Boys are breaking the taboo and claiming an active space in discussions on menstrual hygiene management (MHM).

“We were hesitant to talk about it earlier, but not anymore. We are able to see a beautiful world because our mothers went through the same process,” said 15-year-old Sanju Tanti, member of the Adolescent Boys’ Club at Anandabari Tea Estate, located near Duliajan in Assam’s Dibrugarh district.

“However, there is a need to spread more knowledge among men and boys in the tea garden areas. If we know about issues like menstruation, gender inequality, abuse, maltreatment, violence and neglect, we can support the girls, our sisters, mothers, and raise our voices against any negative practices,” he added.

Menstrual hygiene challenges are rooted in gender inequality with most men growing up to believe it’s a “woman thing” and refraining from talking about it.

However, as the country celebrates Menstrual Hygiene Day, it is encouraging to see that the younger generation in remote tea garden areas of Upper Assam are attempting to be and bring the change in society. And this group of 30 adolescent boys (in the age group of 10-17) are certainly an example for change.

The adolescent boys group provides them with a platform to access and discuss age-appropriate issues, through regular meetings with members of the Mothers’ Groups, ASHAs, ANMs and Anganwadi workers, among others.

The older boys, in fact, not only know about the menstrual cycle, but also the importance of menstrual hygiene management and issues of women’s self-esteem and reproductive health.

Earlier, club members like 15-year-old Sanjay Sawansi weren’t comfortable around girls and women during their period, but now, even buying sanitary pads for female members in their families has become second nature.

“It was not like this earlier. We were shy, scared and hesitant to discuss menstruation. The field workers gradually helped create a good environment with their simple, humble approach and we received information on menstruation during our club meetings, involving both girls and boys.

“Now, I can discuss the same with my mother and sister and even go to the nearest store to buy sanitary pads.”

However, this change of mindset has not trickled down to every member of the community – there are those who are superstitious and have a primitive mindset, and consider it a taboo.

“I believe there’s much more to be done and people should be made aware of menstruation and menstrual hygiene,” Sanjay added.

A member of one of the Adolescent Girls Clubs, 19-year-old Puja Panika said such initiatives have encouraged mutual respect for boys and girls in her community.

“Earlier, there was a difference in treatment. In fact, for long many years, girls did not get much importance as compared to the boys. But with the interactions in these clubs, things have changed.

“Now, boys too take a healthy interest in discussions on menstrual hygiene, we conduct programmes together, we go to school together and they help us and support us immensely,” said Puja.

The changemakers:

Eighteen-year-old Prity Tanti is the leader of Srishti Adolescent Girls’ Club in Anandabari Tea Estate.

Prity has been trying to mobilise young girls in her community by discussing various topics concerning child rights – the evils of child marriage and child labour, how to prevent violence against children in the community apart from telling them the benefits of taking Iron Folic Acid (IFA) tablets and vitamin-C rich food in order to ensure good health.

Menstrual health and hygiene has been a common topic in their discussions. The Club was established in the year 2008, and since has been working towards educating girls in the labour lines on issues related to women and children.

“Before joining the club, I did not consider menstruation to be part of normal life. When I reached puberty, my mother took utmost care and explained the process of menstruation. She deterred me from using cloth pads, as according to the belief in the community at that time, cloth pads caused infection.

“I was also not allowed to cook in the kitchen or enter the prayer room. There was also a belief that eating sour food and meat during menstruation caused health issues,” said Prity, when asked about the myths and taboos she faced at her age.

“We learned a lot many things in the club – most importantly, we were taught the hygienic practices one needs to follow when using cloth pads and sanitary napkins. Our baideu (teacher) taught us everything.

“Now whenever we use cloth pads, we keep changing it every 3 hours, and while using sanitary pads, we change it every 6-8 hours to help prevent infection,” added Prity.

The senior members of the club have held regular interactions with the families of the girls and community members to help dispel myths around menstruation besides relaying key messages through folklore and street plays to spread awareness.

Ratna Debnath, president of the Child Protection Committee in the garden, has been associated with the club since its inception and has played a key role in breaking old taboos on menstruation in the community.

“Earlier, people in the tea estate were not aware and felt a sense of shame to discuss menstruation openly. The Mothers Group and Child Protection Committee undertook intensive efforts to reach out to the community and bring awareness on the issue.

“We also invited doctors from the Health Department in community meetings to discuss about the biological changes during menstruation and how it should be considered a normal process. Our constant efforts yielded results – the myths and taboos around menstruation have decreased significantly,” said Debnath.

Accessibility to sanitary products:

In Assam, only about 66.3% of women between 15-24 years use hygienic products, such as sanitary napkins, cloth pads, etc. to manage their menstruation during their menstrual period (NFHS-5 2019-20). This means that a large number of girls do not have access to menstrual hygiene products yet.

In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought disruptions across the entire world, also affecting adolescent girls adhering to quality menstrual hygiene management.

Schools and other educational institutions are spaces where adolescents are provided with menstrual hygiene supplies, as well as the knowledge and social support.

But the closure of schools across the state to stop the spread of the virus and the restrictive measures in place has left many girls without an access to menstrual hygiene products. Several households also face economic challenges because of a partial lockdown leading to loss of livelihoods and reduction in income.

This may further lead to negative coping strategies among girls in families – with many forced to use alternate products such as old fabric, rags or even newspapers during their period.

Luit Gogoi, a senior programme facilitator at the Bharatiya Chah Parishad (BCP) said despite hurdles, they have successfully organised menstrual hygiene workshops for girls in the tea garden. Following Covid-appropriate behaviour, a workshop on making cloth pads was conducted recently at the Anandabari garden.

“Superstitions still prevail, and many are made to sleep on the floor during their menstruation and also made to follow age-old beliefs. Greater awareness is required with the young taking the lead.

“The adolescent boys know that menstruation in girls is an essential part of their growing up. And girls too are no longer nervous and embarrassed about their monthly cycles,” he added.

Gogoi said their efforts would have been incomplete without the equal participation of boys who have now become an integral part of the society – at school, home and in the tea garden.

(Names of minors changed to protect identity)

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