New Delhi: “It is shock, shame and lack of awareness that leads to one fourth of girls in India to quit schools when they start menstruating. It is sheer humiliation that the world’s largest democracy that is moving towards modernity, is facing such primitive and trivial social issues which are still unattended,” says Dr. Surbhi Singh, Founder and President of Sachhi Saheli who quit her full time job as a practising gynaecologist, to start the NGO.
A 2014 report titled ‘Spot On!’ by a non-governmental organisation, noted that almost 23 million girls in India drop out of school annually, because of lack of menstrual hygiene management facilities and awareness about periods.
The report further suggests that the girls, who don’t drop out, usually miss up to 5 days of school every month. Delhi-based NGO Sachhi Saheli wants to change this. Normalising periods among young girls and boys, fighting social taboos and breaking through stigmas – they’re doing this by simply talking about menstruation – the topic our society hesitates to bring up.
Sachhi Saheli conducts workshops and interactive sessions with girls and boys aged between 12 and 17 across Delhi, where they discuss all things related to periods! Be it schools, clusters or housing societies, the NGO has been educating people about menstruation in a unique way for over three years now. In addition to these sessions, the NGO also organise a ‘Period fest’ every year, which saw over 8,000 students from 55 schools from Delhi participate this year. The period fest is where they carry out a ‘Pad Yatra’ where kids can be seen demanding for accepting period as a natural process.
What makes Dr. Surbhi one of the Heros of Swasth India is that she has taken it upon herself to inform adolescent kids about menstruation and has become their ‘Sachhi Saheli’ (True Friend) who tells them about the things no one else does.
When Dr. Surbhi was a young girl, she faced a lot of discrimination at home as compared to her brothers. Just like other girls growing up in a conservative household in India, she never dared to ask her family, teachers and siblings about the reason for this discrimination. She also had one question that bothered her through her teens – why a girl should not talk aloud about menstruation?
It was when she was pursuing her MBBS that she realised the science behind menstruation and that the myths associated with it are just that – myths. Even though she experienced this herself but as a practising gynaecologist, Dr. Surbhi noticed that because of the taboos associated with menstruation, there’s no concrete knowledge or education among young girls when they get their periods.
This lack of knowledge leads to them believing in the century old dos and don’ts and poor menstrual hygiene management resulting in serious health issues in some cases.
I’m sure every gynecologist comes across at least one or two such cases per day, where they feel like if only they had known such a minor detail about menstruation or menstrual hygiene, they wouldn’t be facing this issue. This is why I felt like there’s a huge gap in terms of the quality of knowledge being provided to young girls and boys about periods. I felt like I had to do something to make a bigger difference and I can’t do this by sitting in a clinic all day.
When Kashmir saw floods in 2014, Dr. Surbhi was in the first team of doctors to go and help them out. Even though a lot of her family members protested, she says she didn’t care.
I just knew there are people that are suffering and as a doctor I can help them and I have to help them.
At times, there would be girls coming to my clinic to ask for medicines that could delay their period because they have a puja at home. I would tell them to try and attend the puja while they’re on their period, I would tell them to just do it once and tell me what happens. Some would agree, others would never return. But the ones who did agree made me feel like there is acceptance regarding this. We all follow these do’s and don’ts without knowing scientific reasons behind them and I wanted to change that.
Dr. Surbhi explains that the myths related to menstruation that say that girls should stay in their rooms, not touch the pickle, not dance, exercise or attend school or enter a temple are still extremely prevalent in urban as well as rural areas.
Period was made a taboo in the past when our ancestors did not have the period management technologies like pads and tampons among others. They did not even wear stitched clothes and would tie their clothes around their bodies. Since there were no stitched garments to hold a pad or cloth, there were no pads or clothes dedicated to manage the period blood; this would lead to the blood dripping on the floor and after coming in contact with air, caused bacteria to grow and spread infections. During periods, when the women would go for a bath at common places in those times, the stagnant water of ponds would get contaminated, making people bathing in it sick. These infections and sickness made people think that a woman during her period is a curse and isolated her during menstruation. This was probably the right practice during those times, as there was no way to manage their period but today we live in the times where there are multiple options for them to use and yet we still follow the same practices. I simply want to change that.
While interacting with a lot of women on a daily basis as a gynecologist, Dr Surbhi realised that if girls and women are given the appropriate knowledge about menstruation during their adolescence or the age they get their period, it would enable a behavioural change among the generation.
I thought why don’t we give them facts and proper education on menstruation at the right age and so we reached out to schools and teachers where we could conduct workshops and interact with kids. We faced a lot of resistance from the teachers initially who would often say that it’s the age of internet and their kids are well-informed. They would also say that workshops from sanitary pad companies have been conducted already. But after attending my sessions, teachers liked it so much themselves that they would come up to me and say that they didn’t know most of the things I talked about themselves.
While talking about the nature of her workshops, Dr. Surbhi explained that her workshops are depended upon the location and the audience. With the school kids she would tell them stories of people blindly following rituals and asked them if they know the reasons behind menstrual myths. She also involves boys in these sessions to sensitise them about menstruation.
People think there’s only one thing to know about period – it starts bleeding so use a pad. But there are so many more things attached with it, they should know how much bleeding is normal or abnormal, how many days bleeding or how to count the cycles. Boys should know why a girl may not be feeling her best or if a skirt is stained, it’s not a funny thing to make jokes about. I ask boys about why do they think girls get period and they almost never know because no women in their life would talk to them about it. Their source of information usually is their friends who themselves don’t know anything.
