"As a woman, I can empathize with their plight. This negative mindset towards menstruation isn't limited to the illiterate, but also affluent and educated families. They don't talk about menstrual health."
For Syed Sehrish Asgar, Kashmir’s only woman Deputy Commissioner, it was a visit to a local girls school in Budgam district’s Razwan Village, which brought home the stigma attached to menstruation and its adverse consequences.
Due to a lack of awareness on menstrual health and unavailability of functional toilets that give young girls the privacy they need during their periods, this particular school saw a 20% drop in the number of students over two to three years.
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“Despite all the circumstances in the Valley, this is such a personal issue, and we are not talking about it. As a qualified doctor, I felt it was my duty to address this problem,” she says, speaking to The Better India.
In the past year, the IAS officer has visited many schools in Budgam district, and she noticed a similar pattern everywhere. Many adolescent girls were either dropping out of schools or missing classes on the days of their period.
“There is a lot of shame, fear and guilt attached to menstruation, particularly the time when they hit puberty, as the communities that reside here are very traditional and conservative. Many don’t even acknowledge the psychological issues associated with the stigma surrounding menstruation. Through various initiatives, I want to spread awareness among girls that menstruation isn’t unusual. It is a healthy and simple biological process that every young girl goes through. On the contrary, regular menstruation is a woman’s body’s way of saying that there is hormonal balance within the body,” says Sehrish.
“As compared to boys, there is greater pressure on girls to perform well in school. When they don’t attend school regularly, this affects their performance, and as they do not receive adequate support from their families, they end up dropping out of school,” she adds.
Following an extensive tendering process, her administration will install sanitary pad dispensers and incinerators in 106 out 147 high and higher secondary schools, five-degree colleges and one Industrial Training Institute in the district by July 15 in the first phase.
The other 41 schools will be covered in the second phase. Thus far, the administration has installed sanitary pad incinerators in over 40 schools.
Apart from these institutions, these dispensers will also be set up at the Deputy Commissioner’s office as well as the Srinagar International airport.
“This will send a strong message to girls attending schools and colleges that they now have freedom and privacy, and do not have to rush home anymore. Going home during their periods has a very negative impact on their academic prospects and their personality as well. Many of the girls I came across were very under-confident, shy, and when their periods come, they would withdraw altogether from social life.
Even though our administration had offered sports equipment and kits to all the panchayats, we don’t see girls coming out for these activities, particularly during their periods. As a woman, I can empathize with their plight. This negative mindset towards menstruation isn’t limited to the illiterate, but also affluent and educated families. They don’t talk about menstrual health,” informs Sehrish.
Funds for this particular measure came from multiple sources such as the Jammu & Kashmir rural development department, besides corporate social responsibility (CSR) contribution from the Airport Authority of India.
“We have also formed ‘Pink Clubs’ in these schools comprising of one teacher and three students, who will oversee the process of using these dispensers and incinerators,” she adds.
To ensure this entire venture is self-sustaining, the administration will sell these sanitary pads ranging from Rs 2 to 5, depending on the type of pad. Nonetheless, for the first two months, the administration will offer these sanitary pads for free.
Having said that, the administration began installing sanitary pad dispensers only after extensively laying down the groundwork.
One of the initial steps it took was to spread awareness about menstrual health on a war footing by holding regular awareness sessions, seminars and discussions in schools, particularly the ones admitting only girls.
“We would tell them why menstruation is important, how it affects you, how you must take care of yourself in these four-five days, how it results in iron deficiency, affects growth, height and other health concerns. Many girls believe that intense pain during menstruation is normal. We would tell them it’s not normal to have that much pain or not normal to feel intense weakness and recommend they take iron tablets. The government does offer medicines for iron deficiency and iron supplements through various schemes, but many girls are just not aware of its benefits,” informs Sehrish.
“Evidence has shown that daily iron supplementation is associated with reduced risk of anaemia and iron deficiency in menstruating women and adolescent girls, without any side effects,” according to the World Health Organization.
“Conducting these awareness sessions in school has thus become very important because this is where we can catch them young. However, these messages must be sent to families and young girls as soon as possible. We must inform them how important it is to maintain their health during their menstruation cycle,” she adds.
Besides spreading awareness, Sehrish has also addressed the issue of dysfunctional toilets. In nearly 90% of the schools, the administration has fixed these problems, although concerns remain. Since Budgam district is a hilly area, regular water supply is a concern and getting tanker supply is a challenge.
The administration has started collecting data regularly about any remaining dysfunctional toilets in high schools and the working of these installed dispensers and incinerators.
“However, we are committed to providing these facilities in all schools and colleges. See, we need the requisite infrastructure in our public spaces where these young girls can feel comfortable,” affirms Sehrish.
For this qualified doctor-turned-IAS officer from Kishtwar district, who also spent a year as an Indian Police Service officer, this is a genuine attempt at bringing girls back to school.
Her efforts are already bearing fruit, and the hope is one day larger communities in the district take note of the need to get rid of the stigma attached to menstruation.
(Images courtesy Budgam District Administration)
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)