Menstrual hygiene management: a path to better health and dignity. Period
In 2018, when Kavita Devi stepped into the bag-making division of the tannery, Kings International in Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao, she was among the first batch of women to be employed by the company. There were several firsts in the company’s history that she became a part of, and benefitted from, thereafter. A dedicated toilet for women, upgraded tools in the toilets, a pre-recorded audio system reminding one to maintain cleanliness and personal hygiene—but most of all, Kavita said that it was the training on menstrual hygiene management that she learnt and benefitted from the most.
In September 2019, WaterAid, with the support of HSBC, initiated a programme to improve the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) conditions of tannery workers and their families in Unnao in western Uttar Pradesh. Kings International, as part of this initiative, was aided with new and renovated WASH facilities for its workers, as well as training sessions on hygiene—including menstrual hygiene—that would sensitise them towards adopting good hygiene practices.
At first, said the women employees, it felt awkward. “It (menstruation) is not something we talk about so openly,” Kavita, 29, said. So when she and the rest of the women colleagues—all 35 of them—were asked to come for a training session on menstrual hygiene management (MHM), there was hesitation, some embarrassed giggles, and doubts. “When Sangeeta didi (elder sister in Hindi) asked us what menstrual hygiene product we use, and how long we use it before changing, none of us had the confidence to answer these questions openly,” Kavita said.
On that hot summer day when we watched one such MHM session in progress in the top-floor, canteen-turned-conference room, it, therefore, came as a surprise when Kavita, shedding her shy demeanour, stood on a chair and let the WaterAid trainer, Sangeeta Srivastava, tie an apron around her waist with the female reproductive system drawn on it. Petite and confident, she answered all the questions asked as the trainer lifted the multiple flaps on the apron: these are the ovaries, here is the egg, this is the fallopian tube, this is why menstruation happens. The rest of the audience, all women, nodded and answered in accordance.
“We have come a long way since that first session,” Kavita said later, “And along this way, we have realised that there is nothing to be embarrassed about menstruation. It is the most natural process that every woman goes through. What we should take care of instead is our bodies during this time.” The training sessions, Kavita said, stressed cleanliness during menstruation. If one uses cloth as an absorbent, it should be a soft, cotton piece, washed and dried in the sun before use.
“These sessions helped us decipher some of the regular problems many of us faced, like itchiness during periods. Lack of hygiene is the most possible cause of vaginal infections and uterine problems. No absorbent, cloth or sanitary napkin, should be used for more than six hours,” she added. A graduate, Kavita admittedly was more aware about some of the things taught than most of her colleagues, yet “there was a lot to learn”. Most of the women for instance have now adopted the habit of cleaning themselves with water after urinating to avoid urinary tract infection.
As the unofficial supervisor of the women employees in the workplace, Kavita was also given the responsibility of maintaining a sanitary napkin bank in case any woman needed it. “Usually when my menstruation date is around the corner, I become very conscious, even a little nervous in case I stain my clothes in the middle of work. But now that we have this pad bank, I and the others can rest assured that if need be, we can take a pad and save ourselves from any such risk,” she elaborated. The comfort of this knowledge helps them work without distraction.
The management too, Kavita said, is supportive of the women’s needs. Simple requirements—like a hook in the toilet to hang their dupattas or scarves—have been met with immediate effect.
Married for the last eight years, this is Kavita’s second job in the industry. Her husband works in the leather industry too. “It’s been four years here now; I have gained a lot—both in terms of work experience as well as knowledge for life,” she signed off with a smile.