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  • Writer's pictureAzera Rahman

Changing the future with lessons from the past

Bharti advocates for stronger menstrual health

By Azera Praveen Rahman

For UNICEF India

(Photo by: Alexander Sergianko, Unsplash)

Bihar, India- Eleven-year-old Nidhi Kumari has not yet attained menarche. But ask her about the why’s and how’s of menstruation and she will be able to respond without batting an eyelid. “Didi (elder sister) told me all about it,” Nidhi said, sitting in her home in Bihar’s Kusumari village in Sitamarhi district. “I am prepared for it, whenever it happens!” she added and then laughed as her elder sister, Bharti Kumari smiled at her, confident that her younger sister would not face the same dilemma that she had to go through when her time had come.

Bharti is a community mobiliser in Jeevika, a self-help group (SHG) network under the Bihar Rural Livelihood Project, who advocates menstrual hygiene management (MHM) among women. She talks about the importance of good menstrual hygiene practices and its correlation to good health; she also busts myths around menstruation that she herself was conditioned to believing in, until recently.

Looking into the past to plan a better future:

“I wish I knew the things I know now about menstruation when I first got my period,” Bharti shared as we sat at her two-room house in the Kusumari village of the Riga block. Now 20, Bharti was 13 when she attained menarche. She was in school at that time and suddenly her friend pointed at a red spot on her skirt. “I had no idea what mensuration was. I was embarrassed, confused, scared. Later our teacher asked me to go home,” she said.

Once home, the young girl checked herself for wounds, thinking she may have injured herself and was hence bleeding. Finally she approached her mother. “My mother gave me a piece of cloth to put on and told me not to tell anyone about it,” Bharti recounted. Later she was told that the bleeding would happen every month and that it happens to all women. “I was also strictly told not to touch any pickle during that time of the month,” she added, “The pickle will go bad if I do.”

A UNICEF report had found that 71 per cent adolescent girls remain unaware of menstruation until they attain menarche Bharti was one of them. The silence around the subject, accompanied with myths and taboos, leave young girls unsure about navigating their daily lives during the menstrual cycle. It leaves them vulnerable to menstrual health challenges, leads to absenteeism, even dropping out of school.

Beginning of change:

Despite all these challenges, Bharti, who is now pursuing her graduation in college, went on and did not give up on her studies. Her association with the SHG network helped her build self- confidence, but it was the three-day training programme on MHM that enabled Bharti to take charge and change the course of future for her family and others. Supported by Johnson and Johnson and UNICEF, the training programme was conducted by Nav- Astitwa Foundation, a local NGO, in September 2021 for community mobilisers. Through this Bharti understood the nuances of menstrual hygiene management—like how it’s important to use clean absorbent material during periods and how good nutrition is important during this time. She also found out that many things told to her in relation to menstruation—not to wash one’s hair during this time, not to touch pickles—were just myths.

Impressed, Bharti made a video of the trainer delivering a lecture on her mobile phone. When she came back home, her sister, Nidhi, took her phone and began watching the video. “Nidhi had a lot of questions after that and I answered everything. I had known by then that it was important for girls to be aware about their own bodies to be able to have control over their health and their lives,” Bharti said.

Like a ripple effect, Bharti’s decision to no longer keep quiet about menstrual health, spread a wave of awareness among other young girls. Nidhi, now more aware, told her friends about it—none of them had attained menarche, nor had any idea about it. As for herself, Bharti uses sanitary napkin during her menstrual cycle and does not hesitate to go to the market and buy a packet on her own.

“She (Bharti) has definitely become more talkative and confident after getting the training,” Nidhi teased her elder sister.

In Bihar’s Riga block alone the three-day training programme on MHM reached 167 community mobilisers and through them, more than 25,000 women.

Bharti’s advocacy has also helped her mother adopt good hygiene practices during her menstrual cycle. “She no longer stops me from touching the pickle bottles during my periods! the young girl smiled.

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