Here are a couple of things you might not think of when it comes to access to education for poor girls in India: sanitary products and clean, functioning toilets. These aren’t factors that people want dwell on but they are vital for keeping girls in school where they belong.
While living in Hyderabad, a friend invited me to go with her to meet a woman who wanted to develop a business plan to make affordable sanitary napkins for poor women in India. We met at an upscale coffee shop and listened to her enthusiastic presentation. Her plan involved a machine that could make sanitary napkins out of cotton, which is less expensive than paper. She would have the product distributed by rural women to their villages in hygiene packets that included soap, toothpaste, etc to reduce stigma. I could just imagine women carrying the packets on their heads in baskets, their saris blowing in the breeze. Later, I recited the story many times about how comical we must have looked drinking our lattes and gushing about sanitary napkins in the middle of a fancy coffee shop run by men.
Looking back, I was naive about the social and health consequences of menstruation for poor women and girls in India. To start with, menstruation is a taboo subject. Girls are given information that is laced with shame. Messages like they are “untouchable”, cursed, and shouldn’t prepare food when they menstruate because they are unclean. Some girls are not allowed to leave the house when they have their period. No wonder absenteeism goes up when girls menstruate. Cramps alone may be enough to make you miss school; being told not to leave the house doesn’t help. It is estimated that about 23% of teen girls drop out of school when they reach puberty. Lack of affordable sanitary products and pressure from the family are the main reasons. Puberty is also when there is a push from family to get married. There is family pressure to have a daughter married before anything can happen that might jeopardize her reputation.
Because sanitary products are unaffordable, poor women may have to choose between having food for their children and purchasing sanitary napkins for themselves and their daughters. As a result, women and girls resort to unhygienic methods like newspapers, cloth, mud, or cornhusks. This puts the girls and women at high risk for reproductive tract infections that can be fatal.
Now the potty factor. If a girl makes it to school (hopefully with a sanitary product to help manage her period) it is likely that there may not be a bathroom there. If there is a bathroom it will be shared with boys. This is particularly true in the government schools in India. There was a survey of 700,000 government schools and only 1 in 6 had toilets. Imagine what that must be like: a teen girl adjusting to having a period and not having access to private toilet facilities. I think I would stay home too!
When I visited Wings I asked how they help the teen girls manage puberty. I was pleased to hear they provide sanitary napkins for the girls, give them factual information about puberty and tell them how to manage their periods safely. The toilets are plentiful and very clean. This is just another advantage the girls at Wings receive. The benefits will be exponential. When the students at Wings become mothers they will make sure their daughters have the facts and the resources to manage puberty without the myths and the shame.