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Life would be impossible without menstruation. Then why is it considered embarrassing? Thousands of schools across Bangladesh are trying to change that.
Misconceptions regarding menstruation can be deadly for women. The subject remains a taboo in many cultures, perpetuating ignorance and vulnerability. In Japan, some people believe that women should not be sushi chefs because periods can throw off their sense of taste. Girls and women in India can be prevented from entering places of worship and even their own kitchen during their periods, because of the notion that they are ‘unclean’.
Some communities in rural Bangladesh think chutney – a widely used savoury condiment – will turn rancid if touched by a woman during her period. Some families consider it shameful if a male member finds out that a woman is menstruating. It is common practice for shops to wrap menstrual products in black bags to conceal the contents, a practice that underlines the culture of silence around menstrual hygiene.
Girls and women in Bangladesh, particularly those who live in rural areas, constantly tackle challenges when they have their periods. Inadequate access to hygiene products and the silence around menstruation often lead to missed opportunities for education and work.
30% of girl students in Bangladesh reported that they missed 2.5 days of school every month because of menstruation – totalling a whole month’s worth of classes missed each year. This is reported as largely due to inadequate hygiene facilities in schools – only 23% of students in Bangladesh have access to adequate washrooms with soap and water, and a place to dispose of used menstrual hygiene materials.
Schools, however, are stepping up. BRAC has been working with schools to become more equipped, so that menstruation does not have to get in the way of participating in school and life. Over 2.41 million adolescent girls from 6,320 secondary schools across Bangladesh have been supported to access separate latrines equipped with menstrual hygiene facilities.
How one school tackled the problem of girls missing classes
Bajra Gopal Dutta, principal of Chowdhary Asia Rahman Academy in Moulvibazar, a rural district in northeast Bangladesh, noticed that many of the school’s girl students were taking emergency leave to go home in the middle of the day.
Digging deeper, he realised that the school had separate sanitation facilities for boys and girls, but the girls’ latrines were not adequately equipped with menstrual hygiene products, which left the students with no choice but to go home if they got their period.
Mr Dutta was looking for solutions. He was approached by a staff member from BRAC’s water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programme, who explained how the WASH in School project helps schools to ensure safe drinking water, inclusive sanitation and menstrual hygiene management facilities, while training their communities to become more period-positive.
The principal and the headteachers worked with the programme to incorporate menstrual hygiene management facilities into their latrines, which now have sanitary napkins, paddle bins, soap, and water. The school has also created a safe water supply and separate hand washing stations.
Tackling the taboo
The WASH in School project supports schools to break the silence around menstruation through participatory activities that portray periods as a normal bodily function.
Every year, schools are supported to organise a napkin drive where each student brings a pack of sanitary napkins which are used by students throughout the year. Regular soap drives guarantee yearlong supply of soap. To manage the hygiene facilities, a 14-member school WASH committee is formed in each school, consisting of teachers, students and parents.
The committee is also in charge of forming a 24-member student brigade, who receive a three-day residential training on sanitation and hygiene each year. The students learn about personal hygiene, menstrual hygiene management, maintaining cleanliness of their school’s premises and sanitation facilities and other important skills.
These activities not only improve menstrual hygiene facilities and young people’s awareness about menstruation, but also foster an inclusive dialogue about menstrual hygiene management, ultimately supporting communities take small steps towards breaking the taboo around menstruation.
When Ritu Das, a ninth-grader, first enrolled in Rajihar Secondary School in Barisal in southwest Bangladesh, she was alarmed to see that there were no separate latrines for girls and boys, and that the latrines did not have any menstrual hygiene management facilities. For Ritu and her friends, this meant having to skip school during their periods.
The school management soon after took the initiative to construct separate latrines for girls and boys. The girls’ latrine was equipped with sanitary napkins and other menstrual hygiene management facilities.
“The new latrine facilities have brought about a positive change for me and my peers. Our attendance is near-perfect and we don’t have to worry if we get our periods while in school,” says Ritu.
Stories like Ritu’s and Mr Dutta’s are reminders of why it is necessary to keep working towards a tomorrow that normalises menstruation. Bangladesh’s National Hygiene Survey in 2018 found that almost half of all adolescents have inadequate knowledge of menstrual hygiene, with serious implications for sustainable development.
Life would be impossible without healthy menstruation. Ending the silence around this vital mechanism must be a priority if we want to ensure good health for all, quality education, gender equality and economic growth, all factors encompassed in the Sustainable Development Goals.
The BRAC Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programme has made a critical contribution to sanitation in Bangladesh, reaching half the country with services. It has helped over 41.62 million people gain access to hygienic latrines, reached 13.9 million people with hygiene education, and 2.3 million people with access to safe drinking water. Targeted water and sanitation financing, entrepreneur development and financing, loans for people living in poverty, grants and water subsidy for the people living in ultra-poverty, along with motivation for self-financing has ensured equal access for all wealth categories. To learn more about BRAC’s approach, visit the WASH Programme’s website. Find more blogs on what BRAC is doing in WASH on The Good Feed.
Fateema Kawsar June is deputy manager, Knowledge Management and Innovation at BRAC.
Sohana Reza Urmi is deputy manager, Grants Management and Fundraising at BRAC.