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October 18, 2014
livemint.com
Deval Sanghavi


Give the girls a chance

It is critical that menstrual hygiene is understood not just as a “women’s issue” but as a community issue that affects all of us

dna-meet-the-givers“I was 14, I didn’t know what it was. My mother died of cancer, so I was 100% sure that I was bleeding because I too had cancer.” This is what Neelam, a school student from Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, explained during a conversation in 2012 with Rose George, a journalist with The New York Times.

At the fifth annual First Givers Club Summit for philanthropists and professionals hosted in September by not-for-profit GiveIndia in Mumbai, 83% of the participants stated that the main causes they “give” to are education and livelihood-generation.

Givers spoke passionately about the education they received and how this was the most critical factor in wealth creation. Naturally, they felt that investing in similar interventions for the less fortunate would enable individuals to move out of poverty.

While no one can deny that quality education is critical for economic empowerment, most givers at this summit did not seem to realize that growing up in middle-class India had already given them access to basic necessities such as toilets, clean drinking water, and sound menstrual hygiene practices. With basic needs in place, these individuals were able to take full advantage of the education system and climb up the economic ladder.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for most Indians. According to Spot On! Improving Menstrual Health And Hygiene In India, a report released in September by Dasra (a Mumbai-based foundation that works with philanthropists and social entrepreneurs), around 200 million women and girls (like Neelam) have a poor understanding of menstrual hygiene and associated healthcare practices. Around 63 million adolescent girls do not have access to toilets in their home and miss 20% of the school year due to menstruation. Twenty-five per cent of schools have no toilets, resulting in 23% of girls dropping out of school every year. Thirty-one per cent of women in India miss an average of 2.2 days of work per month when they menstruate.

dna-meet-the-giversWhile investing in education is important, most funders need to realize that funding initiatives related to menstrual hygiene has a direct effect on educational and livelihood outcomes for women.

Dasra mapped over 200 NGOs and social businesses focusing on menstrual hygiene to prepare the report and our learnings from social organizations, experts and funders helped us realize that four areas need to be prioritized:

Educate mothers—38% of girls turn to their mother for advice.

Focus on schools—training teachers to discuss menstruation and providing functional toilets is critical to reduce menstruation-related absenteeism.

Offer alternatives to sanitary napkins—biodegradable sanitary material such as cotton cloth will ensure greater and long-term access.

Promote health-seeking behaviour—over 90% of menstrual health-related problems are preventable if identified and treated at an early stage.

Organizations such as Goonj, Aakar Innovations, Eco Femme, and Healing Fields Foundation are working hard to change the scenario for the over 312 million menstruating women who don’t have access to sanitary pads. Goonj, a leader in disaster relief, has produced and delivered 2.5 million sanitary napkins since 2004 by converting 500,000 metres of discarded cloth into this vital product. That being said, while Goonj has had great success in receiving donations for disaster-hit areas, including Jammu & Kashmir and Uttarakhand, they still face significant challenges in raising funds for their ongoing work on menstrual hygiene. This led them to launch the Not Just A Piece of Cloth—A Million Voices campaign to bring together voices from around the globe on menstruation. Eco Femme was started in 2010 to provide sanitary napkins that will not pollute the environment. Based in Auroville, Puducherry, Eco Femme makes washable pads, which are sold in 14 countries. The pricing of the pads is such that it has an in-built donation component that enables Eco Femme to provide an adolescent Indian girl from a low-income family with a washable cloth pad and training on how to use it. Aakar Innovations works with existing self-help groups to manufacture sanitary napkins and to provide these groups with innovative machines, raw materials, and maintenance services. Healing Fields Foundation runs community health facilitator (CHF) programmes that train and pay women to provide health information to other women in their communities.

It is critical that menstrual hygiene is understood not just as a “women’s issue” but as a community issue that affects all of us. Unless girls have access to sanitation at home and at school—along with safe and affordable absorbents—and the culture of silence around menstrual health issues is transformed, India will remain paralysed by the absence of this most basic of human rights. As we work together towards a cleaner India, let us also ensure that our mothers and daughters are given the dignity they deserve.

Deval Sanghavi is a founding partner at Dasra (www.dasra.org).