Why are you here today? Nadia Mithani, Aga Khan Foundation (India)

The temperature on my phone read 45 degrees Celsius. The heat surged through me as I stepped out of the car. But I was too nervous to care. We had just flown in to Ahemdabad, the capital of India’s Gujarat province, that morning. After a breakfast of chai and freshly fried ghathiya, a snack made from chickpea flour, we drove to our destination. I parted ways with my supervisor and walked quietly into a room where 200 girls sat, listening intently. Falguni Behen*, the local program leader, was explaining the menstrual cycle.

"Behen" is a term of respect for women often used in Gujarati. It directly translates to “sister” in English.

May 28 marks Menstrual Hygiene Day, a day dedicated to global advocacy for women and girls who continue to experience stigma, hardship, and shame around menstruation. In India, millions of women and girls routinely face challenges in managing their menstrual cycle. Stigma and the harmful socio-cultural practices arising from its association with impurity often result in a lack of awareness, poor hygiene, and ultimately, a loss of dignity. In 2018, I had the opportunity to participate in the Menstrual Hygiene Day activities organized by Aga Khan Foundation and the Aga Khan Rural Support Program.

The day was marked with an assortment of activities and educational sessions, including an opportunity to ask a gynecologist questions. Some raised their hand, but many more wrote their questions on pieces of paper, an option that was provided to ensure girls could ask their questions even if they were feeling shy or embarrassed. Falguni Behen held the papers out to me; there was a thick stack. It was clear the girls had a lot on their minds. The opportunity to speak with a medical professional was rare and they did not waste a minute of it.

One person asked, but everyone got the answer.

Other activities included a human-size Snakes and Ladders game. Girls volunteered to physically move between the squares after rolling the dice, reading aloud the menstrual hygiene practices written on them. A group discussion took place on the various types of sanitary products available, what they looked like, and how to use them.

Many of these resources are available to program leaders like Falguni Behen through a toolkit developed by Aga Khan Foundation. During my fellowship, I traveled with my supervisor to train frontline field staff on how to use the toolkit to educate women and girls on reproductive biology, nutrition, and menstrual hygiene.

“I didn’t know how to use a pad, where to get it, or even how often to use it. We didn’t even know we had a choice.”

Soon, it was my turn to speak. It was important for us to determine the program’s impact on the girls’ lives and how it could be improved. In just a year since the program started, over 1,000 girls and women had been educated on menstrual hygiene, but there was much more to be done. The girls looked at me wide-eyed as we sat on the floor together in a circle. They leaned in closer as I asked in broken Hindi:

Aap yahaa kyo aaiye?

Why are you here today?

We are all here to learn from each other’s experiences with menstruation. In these groups, we learn about menstruation; we learn about each other’s problems. We were not sure what to ask or not ask; what to do or not do. Many of us didn’t know much before our first period. We cried and felt shameful.

Through surveys and interviews done by AKF, we found that 63% of girls in AKF and AKRSP program geographies did not know about menstruation before it occurred. It is not discussed in many schools and homes. Worst of all, when girls don’t know how to manage their menstruation, they end up dropping out of school . Without access to sanitary products and a private place to change, girls resort to unhygienic practices increasing their health risks. As most girls use cloth pads, lack of running water, a functional toilet and even a place to discard menstrual waste often leads to girls returning home during menstruation. These issues are further complicated for girls with different abilities or in emergency settings. Because of the monthly challenge, many girls choose not to go back to school. It appeared, however, that this was starting to change.

"Now we have become confident. We know how to use pads or how to make them from cloth. We know how to manage pain in the stomach. We eat well – fruits and vegetables and can be active. We feel healthy. We are less scared to talk about this."

To date, 25,000 women and girls have benefitted from the Menstrual Hygiene Management Programme in India.

The International Youth Fellowship program helps young Canadian professionals launch careers in development by working for a host organization in Africa or Asia. The program is supported by the Government of Canada and Aga Khan Foundation Canada, through the funds raised by World Partnership Walk and Golf. Nadia’s placement at Aga Khan Foundation in India ran from 2017 to 2018.