School girls in Bangladesh learn that periods are nothing to be ashamed of
No one should miss school because of their period, yet one in three girls in Bangladesh do, every month
Labonno’s periods used to be a source of anxiety and shame, but since her school in Barishal, Bangladesh, started handing out free sanitary pads and advice on coping with menstruation, they are no longer a taboo.
“I used to feel embarrassed about being on my period at school. There was no way before, of getting sanitary napkins or disposing of them,” the 14-year-old says. “Now I don’t miss school even during menstruation.”
Periods are a natural part of the transition girls make towards womanhood, yet they are rarely spoken about openly in Bangladesh. Only 53 per cent of adolescent school girls had heard about menstruation before getting their first period, according to a 2018 national hygiene survey.
Many girls struggle through puberty on their own without guidance about menstrual hygiene or the means to buy sanitary pads, which are considered an expensive luxury, especially in rural areas of Bangladesh. Even if sanitary napkins were affordable, girls and women are put off from buying them because pharmacies and shops are generally staffed by men.
Difficulties in managing menstruation has a direct impact on school attendance. Almost one-third of adolescent girls in Bangladesh skip school for a few days every month while on their period, many to avoid embarrassing mishaps in class. Instead, they manage their bleeding with pieces of cloth at home.
UNICEF has been working with the Government of Bangladesh and partners to end period stigma and to prevent girls from dropping out of school because of it.
Stocking up on sanitary pads
Since 2019, UNICEF has supported a project to introduce menstrual hygiene corners in 31 schools in Pirojpur and Faridpur districts, giving more than 5,000 school girls access to sanitary pads, wet wipes, sanitizer and other hygiene products. As part of the project, each school has also been provided with an incinerator to ensure used pads are disposed of safely.
“Sanitary pads are always available in the hygiene corner,” Labonno says. “I track my menstrual cycle in a calendar, so I know when my period is coming. Now I am prepared for it.”
Every school appoints a focal teacher who is responsible for keeping the corner well-stocked with sanitary napkins and educating students about menstruation and menstrual hygiene.
In Labonno’s school, girls with the financial means can also buy sanitary pads in the sotota store or “honesty shop”, where students can help themselves to snacks and stationery, like notebooks, pencils and pens, and are entrusted to pay without anyone monitoring them. For many girls, it is a convenient way to obtain pads without the embarrassment of anyone else knowing.
Increased school attendance
Since the hygiene corner was introduced, there has been a 25 per cent increase in girls’ attendance. Evidence has shown that missing school can have worrying consequences for girls. They start to get behind in their studies, which may lead to poor grades. This can be enough to convince their parents to pull them out of school permanently. Out-of-school girls are at increased risk of child marriage.
Assistant teacher Wahida Khanam became a champion for menstrual hygiene management in Labonno’s school after receiving training from UNICEF.
She explains to the students why sanitary pads are a safer and more hygienic option than cloth, which can cause urinary infections if not washed and dried properly. She also shows them how to use the chute in the toilets that sends their used pads into the incinerator.
“The hygiene corner is essential. It reduces girls’ absenteeism from classes, which helps to ensure quality education,” Wahida says.
In addition, male students and teachers have become more sensitive to the needs of adolescent girls who have periods.
This is critically important to Furqan Ahmed, UNICEF Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Officer in the Barishal Field Office. He spends much of his time spreading the message that menstruation is a normal bodily function and not a secret to be hidden. He is painfully aware of the hoops girls have to jump through to manage their periods.
“When the period comes, the girl is shy. She cannot go to the market to get sanitary napkins because the sellers are 100 per cent men. So she tells the mother, who tells the father. He must buy the napkins, which he gives to the mother, who gives them to the girl. If the father forgets, the girl suffers,” Furqan says.
“But for me, my daughters can ask me directly and I immediately go and buy them what they need or hand them what they need - without shame!”