In Focus 24th August, 2017

Should I Go To School During Those Days?.

Sheela is a 14 year old teenager from a rural area. It is time for her next menstrual cycle. She has been pondering over several perturbing concerns. She is going to miss some important lessons if she stays at home till her menstrual cycle is over. She weighs the pros and cons. If she goes to school and needs to change, what will she say to the male teachers at her school? Her school lacks functional separate toilets for girls. What if she has to take permission to return home? What if she is not allowed? What if she stains her dress? She feels that it would be too embarrassing for her and decides to stay at home.

This is not a hypothetical case. The field experiences of Breakthrough’s implementation team in Uttar Pradesh (UP), a team I am a part of has witnessed this, a lived reality of many adolescent girls living in the rural regions of UP. Many girl students miss classes because they want to avoid embarrassment during those days. Absence of proper toilet facilities and taboo around the topic makes them more vulnerable if they attend school.

I still vividly recall the times during early puberty when I felt ashamed whenever my dress got stained during menstruation. This was decades ago. But most girls even in present times have at some point gone through this embarrassing experience. Even today, many fathers would turn crimson if their teenage daughter would ask them to bring a packet of sanitary napkins. I have witnessed many over the counter awkward, quick handing over of sanitary napkins wrapped in black polythene packets.

Recently, I read an article on the internet about how a government school teacher got furious with some members of non-governmental organization when they came to deliver a training on menstrual hygiene. ‘At least lower your voice,’ she said firmly, ‘otherwise the male teachers will overhear you’.  

Keeping all of this in mind, the plight of rural adolescent girls can be well understood. With no clean, usable and lockable toilets in schools and absence of women teachers, the girls have no other choice, but to be absent from schools and gradually drop out.

In rural schools there are umpteen reasons for absenteeism- festivals, marriages, family functions, ill-health, migration, sowing season, harvest season, extreme heat, extreme cold, excessive rains etc. To add to these is the problem of those few days every month when girls shy away from schools because of the lack of basic amenities.

My question is, how can quality education be ensured when girls miss schools every month for five days because of this single reason?

Studies point out that improved sanitation facilities reduces the dropout rate of girls in school. Developing the confidence of girls, reducing the stigma associated with menstruation can help keep girls in schools. If basic facilities like functioning, usable toilets are not provided, schooling processes will continue to be discriminatory and quality education for girls will be an elusive goal.

To raise awareness on this topic a hyper local campaign under our Adolescent Empowerment Programme has already started in Ghazipur and Jaunpur. The purpose of the campaign in these districts will be to identify closed non-functional toilets in schools in these area and equip self help groups to lead a campaign to address the issue. The focus will be to find local solutions to this problem as well as to raise this demand to the government officials so that they take action to ensure that these basic amenities are made available in schools. Digital and mass media campaigns will be part of this effort to amplify the voice of these girls so that usable toilets are ensured in all schools of not only these districts but throughout Uttar Pradesh and India.

You can also be a part of this change. Together we can make sure that girls stay in school and both boys and girls get to access clean toilets if you sign and share this petition.

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