Preeti Ben Pandya still recalls the fear and confusion she felt on getting her first period, nearly three decades ago. “I cried and cried until my mother came home from work and calmed me down,” she says.
Today, Ms Pandya is the principal of the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidhyalaya (KGBV), Pavthi—a rural government-run school for girls—in Gujarat’s Bhavnagar district. She takes pride in the fact that menstruation is not a taboo subject at her school, and that her adolescent pupils experience none of the shame and anxiety she felt at their age. “They are vocal about any issues concerning their personal hygiene and health. They also know that they can reach out to me at any time,” she says.
This remarkable shift in the students’ awareness and confidence has been made possible by a menstrual hygiene management (MHM) programme implemented in Gujarat by the Coastal Salinity Prevention Cell (CSPC), an organisation aided by the Tata Trusts. Similar MHM initiatives are being implemented by the Trusts under the integrated WaSH (water, sanitation and hygiene) programme in Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra.
Since its launch in 2018, CSPC’s MHM programme has covered 130 villages across Bhavnagar, reaching 18,000 women and girls. CSPC’s work doesn’t just cover the menstruators alone; it also ropes in male families, healthcare workers, teachers and community leaders. The objective is to create an open and conducive atmosphere, free from erroneous myths and beliefs, to discuss this perfectly normal biological function.
Encouraging health-seeking behaviours is another vital project goal. Sadly, the stigma that surrounds menstruation prevents many girls and women from seeking help for issues like urinary tract infections (UTIs), which arise from poor MHM practices. Therefore, CSPC focuses on emboldening them to seek the right medical interventions to manage their health properly.
“Our mission is to create supportive environments where menstruators can advocate for their needs and reclaim agency over their bodies,” says Ketan Hingu, Senior Programme Manager, CSPC.
The local KGBV school in Pavthi has been a key stage for CSPC’s work in the village. The students at the residential school come from very poor backgrounds and largely lack MHM awareness. CSPC’s team bridges this knowledge gap through extensive modules that teach students the biology of menstruation with the help of visual aids. The students are encouraged to ask questions and the facilitators also clear up any misconceptions and taboos associated with menstruation.
In addition, CSPC’s team distributes reusable cotton pads and sanitary napkins to students and provides them a ‘period calendar’ to track their menstrual cycles. An incinerator has also been installed at the school’s hostel so that students can safely dispose of their used pads.
Ms Pandya says that CSPC’s efforts have made students comfortable with discussing MHM and adopting safer practices in their lives. One of those students, incidentally, is Ms Pandya’s own daughter, who has also attended CSPC’s modules. “When my daughter got her first period, she came up to me and said, ‘I have begun to menstruate’,” says Ms Pandya. It was a proud moment for her as a mother, marked by a wistful observation. “I wish that I, too, had the opportunity to attend modules like these when I was an adolescent,” says Ms Pandya with a smile.