Boys and menstruation in Indian schools

Georgia Hales, Graduate, Master of Engineering (Civil and Environmental).

*This post is about research conducted as part of a Master of Engineering (Civil and Environmental Engineering) final project, supervised by Dr Dani Barrington.*

N.B. In this post I am using gendered terms such as  ‘girls’ and ‘females’ to denote those that menstruate and ‘boys’ and ‘males’ to denote those that don’t. However, I do note that menstruation can be experienced by other individuals, for example, transgender men.

The menstrual cycle is an integral part of a woman’s life, with many of the associated challenges she may experience being shaped by the community she lives in. Although the stigma surrounding menstruation is a global issue, it can manifest itself in different ways throughout the world, with many concerns being more apparent in countries where the gender gap is wider. For example, in India it has been reported that 23 million girls stop attending school every year once they start menstruating. The main reasons for this appear to be the secretive nature of menstruation, wherein girls and boys are not taught properly about it (neither at home nor at school) and are dissuaded from discussing it, inadequate toilet facilities within schools and a lack of available proper menstrual hygiene equipment. It could be said that we are stuck in a vicious cycle wherein the lack of education on MHM propagates the global negative perceptions of menstruation as something dirty, shameful, embarrassing, something to be kept secret, something that restricts women and makes them less adequate than men, as well as something that can be used to perpetuate sexist stereotypes. Not only does this continue to reinstate women as second-class to men, but also keeps us from discussing the problems of menstrual education or creating institutions that are compatible with women’s needs. By educating both boys and girls about menstruation and menstrual hygiene management (MHM) girls can feel more confident in being able to manage their periods in the school environment, the stigma begins to break down and boys can encourage and support their female peers rather than mock and inhibit them.As more awareness and knowledge of the subject is disseminated, more importance can be given to ensuring that all women have access to the right facilities they need at all times and attitudes of female inferiority or otherness can be diminished in order to create more equal societies.

India is infamous for its relationship with sanitation and has set up many campaigns to try and resolve this. The most recent is the Swachh Bharat Mission, launched in 2014. As part of this, The Government of India released its National Guidelines on MHM in 2015, in which the importance of educating both boys and girls about menstruation was stressed several times. In March/April 2018 I went to Mumbai, India, to interview schoolteachers on what exactly was being taught about MHM to secondary school boys, as well as to gain an idea of the attitudes towards this. In the six state schools I visited, I was pleased to learn that an NGO was distributing a monthly supply and disposal of sanitary pads for all the girls, as well as giving them lessons on MHM, which the teachers said was helping to keep the girls in school. I was disappointed to hear that no such lesson was being given to the boys, keeping them clueless about the topic. The teachers said that their male students knew next to nothing about menstruation, or at best some warped information, which was causing them to either tease the girls in an attempt to gain some knowledge or distance themselves from the girls in fear of this unknown phenomena.

Some of the teachers believed that upbringing and background had an effect on what the boys knew as well as their attitudes, with some families keeping the subject completely “hushed up”. In poorer communities, where children of all ages play together, younger boys get more information from the older ones, but this is often incorrect and leads to further confusion. Not only did the social status of the children seem to affect their access to knowledge, but also the religious and educational background of their school and teachers. Of the different schools, some were Hindu, some were Muslim and some used ‘Teach for India’ teachers, who have college degrees. It was apparent that the ‘Teach for India’ teachers were very knowledgeable about the issues and eager for all the children to learn about it. The Hindu teachers were also in agreement of the subject’s importance, whereas the Muslim teachers were less convinced and overall more coy about the topic. Although all of the teachers said that they think menstruation and MHM should be taught within the school syllabus, I am wary that the less enthusiastic participants were only telling me what they thought I wanted to hear. In addition, it is not only the teachers’ opinions on the subject that matter but also those of the parents, with the interviewees saying that if they did begin to include MHM education for all, there would be objections from parents, with one teacher saying they had already had complaints just from drawing a diagram of the male and female anatomies on the board during biology.

On the whole I was surprised and pleased with the opinions I gained from the interviews. I was happy to see some of the teachers share the same enthusiasm as me, being frustrated about how the government documents such as the national guidelines, released three years ago, knew the importance of the inclusion of boys in MHM education, yet the school syllabus was still not allowing boys to be taught about it, even in India’s largest city. Being at a loss myself, I asked one of the teachers why this is the case. She speculated that the importance is simply lost along the way from the top government level to the grassroots and that the only way this will change is if it keeps being talked about, as the National Guidelines on MHM concur, ‘what cannot be talked about will not change’.

Read Georgia’s journal article on her work: Investigating the policies and practices of teaching menstrual hygiene education to schoolboys in India