– Breaking taboos surrounding menstruation, a project to distribute sanitary napkins to girls in one district of Bangladesh has had a positive impact on school dropout rates – and should be replicated in other parts of the country, experts say.
“In Bangladesh, girls neither get enough support from their families nor their teachers in school during this difficult time, and their problems intensify and multiply as they cannot share anything out of shame,” Dr. Safura Khatun, a consultant at Mithapukur Health Complex in Bangladesh’s northern district of Rangpur, told the IPS on the sidelines of a five-day workshop
Inter Press Service (IPS), an international news agency, in collaboration with News Network, a non-profit media support organisation of Bangladesh, organised the workshop titled ‘Empowering Girls and Young Women Through Healthcare and Hygiene Support’ in Mithapukur sub-district on March 12-16, 2017.
Fifty teachers and students from 50 schools, colleges and madrasahs in Mithapukur joined the workshop.
“This is simply indescribable what a traumatic situation girls in Bangladesh society undergo for lack of understanding and care by families and schools. A small support during their monthly period may make a big difference in their everyday life, including education. But sharing of this still prevails as a taboo in our society, affecting the girls’ natural flourishing of their bodies and minds,” said Dr. Safura.
She stressed the importance of incorporating healthcare and hygiene issues in school curricula so that girl students may be aware of the necessary actions at the right time and overcome the shyness in sharing those with parents.
“Girls are definitely reluctant to share their physical issues and problems with their parents …this has to be changed,” she said.
Echoing Dr. Safura, another consultant, Dr. Sabiha Nazneen Poppy of Badarganj Health Complex, also in Mithapukur, said prejudice and family-level restrictions complicate girls’ physical problems, which ultimately hamper their education. “So, we need to give serious attention to the problems girls face during their menstruation.”
If the girls are left on their own at this stage, Dr Sabiha said, they might complicate their physical problems, causing infections and inviting diseases using unhygienic homemade sanitary pads. “Spreading awareness is essential. So is the support.”
Thus was born the organisation ‘Labonya’, which means ‘beautiful’. Launched in 1998, Labonya has been distributing free sanitary napkins among secondary school students in Mithapukur, an initiative that has proven very effective, thanks to Mithapukur parliament member HN Ashequr Rahman.
“I’ve been noticing since the early 1990s that many girls in Mithapukur skip their classes for nearly a week every month during their menstruation,” Rahman said. “This hampers their academic activities and leads to dropout in many cases.”
“There’s no reason to be sad when you reach puberty with some physical changes. Don’t be sad …it’s time to celebrate.” –Dr Dilara Begum
“In 1998, I collected data about girl students of the schools in my constituency and found an alarming picture that 90 percent female students have virtually no idea about menstrual hygiene and this is the underlying reason why so many girls drop out,” he told IPS.
The lawmaker said they were not only dropping out but also suffering from various diseases stemming from using dirty clothes and other unhealthy means to manage their menstruation.
Rahman said they started providing sanitary napkins among 25,000 students – from 7th to 12th grade – in all schools of Mithapukur. “Though we couldn’t provide the sanitary napkins every month for lack of funds, the project continued intermittently until 2001. It was suspended after the change of government following the national election in that year,” he explained.
When the current government took office in 2009, he said, he put the project back in place again, changing the scenario in Mithapukur, a sub-district which has about 500 educational institutions.
According to Rahman, the dropout rate of female students has been substantially reduced in the area with the growing awareness among students about the menstrual hygiene. “They now don’t skip classes during their menstruation. They’re also doing well in examinations.”
He said they will continue the project for another three years to make female students aware of how to manage menstrual hygiene with dignity.
Currently, ‘Labonno’ is providing around 28,500 students with a packet containing five sanitary napkins every month.
Rehana Ashequr Rahman, the head of ‘Labonya’ project, said, “If women remain sick, they cannot properly carry on their studies and they don’t have confidence to stand on their own feet. To help overcome lack of knowledge and awareness and change poor sanitary conditions prompted us to launch the project.
“Today’s girls are tomorrow’s mothers. If we can’t ensure their good health, the future generation will be at stake,” said Rehana, also the Vice-Chair of the Red Crescent Society. “This hands on and practical project should be scaled up all over Bangladesh.”
Mahmuda Nasrin, 40, a teacher of Balua High School in Mithapukur, impressed by the project, said, “It’s a very good project as it makes girls aware about their health and hygiene and explain how to share things overcoming all the prejudices.”
Mishrat Jahan Mim, 16, a tenth grader of Shalaipur High School, Nur-e-Jannat, 18, a twelfth grader of Balar Haat Adarsha Degree College and Irene Akhter, an eighth grader of Shalaipur High School said the project has changed their mindset about some taboos surrounding girl’s health and hygiene.
Speaking at one session of the workshop on March 15, Dr Dilara Begum, the librarian of East West University in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, told the girls: “There’s no reason to be sad when you reach puberty with some physical changes. Don’t be sad …it’s time to celebrate.”
She urged the teachers to work together to break prejudices that a wife cannot sleep with her husband during her menstruation and touch anyone while praying. “We need to make people aware and share the realities of life and its cycle to build a beautiful society taking women along,” she told the audience.
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