India’s Simdega district leading by example on menstrual health and hygiene

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A journey to spark off conversations on menstruation

By Raza Naqvi

SIMDEGA, India – In India, shame and stigma associated with menstruation is silencing conversations on the subject, leading to a lack of knowledge and unsafe hygiene practices. To break this cycle, an engineer from a small town in Bihar left his lucrative career to start working in the development sector.

28-year-old Satwik Mishra began his journey in Odisha in 2015, where he worked teaching children in remote communities as part of a fellowship programme. In 2018, after reading a UNICEF report on menstrual health and hygiene, Mr Mishra’s attention turned to address menstrual hygiene.

The report stated that 88 per cent of menstruating women in India had no access to menstrual products and were using old clothes, leading to infections and health issues.

“After going through the report, I realised that I had to do something about it. Women had to use an old cloth that was not even washed or dried because they felt embarrassed to put that cloth in the open. I wanted to break the taboo around this issue,” said the district fellow.

After being selected for the Transformation of Aspirational Districts Programme (TADP) under the Ministry of Home Affairs, he was posted to Simdega district in Jharkhand. At the time, the majority of the population of Simdega had no idea about menstrual hygiene, nor had they ever expected that one day a man would be educating them on the subject.

“It wasn’t an easy journey for me. Initially, there was a lot of hesitation and resistance because they had never seen a boy talk about menstruation. But I was determined to bring change. I had decided that one day both men and women will consider the topic of menstruation as a dignified one and not shameful or embarrassing.”

Educating young girls about menstruation

With the help of the district administration and WSSCC, Satwik recently launched an initiative to provide information on menstrual hygiene to adolescent girls in remote areas of Ranchi district.

The campaign, known as MHM Chachi (Chachi is the word used for aunt in Hindi). MHM Chachi consists of boxes containing promotional materials and comics with information related to menstruation. It also has product samples like biodegradable and reusable sanitary napkins and menstrual cups which are placed in schools. The boxes aim to tackle the lack of open discussion around menstruation, providing girls with information and materials to address their questions.

“We have reached 48 schools so far and our final target is to reach 113 schools in Ranchi as we are getting a good response. This initiative will not only create awareness among the girls but will also educate them about maintaining proper hygiene,” said the 28-year-old.

Simedega’s success story

In 2017, Satwik launched a campaign named Garima Abhiyan in collaboration with WSSCC and the district administration. The first phase of the campaign involved preparing a team of 75 master trainers from different departments of the district, such as health, education and social welfare.

In the second phase of the campaign, master trainers worked with a team of 3100 trainers, to spread awareness throughout the district, reaching at least 600,000 people.

In the third phase, workshops were organised in all of Simdega’s 774 schools and 964 anganwadi (rural child care) centres, reaching all 450 villages in the district.

WSSCC trainer Komal Ramdey, who played a key role in the second phase of the campaign, said that it was extremely overwhelming to see the response from the community.

“The kind of response I got was unbelievable. Talking about menstruation is no more a taboo in Simdega. Men and women participated equally and interestingly, and the men were training women when it came to menstrual health management. Open discussions were done about menstruation everywhere and today, Simdega openly talks about it.”

“Without the WSSCC and district administration, we wouldn’t have reached this far. Mr Vinod Mishra from WSSCC provided all kinds of support. The administration also helped us at every stage,” said Ms Ramdey.

“Initially, it was quite challenging to make people listen, but once we gained momentum, there was no looking back. Not only we created awareness, but also trained people to make their own menstrual products,” she added.

The state government plans to implement the Garima Abhiyan training structure in every district across the state. Dr Jatashankar Chaudhary, a senior Indian Administrative Service officer who is currently the Director of Secondary Education in Jharkhand, has played an instrumental role.

“Dr Jatashankar Chaudhary has been one of the major driving forces behind the successful campaign. He was the District Collector of Simdega when the campaign started, ever since then he has been very cooperative” explains Satwik.

The success story of Simdega has provided a valuable case study for creating awareness campaigns in other states across India. Satwik hopes that one day the change he has seen in attitudes and knowledge related to menstruation in Simdega will occur across the entire country.

“Presently, the situation [in India] is pretty bad. We are taking positive steps but still, there’s a long way to go. I hope other states also learn positive things from Simdega and then start making people aware of menstruation.”