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Bangladesh fares better than India in menstrual hygiene: UN

Oct 26, 2012

Archana Patkar, who works for a UN agency, explains to Ashok Kumar, why India cannot shine unless it improves its status on menstrual hygiene in rural areas.

Archana Patkar

Archana Patkar is a Programme Manager for Networking and Knowledge Management, Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC)—one of the UN agencies working on the knowledge, advocacy and delivery challenges in the sanitation and hygiene sector with a focus on countries in Asia and Africa.

WSSCC is also one of the key partners of Nirmal Bharat Yatra (NBY), a sanitation campaign by the Indian Government. This Yatra, spanning over 2,000 km through villages from Maharashtra will end in Bihar’s Bettiah on November 19. Patkar talks to OneWorld South Asia on the state of menstrual hygiene in South Asia, particularly in India.

OWSA: Tell us about your role in the Nirmal Bharat Yatra (NBY)?
Archana Patkar: We are co-donors of the Yatra. Our role in the campaign is based on making the issues of sanitation and hygiene gender relevant. There are three prongs—toilets, ODF (open defecation), hand washing and menstrual hygiene. We are taking care of the menstrual hygiene component.

OWSA: How critical is the component of menstrual hygiene management (MHM)?
Patkar: Nobody talks about it. People make it secondary. The menstrual hygiene component in the Yatra is focussing on issues like breaking the taboos and the silence around menstrual sanitation and empowering and enabling the girls and women to talk about it.

We have worked on the issue in terms of understanding the problems. We are targeting both boys and girls. Boys also need to understand that it is not something to laugh at.

OWSA: What kind of awareness are you spreading through schools?
Patkar: The school training is on sanitation, hygiene and menstrual hygiene management (MHM).  According to a survey carried out in 2011, there are 350 million women in India, who are menstruating today. Out of these 350 million women, each one them menstruates for 3,000 days in her lifetime, and they are supposed to pretend that it never happens. The idea is to make menstrual hygiene a key part of sanitation and hygiene.

OWSA: What is the biggest challenge on the issue of menstrual hygiene?
Patkar: When you talk about sanitation, you also talk about women’s needs on a monthly basis, because it causes disease with poor hygiene, no disposal etc. Breaking the taboo is the biggest challenge in dealing with issue menstrual hygiene.

Therefore, we want women to talk about it and men to respect it. Apart from well-off women in the some big cities and metros, women in general, particularly in rural areas cannot afford sanitary pads.

OWSA: How do you look at the state of menstrual hygiene in various South Asian countries?
Patkar: India is better than other countries in South Asia on the policy, the country’s total sanitation campaign talks about menstrual hygiene. However, in practice Bangladesh has done much better and has done some excellent things, particularly in the urban areas. India has a long way to go. However, we do have some good examples from Tamil Nadu, Bihar, and Maharashtra.

Our partners in Pakistan say they have taken this issue in a very serious way. There is now a manual in Urdu for guiding girls which has been further translated into other dialects. This manual is also being taken to the disaster prone areas. These steps give us a reflection of the kind of education being provided in this regard.

Sri Lanka is very good on sanitation. But, they have not started doing anything on the menstrual hygiene.  In Nepal too, there is a lot of awareness on MHM.

OWSA: How do you look at India’s relatively poor standing in MHM?   
Patkar: India’s poor state in MHM spells disease and risks for reproductive health. It is also linked to malnutrition. And, the most unfortunate factor is, we who want our women to produce our babies and do all the hard and dirty work, don’t want to help them with the very basic fact which is biological.

Not attending to menstrual hygiene is a violation of a human right, because it is one part of sanitation, it is not separate. Not recognising that a woman’s needs as a right, is a violation of a human right.  India being signatory to many international conventions that treat water and sanitation as a right, should be more vigilant on this part.

We take pride in being part of shining India, we have our engineers in the Silicon Valley, we are supposed to be the intelligentsia, but as an Indian woman, I am ashamed that we do not have the guts to talk about this issue which affects every woman.

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