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Teenage girls make sanitary napkins, change social norms

© UNICEF Bangladesh/2016/Haque
Tomola Shil Brishti, student of class IX, aspires to become a teacher. She is working as a regular member of sanitation and hygiene project at Dacope, Khulna.

By Porimol Palma   

Khulna, 11 October, 2016: It is kind of a rebirth for 17-year old Rijeya Khatun who can now earn and continue her education thanks to an initiative of making sanitary napkins by the teenaged girls.

She overcame the trauma of marriage at the age of 13, and now promotes adolescent health, education, while discouraging child marriage, a gross human rights violation that breeds multiple social problems, and tarnishes dreams of higher education for girls.

“I would say this is a new life for me. I want to study more,” says Rijeya of Noluapara village under Chalna Municipality of Dacope, a southwestern coastal region of Bangladesh.

Trauma of child marriage

Rijeya was married off in early 2013 when she was a student of Class VIII at Chalna Bazar Government High School as her day-labourer father and mother, a patient of hypertension, were passing hard times to survive with two daughters.

“My mother really did not want, but thought she would die and would find some solace if she could marry me off,” recalls Rijeya. 

Before the marriage, her husband’s family had assured her of allowing to continue education, but the reality turned upside down after her marriage to a factory worker in their neighbouring upazila (sub-district) Koyra.

In an age when girls play, go to school and prepare for future, Rijeya was left in her in-law’s family where she had to cook, take care of her husband and in-laws – a job that she was not able to do despite all her efforts.

“I could not mix with them [in-laws]. They used to disgrace me and scold at me,” she says. More shocking was when she suspected her husband who used to work in Khulna had relationship with other girls.

“I had urged my husband that I stay with him in Khulna, but he refused,” says the teenager, adding that she finally decided to divorce and return home in early 2015.

A new journey

Determined to continue education, Rijeya took admission in the school and joined the adolescent club formed with the assistance from a local NGO, Rupantar. Eventually, she became a peer leader who gained capacity to demonstrate against child marriage, child labour and child repression.

© UNICEF Bangladesh/2016/Haque
Adolescent girls are trained to produce low cost sanitary pad under this project. Most of these girls are students of school and college.

It was not smooth, however, as her father, the family’s lone bread earner, struggled for survival. Rijeya was trying hard how she could help the family and also herself.

In early-2016, she got an offer from the development organization CARE Bangladesh for a training on making sanitary napkins – something that came like water in the desert.  She instantly grabbed the opportunity.

CARE is implementing the UNICEF-funded project -- Accelerating Action towards Ending Child Marriage (AECM) – that provided 60 teenage girls – 30 in Dacope of Khulna and 30 in Kishoreganj of Nilphamari with livelihood opportunities.

Those who were needy, susceptible to school dropout and those residing close to the centre were selected for the training. Both the groups in Kishoreganj and Dacope began production at the same time since May 30, 2016.

Of the 30 in Dacope, 10 are engaged in production, while 20 others are in marketing and distribution of sanitary pads. Each packet containing 10 pads costs 55 taka (US$ 0.6) whereas other brands of similar standard are available in the market cost 60 taka (US$ 0.75) to 80 taka (US$ 1).

On school days, the girls work from 4:00pm to 7:00pm and during school vacation they double the working hours. Monthly, each of them gets 1,000 taka (US$ 12.5), which is extremely critical for Rijeya.

“I can now earn for my own education. I can also take private tuition on Math, English and Accounting,” she says as she sorts out cotton to make sanitary pad branded as “Shampurna” at a government staff quarter flat provided by Dacope Upazila Nirbahi Officer (sub-district chief executive officer) Mrinal Kanti Dey to help the noble cause.

Rijeya adds that earlier they used unhygienic clothes having risks of infection during menstruation, but now they buy the low-cost napkins that they make and also explain to other girls about menstrual safety and hygiene. 

The same is true for Mita Yasmin, Sushmita Mondal, Ruma Khatun, Sabiha Khatun, Sabina Yasmin, Nadira Biswas, Ria Saha, and Tamoli Shil Brishti.

Tamoli Shil Brishti, 15, student of Class IX at Mohammad Ali Secondary School, says: “I feel good doing this job. We ourselves can use it [during menstruation]. Earlier, I was shy to buy sanitary pads, but now there is no problem.”

She says as they share the concepts of using sanitary pad, hygiene and their links to stop child marriage and school dropout, her friends in the school appreciate them, and nobody makes any negative comments.

“We dream to make it a big venture,” wishes Brishti of Shonali Swapno Kishori Dal (Golden Dream Adolescent Girls Club).

The philosophical base

Rafiqul Islam, programme manager of AECM, says studies found that a large number of girls remain absent in schools when they have their menstruation cycle. Due to lack of awareness, they remain afraid and shy.

Many adolescent girls also drop out from school because of menstruation-related illnesses, and that leads to child marriage, he adds.

“So, we serve a dual purpose – checking school dropout and child marriage,” Rafiqul Islam says, explaining the rationale behind such an initiative.
Subrata Mondal, father of Sushmita Mondal, lauds the initiative.

“The way my daughter is working with other girls in ending child marriage is praiseworthy. Child marriage brings a lot of sufferings to a girl’s life. This initiative will surely stir the conscience of the society one day,” he optimistically adds. 

Marketing: The major challenge

The group can make around 100 packets of sanitary napkins, but the sale is not up to the mark.

Presently, the group has set up a corner at the Dacope Upazila Health Complex where they sell the sanitary pads. Besides, they are also distributing it to the adolescent clubs of Rupantar.

“They are trying to sell through the local pharmacies,” informs Rafiqul Islam.

There are dozens of adolescent clubs in the region and if its members buy Shampurna, its sales would get a big boost, he adds. 

“The initiative will be sustainable if marketing of the product is done effectively,” Rafiqul explains.

Upazila Health and Family Planning Officer Dr Mozammel Haque also feels that the initiative needs more publicity for better marketing. 

“If there is audiovisual demonstration in the hospital’s adolescent corner, more people would be interested to buy the sanitary pads,” he argues.

 

 
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