH programme are now concerned and talking about the hygiene and menstrual hygiene issues openly. This has been made possible by the continuous efforts of the programme.

However, the BRAC WASH programme also conducts cluster meetings in the communities with adolescent girls to teach them about menstrual hygiene management.  Joep Verhagen (senior sanitation specialist at IRC) recounts: “I am always amazed about the openness this sensitive topic is being discussed amongst these girls. Even in my presence.”

Ms. Sharmin Farhat Ubaid, Programme Manager, BRAC WASH, explains the trigger points and shares how it has become normal to talk about menstrual hygiene openly in the meetings.

“From the beginning (2007), the BRAC programme paid attention to key issues such as gender strategies, inclusiveness, equity, women health issues. In 2008, we started constructing separate latrines for boys and girls in secondary schools. Once the toilets are built, one day long extensive trainings were introduced on hygiene. In those orientations both male and female teachers participated in a joint orientation session that also dealt with menstrual hygiene. This made it more normal to talk menstrual hygiene issues become normal to talk about in the meetings (see photo). Personally, I never found it very difficult to discuss this kind of issues however including the court yard sessions in the programme took a quite a long time of discussion within the programme.

The initiative was taken further to cluster meetings in courtyards with adolescents in 2010, repeated discussions with all the stakeholders’ involved, such as parents, teachers, students, programme managers, and committee members”

“ In those cluster meetings in the beginning people used to get up and leave when the menstrual hygiene issues were brought up. I remember when we had the meetings for the adolescents only the meeting area was covered with a rag made of jute and surrounded by curious vigilant parents. But they welcomed the initiative when they felt it was important for them too”- Milan Kanti Barua Sr. Advisor, BRAC WASH

The women themselves came forward and wanted to learn more about the menstrual hygiene related issues and were happy to adopt better hygiene practices like using sanitary napkins instead of rags.

The trainings provided to the teachers were initiated by the male trainers as in the very beginning there were not enough capable female trainers. However, later this helped the men to open up about these issues of menstrual hygiene too and at helped to break the taboo around the issues.

Menstrual hygiene is no longer a taboo. The issue is freely discussed, among BRAC staff at meetings as well as adolescent girls in cluster meetings in villages, none of which would happen even back in 2007. BRAC’s work has contributed a lot to changing the mindset of people regarding this issue. The girls and women used to be at home during the menstruating days and had trouble drying the cloths used during these days. Many thought it to be a sickness. This was treated as a topic not to be discussed, not even from mother to daughter or among friends.

A 9th Grader, Humayra Khatun Ima from BM High School said “ Some of us never even thought of coming to school during menstruating days before the hygiene education was introduced in our school”.

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[…] a result, girls’ attendance has seen significant improvement. Improvements are also apparent in many other schools where WASH services have been made […]