Kanyashree empowers girls in rural Bengal

MUMENINAZ ZAMAN

A student of class X of Madrassa Islamia, Chahat Mohammadi is a determined girl. She sets out with her friends on a journey to educate women and girls in her locality and adjoining rural areas about the importance of menstrual hygiene. She learnt about the significance of sanitation, hygiene and maintaining healthy habits during menstruation from the Kanyashree Club in her school — “Khwaish Kanyashree Club”. An active member of the Club, she knows it won’t be easy to convince the women, who follow the age-old traditions when it comes to menstruation. However, she is keen to change their mindset. “Initially, the women, were hesitant to even talk about these issues, but we were able to convince them to adopt the proper use of sanitary pads and other healthy habits that we need to follow during menstruation,” says Chahat.

The Kanyashree Clubs comprise of 30 to 35members and there are a total of 400 clubs over 20 blocks of West Bengal’s Purulia District, the number of which is expected to increase in due course of time. The girls, popularly known as the “Kanyashree Girls” are taught about menstrual hygiene and use of sanitary pads, that are easily accessible in their schools. Moreover, the instructions received, are then carried forward by the girls to other women who are not aware about the healthy practices of menstruation.

“We buy the sanitary pads from the Self Help Groups (SHGs) in our Kanyashree Club, both for our personal use and for those, whom we sensitize. The pads are affordable and we sell them at a nominal rate. The girls are now happy and feel comfortable even during those days of discomfort,” adds Chahat.

The major obstacles to education of the girl child is absenteeism due to early marriage and menstrual cycle. Parents feel that a girl should be married off as soon as she attains puberty, thereby increasing the rate of dropouts and creating severe health problems among the girls.

Riya Chandra a member of “Pratyusha Kanyashree Club”, and a student of Class XI, was aghast when she found that girls of her age were married off and even bore children while they are still adoloscents. “We carry out awareness campaigns among the masses about the ill-effects of child marriage and encourage the parents to send their daughters to school. Here, in our club we learn about various social and health related issues, and make an effort to reform society,” says Chandra.

During menstruation, the girls usually use clothes and other primitive methods which is not hygienic and may lead to infections. “We try to sensitize the girls and women in our locality who still rely on clothes. We inform them about the use and disposal of sanitary pads and avoid unhygienic methods. Initially, they felt shy talking about periods and never dared to go to a chemist to purchase a packet of sanitary pad. However, now they feel comfortable discussing with us and frankly ask for pads whenever they need it,” adds Chandra of Shantani GirlsHigh School.

“Kanyashree Prakalpa”, is a scheme undertaken by the West Bengal Government for the uplift of the girl child. It is a conditional cash transfer method, where an adolescent unmarried girl between the age bracket of 14 to 18, receives a certain amount to continue with her education thereby making her independent and empowered. The project is not solely confined with the monetary support to the girls, rather it is also a holistic step to transform the adolescent girl into a confident person.

According to a systematic review onMenstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) in India, by UNICEF in 2015, 24 percent of school girls remain absent during their menses. In another report by the National Family Health Survey, NFHS 4- 2015-2016, around 52 percent of girls in India were unaware of menstruation before they have their first period and only 58 percent of women were using hygienic methods.  These figures underline the importance of MHM to girls in school in support of health and education outcomes.

The adolescent girls in the Kanyashree Clubs are provided friendly counselling sessions on menstrual hygiene through Adolescent Friendly Health Clinics (AFHC) and free health sessions at Anwesha Clinic. The sessions are conducted in close co-ordination with ICDS and UNICEF members. Along with counselling session, a comic book is published for the girls, where information about menstruation and hygienic menstruation management is given as a self-reference for adolescent girls that help them prepare for the physical changes in their bodies and practice safe and hygienic ways of dealing with menstruation.

“Initially, it was uneasy to attend schoolduring those days on a bicycle, I was obsessed with the fear of getting my clothes stained, but not anymore. In our “Sapnadisha Kanyashree Club”, we are given a detailed insight on menstrual hygiene like — maintaining proper dietand cleanliness, using and changing pads within 4 hours and this has made our lives much easier. We also have provisions in our school to change pads. Moreover, we openly talk with our instructor without any hesitation, in case if we face any problem during menstruation,” says Pompa Mahato, of Hutmura Harimati Girls’ School.

District Magistrate of Purulia, AlokeshPrasad Roy talks about the objectives of the Kanyashree project — to increase educational attainment, prohibition of child marriage and providing financial assistance to the girls. “We thrive to make them self-reliant by converging various departments like skill development and employment generation with the project. Fiscal awareness programme are also conducted in consultation with various banks for the benefit of the girls which enable them to handle their own accounts,” he says.

In yet another breakthrough initiative,the Purulia district administration has implemented its own brand, namely “Udaan”, a project on sanitary napkin for MHM programme. The pads manufactured by Udaan are totally biodegradable, quality tested and priced Rs 5 for two pads. UNICEF and the state government has supported this project of Purulia, which is now replicated in all districts of West Bengal.

“Menstruation”, is a topic which has always been a taboo subject. Not many, especially in rural areas are aware about the habits to be rigorously followed during their menses. Adding more complications to these monthly cycles are stomach cramps and discomfort, lack of awareness, and access to sanitary napkins. The most affected are the adolescent girls who tend to miss out school, thereby increasing the rate of dropouts. “Earlier the women used clothes and cow dung as absorbents during menstruation. These created severe health implications. Then we started propagating various campaigns on menstrual hygiene involving adolescent girls. At present there are 80,000 Kanyashrees in Purulia, who themselves are practicing and encouraging their family, locality and rural areas to adopt the healthy habit of using sanitary napkins,” Roy says.

Roy informs that there are around 31,000SHGs in Purulia where women are well-trained and provided with machine for the production of sanitary napkins. The benefit of its use has reached even themost backward areas of Purulia. There are two production houses in Purulia where mass production of these sanitary napkins are carried on and supply chain are done by the women of SHGs. As per the requirements, these pads are suppliedto the nodal teacher of the Kanyashree Clubs, from whom the girls can purchase.

The concept of selling the sanitary padsat a nominal rate was adopted to empower the SHG women. Kalpana Kuiry,Supervisor of the SHG, “Agragami Prathamik Samabai Samiti, says, “I have beenassociated with this group since last ten years where we used to produce thesanitary pads manually. After the implementation of the project Udaan, we were provided with the machine from the district administration. The raw materials used in the making of the pads are procured by us; it usually consists of non-woven fabric, wood gel, dry net, release paper and packet. The annual production capacity is 12 lakhs, and per day 3,000 pads are prepared. As amonthly incentive Rs 2000, is deposited in our bank accounts.”

Widespread awareness and ground level advocacy by action oriented Kanyashree club members in Purulia have created a strong impact in combating child marriage. Moreover, emphasis has been laid for the overall development of the Kanyashree Girls. “The girls are provided with an opportunity to explore their skills in sports like football, archery, karate, taekwondo. Under the skill development programme “Swabalambi”, they are given training in various courses like — beautician, handicrafts, catering and hospitality, and preparing organic colours from Palash flowers. Awareness campaigns are also conducted by the Kanyashree girls, against vector borne diseases, use of plastics, and road safety,” says Leena Mondol, District Nodal Officer for Kanyashree Prakalpa.

The Kanyashree and the Udaan project isgiving a new ray of hope to the young girls and women of Purulia, who are theharbingers of change in the society.

In accordance to the second edition of the media initiative undertaken by the South Asia Women In Media (SAWM) and UNICEF India, a group of journalists interacted with the Kanyashree Girls and women from SHGs about the implementation of MHM programmes in Purulia