Bihar introduced menstrual leave for women employees in 1992. Thirty years down the line, every month, I, as a District Magistrate, sign two days’ leave applications for female employees. I have been doing this for almost a decade now in various capacities. But one thing that caught my attention recently is that none of the applications mentions menstruation as a reason. They are vaguely described. I wonder what keeps the women workforce from asserting their menstrual hygiene rights? Is it a choice or a taboo? I often ask myself.
We can argue that women are most empowered today in comparison to any previous era. Access to education and opportunities has paved the way to financial independence. The boom in communication and technology has also been a great leveller from a gender perspective. Add to that, Indian-American economist Gita Gopinath’s call for tapping women workforce to cover Covid impact on the global economy. Maybe, the coming years will be even brighter for the female gender.
But as I write from the eastern part of Bihar, which is largely rural and flood-affected, I must admit that such policies should be followed by solid conversations at homes, schools and colleges to eradicate taboos.
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Superstition, honour, menstruation
In 2015, during my posting as District Magistrate in Gopalganj, I had to personally intervene in a case where a widow was fired from a school under local pressure. Parents believed that a widow cooking mid-day meals for their children would bring a bad omen. I went to the school and sat down among the crowd of a hundred and ate the meal cooked by her.Not only was the woman reinstated, but those who had pressured her started sending their children to the school too.
In a similar incident recently, a father came to my office in Purnea, burdened with shame. His daughter was cyberbullied and blackmailed by her former partner. Instead of lodging an FIR with the police, with folded hands, the father asked to protect his ‘izzat’ (honour). Not only an FIR was lodged but the accused man was arrested for cyberbullying. My interaction with the father about his so-called izzat changed his behaviour. He left with a confident face.
Both the incidents, from two different timelines, made me realise how rural Bihar is still suffering from deep-rooted stigma and taboo. Menstruation was one such issue that caught my attention.
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MHM-friendly toilets and kits in schools
On 8 March 2022, we launched an action plan for Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM), becoming the first district in Bihar to do so. NITI Aayog has also approved our proposal for MHM-friendly toilets and awareness kits for 200 government high schools. We have also roped in some NGOs and UNICEF.
In early April 2021, the district administration started the first MHM Plan in Kasba block as a pilot project with the help of UNICEF Bihar and Nav Astitva Foundation. We convinced Niti Aayog about the vast impact of the plan and how it could help our women students from dropping out of school after they attain puberty.
After the institutional help from NITI Aayog, we are now in the process of installing MHM-friendly toilets. We expect the project to be completed by June 2022. These toilets will comprise different MHM products, that is, sanitary pads, tampons, MHM guidebooks, etc. All these toilets will be repaired and modified as per the needs of adolescent girls.
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Creation of women task force
In July 2021, we held a convergent meeting with all related stakeholders. Jeevika (Women SHG workforce) was identified to play the role of nodal agency for this project. We have roped in departments like education, social welfare, the Integrated Child Development Scheme, and health to contribute significantly to the cause.
Around 50 master trainers were called in to train the female workforce in 14 blocks. We organised a three-day training session for 133 jeevika cadres. They further communicated the necessary information about MHM to 22,000 jeevika didis and 50,000 adolescent girls. Twenty-five teachers were identified as nodal persons to make the girls aware of MHM. Fifty girls from Meena Manch were trained for the MHM awareness programme. This was the first step towards creating a female task force that would monitor facilities like clean toilets, availability of water, soap, dustbin, sanitary pads, etc.
Furthermore, with the help of UNICEF and Nav Astitva Foundation, the district administration made available a menstrual hygiene kit of 12 sanitary pads, two undergarments, one towel, one V-wash, and a booklet on menstrual education for just Rs 350.
But this is just the beginning and we have a long way to go.
An implementation framework for increasing access to information, products and female-friendly wash and waste management solutions is proposed in the action plan. It is proposed to make and work upon a two- to three-years-long MHM action plan with specific support and capacity building on the project to select frontline workers of at least five departments — health, education, ICDS, social welfare, and jeevika. This action plan would strengthen the entire rural women and adolescents in the community on menstrual hygiene management and would ultimately accomplish the menstrual hygiene mission.
This is one of the first steps to enable women in rural Bihar to make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health.
Rahul Kumar is the District Magistrate of Purnea, Bihar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)