Dr. Surbhi told NDTV that they’ve tied up with the Department of Education in Delhi as well as civic bodies to organise these sessions in schools and clusters. Talking about a typical session in school, she says that it starts with handing over a period kit to all the girls and boys, which is a small pouch containing an underpant, a pad, two disposable bags and a pamphlet. They’re told how to use each of these items. She added,
My motto in schools is – “tu bolegi muh kholegi tabhi zamana badlega” (The world will change only if you speak up) and that’s what I tell the kids after distributing the kits. I tell them to ask me any question about periods. Initially there’s always hesitation, but once I start telling them things my self there’s always a follow up question. I encourage them to speak their minds and ask questions related to menstruation among other things freely. From my experiences, it shows that these children have a lot to tell and ask. Both boys and girls. Sachhi Saheli aims to give vocabulary to teenage girls and boys about less spoken of organs of human. When the teenagers are bestowed with knowledge of menstruation, sex, sexual organs, good touch and bad touch, two extremely important and far reaching things would occur, firstly, they would not try to get such information from other untrusted sources that would scar their understanding of these things for life. And secondly, it would help them sensitise about each other’s needs and live a more just life, not only for oneself but for others too.
By focusing on menstrual health education, Dr. Surbhi and her NGO is enabling women and girls to take control of their bodies in safe, healthy and effective ways as every woman deserves the right to manage their bodies hygienically and with dignity. Menstruation is a natural occurrence that ought never to cause shame or hinder opportunity, she says.
I feel so overwhelmed by the positive reactions I recive specially from young boys. We expect boys to be decent and respect girls but what is their source of information? No one teaches them about periods not their moms or sisters. If they’re taught properly, they’ll be more sensitive towards it and I have had sessions in some co-ed schools where boys have one by one went to the mic to apologise to girls voluntarily. Some boys have even cried and said we never knew what our moms and sisters go through.
NDTV reached out to some of the educators who invited Sachhi Saheli for their interactive awareness sessions. Ajay Kumar,Principal, Government Co-ed SSS, said,
The work done by Sachhi Saheli touch is indeed outstanding. There was a need at this level to sensitize young girls and boys. Safety of girls is the foremost need of the hour and our girls needed a platform for sharing their experiences and queries, which has been fulfilled by Sachhi Saheli. Hopefully, some taboos were also removed for good during this interaction.
Arti Quanugoa teacher from an all girls government school in Shakarpur said,
Talking about menstruation and puberty is the need of the hour. The efforts and endeavor of Sachhi Saheli has made my girls more confident and they are able to express their feelings fearlessly. The girls in my school are now more hygiene conscious and are ‘Proud to Bleed’. Dr. Surbhi dealt this sensitive topic very efficiently and the classroom sessions have brought a remarkable change in the thoughts of the girls. A topic of shame is now a topic of pride in my school!
Anita Singh,Principal, S.K.V, No.3, Mandawali, said,
Dr. Surbhi is doing excellent work in educating the teenage girls about menstrual hygiene, she interacted with girls of our school recently about the taboos surrounding menstruation and answered all their queries with logic. Her main objective was to break all the stereotypes and myths the girls have about menstruation. The girls were explained that menstruation is not a disease and they need not be ashamed of it, it was very knowledgeable. The positive and supportive approach of Dr. Surbhi Singh gave lot of exposure to young girls to know about menstruation and good and bad touch.
However, before schools, the first point of learning for an individual is their home and it is there where one understands the ways of the world. Parenting therefore is one of the most essential pillars that our society stands on. It is imperative that parenting consists of taboo free teachings and values. This is why Dr. Surbhi also organises awareness sessions for parents. She explained,
In these sessions the parents are educated on the science behind menstruation, the healthy menstrual hygiene practices and on good touch and bad touch. The parents are encouraged to have open dialogue with their children and also to create a comfortable atmosphere in homes where their children can talk to them openly about such sensitive issues.
The NGO conducts the same sessions for various localities, aanganwadis, villages, madrasas and has also hosted a session for inmates of Tihar Jail.
Dr. Surbhi has received some anonymous complaints against her stating that she is misleading the kids by talking to them about such an unwanted topic but she says that decision makers like the government and civic bodies understand the necessity of her work and don’t pay heed to the anonymous complaints.
I don’t pay attention towards negativity, I only want to focus towards all the positive results out of my efforts.
Talking about her vision for a better India on the occasion of Independence Day, Dr. Surbhi told NDTV,
Everyone celebrates women on Women’s day, International girl child day, Daughter’s day but somewhere women aren’t able to celebrate themselves and their existence. Why aren’t women feeling safe and happy? Its like women are sitting on a driver’s seat and others want them to follow their directions. Why is she not able to embark on her own journey to figure out her own destination? Why is there so much societal pressure? Parents won’t let her go out or have guy friend. Small girl’s get raped, eve teased and then blamed for it. In-laws would expect dowry, husband will expect her to look after the family..what about her own life and her own dreams? That is the vision I have for India, where women are treated as an equal and ‘given’ the choice to live life on their own terms. I strongly believe that this vision can only be achieved through knowledge and education, there’s no other way. We live in a patriarchal society where the rules have been set by only by men and they’re all male oriented, they have decided what is to be done by women for them and its time we change that. I like to tell every girl I interact with to find her own way instead of following other’s path.
Sachhi Saheli is different from many other organisations in the very approach of tackling these social problems; it intends to act on the causes rather than the symptoms. With her NGO, Dr. Surbhi aims to attack the evil right where it is conceived, the society.
NDTV – Dettol Banega Swachh India campaign lends support to the Government of India’s Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). Helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan, the campaign aims to spread awareness about hygiene and sanitation, the importance of building toilets and making India open defecation free (ODF) by October 2019, a target set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when he launched Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in 2014. Over the years, the campaign has widened its scope to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and menstrual hygiene. The campaign has also focused extensively on marine pollution, clean Ganga Project and rejuvenation of Yamuna, two of India’s major river bodies.