Investing in period positive schoolsSchools need to build changing facilities with hand washing stations and disposal bins.
In many Nepali communities, menstruation in and as a social context is considered “impure”, and women are mostly not allowed to stay with the family when they are menstruating. Among some rural communities, chhaupadi is a common practice, where women are banished to live in isolated sheds when they are menstruating. With roots deeply entrenched in a culture that encourages regressive and inhumane practices, it can be difficult to recognise menstrual shame. Addressing it is an impossible challenge, especially for a student with limited knowledge about the taboo, and in most cases, is barely taught anything significant about it in the classroom.
The consequences of the stigma can be difficult to understand as a young person. Traditions associate menstruation with shame, embarrassment and evil spirits. In some cultures, women bury their menstrual cloth to prevent them from being used by evil spirits. Undoubtedly, the roots for turning this natural process into a taboo lie in religious and cultural aspects; however, it was and is still being perpetuated through society and classrooms.
The physical pain and discomfort added to the fear of staining are constantly and consciously on the minds of menstruating individuals. The stigmatisation of this concept impacts the lives, health and safety of women and girls while strongly reinforcing gender inequality. A UNICEF report in 2016 indicated that girls experienced shame, fear, confusion, teasing and lack of accurate information and advice, resulting in 15 to 22 percent of them missing school during menstruation. Further, menstruation can also be a consequential factor in girls dropping out of school. In India, one in five girls drop out of school after they get their period. There are myriad reasons—it could be parents’ fear of their daughters accidentally getting pregnant or to indicate that a girl is ready for marriage as it is a sign that they have turned into a woman. A good contributor to the absence of girls at school is the lack of proper toilets and menstrual hygiene products. Schools must take steps to provide menstrual health and hygiene management and access to sanitary products, and provide changing facilities to enable girls to manage their period without embarrassment to mitigate this absence to some level.
Schools are also responsible for providing their students with proper knowledge about the importance of menstrual health and hygiene management, making knowledge about menstruation inclusive to all genders. They need to start supporting teachers, even male teachers and staff and equip them with the necessary menstrual health, hygiene and reproduction knowledge and training. Further, they need to ensure that all adolescent children, even boys, get used to this topic and that students are comfortable talking about it rather than being embarrassed and laughed at. Menstruating individuals need to feel safe when they are menstruating, and should be easily able to share their discomfort with their teachers and friends rather than whispering about it and reinforcing archaic mentality.
There is a need to understand, especially among policymakers, that sanitary products are essential items, not luxury items. Imposing 15 percent customs duty, 13 percent VAT, and an additional 1.5 percent VAT on customs duty on imported menstrual products limit access to an already expensive necessity. Regardless of when a shift in the mentality and policy happens (hopefully, soon), schools have to be actively involved in providing sanitary pads to pupils of menstrual age as primary drivers of this change. When the New York City Department of Education announced that 25 public schools would be outfitted with dispensers filled with free feminine hygiene products for students, the schools reported a 2.4 percent increase in attendance after the dispensers were installed. We hear about menstrual product drives working to provide vending machines in different community schools, but it possibly only is a band-aid over the wound. Just as schools invest in building a new computer lab, they have to allocate a budget every year for sanitary vending machines and need to refill menstrual pads and tampons like they are refilling markers and chalk in the classrooms. And this needs to be replicated in society where vending machines need to be easily accessible to everyone and hopefully—for free.
Undoubtedly, schools in our communities face a grave challenge in ensuring adequate facilities for menstruating girls. The World Health Organisation reported that two in five schools worldwide lacked basic hand-washing facilities while seven out of 10 schools lacked basic hand-washing facilities in developed countries. It gets worse when we direct our attention to Nepal. UNICEF’s analysis suggested that almost 78 percent of schools have access to improved water supply facilities while 82 percent to basic sanitation facilities, and only 69 percent of schools have separate toilets for girls while only 25 percent of schools in the country have fully functional water schemes.
These statistics sure are worrying, but when we are talking about young girls’ health, a positive change is required. Schools need to prioritise building changing facilities with privacy to enable menstruating individuals to manage their period without embarrassment. These facilities must have access to hand washing stations with clean water and soap and sanitary disposal bins. A menstruating individual should not be forced to go home or even miss school when they menstruate because they do not have access to clean and safe changing stations.
Moving forward, the schools and policymakers need to prioritise menstrual hygiene and management. We cannot have more absenteeism in schools because of the embarrassment of menstruation or lack of people to support them. These basic yet impactful steps will not only support to increase the attendance rates, but also allow students of all genders to understand the concepts of menstruation which will, in turn, support curbing the stigma in the community. It is about making girls feel safe and stay in school while having their periods and even after. Schools in Nepal and around the world have to adopt a period positive concept. Interventions across various levels are required to improve menstrual health and hygiene among menstruating individuals, and to break the existing menstrual taboos in our community and our minds.