Breaking the stereotype

Avantika Chaturvedi, CNS Correspondent, India
Menstruation is a normal biological process and a key sign of reproductive health, yet in many cultures it is treated as something negative, shameful or dirty. There are many myths and misconceptions that surround the process of menstruation and hide the sexual and reproductive health aspects of it, jeopardising the sexual health of young girls and women and increasing their vulnerability to sexual transmitted infections.

A study from UNICEF revealed that 1 out of 3 girls in South Asia knew nothing about menstruation prior to getting it, while 48% of girls in Iran and 10% of girls in India believe that menstruation is a disease. In addition to persisting taboos, the females’ capacity to manage their periods is affected by a number of other factors like education, family culture, socio-economic status and limited access to affordable and hygienic sanitary pads and other clean disposal options. Bringing a behavioural change may be a long process but once it starts there is no turning back. One such change story has been initiated by Dr Upma Chaturvedi, the Principal of Awadh Girls’ Degree College, Lucknow by installing a sanitary pad vending machine in the college premises.

In an interview with CNS, Chaturvedi said that the rationale behind installation of the vending machine was to overcome the hesitation of girls towards asking for sanitary pads, which, for them, was often an uncomfortable process. Other teachers at the college aired similar opinions. Dr Suman Varshney said that this step was long overdue and it has saved the students from lot of embarrassment of where to go, and whom to ask for a pad, in case of an emergency during college hours. Dr Seema Singh Katiyar felt that the installation of the vending machine has empowered the girls, by giving them control about having the pads made available to them when needed. The student President of Student Council of the college said that it was a necessity because earlier asking for sanitary napkins was a long process and had no privacy, but installation has made the timely availability of sanitary pads a private and easy process.

The machine is seen by the students and the staff as a welcome and progressive addition to the facilities provided by the college. A student (or a teacher for that matter) has to simply insert a coin of INR10 and can vend 2 sanitary napkins at a time. On enquiring about the maintenance and cost, Dr. Chaturvedi informed that  the sanitary napkins are cheaper than similar good quality ones available in the market and as per the maintenance is concerned the stocks are refilled by the college nurse. Talking about the change in the students’ attitude since the installation of vending machine, the Principal that the girls have since become more confident, as they longer have to ask for the napkins in a hushed manner. The students said that they felt more comfortable now as their privacy is maintained. Dr. Katiyar said that earlier many girls shied away from asking for sanitary pads but now the girls are very comfortable as they are free to get the pads when in need without involving others.

Dr Varshney feels that family plays an important role in creating awareness and providing correct information about menstruation to the children. She stressed that the boys too should be well informed about this biological process which every woman, including their mothers and sisters, go through every month. A student leader said that awareness campaigns, by giving proper information to girls as well as boys and mothers, can go a long way in removing stigma and taboos related to menstruation. The ‘sanitary pads’ vending machine has proved to be huge success by making the girls more confident, empowered and in control of their body. In fact the students were very vocal about the need to instal more such machines in public places. Breaking the stereotype and myths regarding menstruation is an important issue, as it is one of the many barriers hindering sexual and reproductive health and rights of young girls. The shroud of shame that envelopes menstruation must be lifted up.

Avantika Chaturvedi, Citizen News Service - CNS
March 8, 2016