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All the adolescent girls in the Rajagopalapuram Zila Parishad High School know the way to Gyaneshwari’s—one of their schoolmate’s—house. It is a route they were used to taking regularly, every month—when they were on their menstrual cycle. “No one used the toilet in school because there was no water,” Vaishnavi, a class 8 student said, “We would either go near the river behind the school, or to Gyaneshwari’s house because it is the closest and they have a toilet.” Of late—nearly six months to be more accurate—those visits have however stopped. “Our school now has water supply and so everyone uses the toilets here,” Gyaneshwari smiled.

No water, compromised health and menstrual hygiene

Menstrual hygiene plays a crucial role in adolescent girls’ and women’s health. But like in a jigsaw puzzle where no piece can be looked at in isolation, menstrual hygiene too cannot be ensured without other crucial components. In this case, as elaborated by the young school girls, it is water supply. Until May this year, the students of Rajagopalapuram Zila Parishad High School in the Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh had to rely on a hand-pump that is 100 metres away from the school for washing hands before food or washing up after relieving themselves.

Gyaneshwari, whose house was frequented by the other girls during their periods, said that sometimes she wouldn’t have the time to go home herself when the need arose. “Sometimes, during my periods, it is urgent that I visit the toilet immediately. I don’t have the time to walk all the way to my home then,” she said. In those times, the 15-year-old would ask one of her friend’s to help fill a bucket of water from the hand-pump and get it to the school toilet. She would then clean herself and changer her sanitary napkin.

Nagajyothi, another class 9 student, said that there were times she would prefer “sitting tight” and holding herself rather than going through the ordeal that Gyaneshwari mentioned.

Justifiably so, the girls unanimously said they dreaded “that time of the month in school”.

Lakshmamma, a student of class 9 and Gyaneshwari’s classmate, went on to say that she preferred missing school and staying at home during her periods. “My home is the farthest—5 km from school. To come all that way on bus during my periods and then carry a bucket of water or walk to Gyaneshwari’s house was very difficult for me. I also have stomach cramps during that time,” she said. Lakshmamma would miss one to three days of school every month because of this. Her English teacher, Soma, who sat in a corner listening to the girls, nodded in agreement. She was aware of her students’ problems.

A way out

“Sometimes the girls would come to me to ask for sanitary napkin,” the teacher said. This—and the bigger problem of access to water however came to an end when WaterAid and Pepsico Foundation, along with their local partner, Rashtriya Seva Samithi (RASS), decided to intervene and initiated piped water supply to this school in May this year. A borewell was dug and a motor pumped water into taps in the toilets, making them fully functional—much to the relief of both students and teachers of the school. They also built a Menstrual Hygiene Room adjacent to the toilets.

“The Menstrual Hygiene Room has toilets, a wash basin, changing space, and sanitary napkins, so we have all our requirements taken care of,” Gyaneshwari said. Her friend, Vaishnavi added, “I am much more comfortable now that we have water in the toilets. No more going outside and carrying water for that.”

Lakshmamma also added that she doesn’t miss school with the frequency she used to earlier. “Unless I have stomach cramps,” she said. The headmaster of the school, Ramakrishna Naidu said that the attendance of girls in the school “has improved by 10 per cent” since piped water supply has come to them.

Evidently, it is good news for all and along with the students, the teachers are rejoicing as well. The school’s hindi teacher, Salma, who is one of the two female teachers in the school, said that running water supply in the toilets—teachers use a separate toilet—is a big encouragement for students’ retention in school. “It’s been just a month since I have joined this school. I travel 45 km—which roughly takes two hours one way—to come here. But I have no complaints. I know the importance of running water in toilets—the school I taught in earlier did not have it and is suffering a lot because of it,” she said.

Listening to her teacher in rapt attention, Vaishnavi piped in that hygiene as a whole has improved a lot in her school. “Earlier we wouldn’t even wash our hands properly after relieving ourselves because water was a problem,” she said. Pepsico Foundation, WaterAid India and its partner also built a hand-washing area near the school building where a long basin with taps have been installed. “Life in school is much better now,” the young girl smiled.

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