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How do period-friendly bathrooms help girls stay in school?

Constructing girl-friendly facilities, complete with incinerators to dispose of used sanitary pads, has significantly increased the attendance of female students at Kirtipur Secondary School in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo: Dipika Joshi/Oxfam

Oxfam is teaching young women in Nepal about feminine hygiene and providing access to sanitary pads, preventing embarrassment and helping them remain in school. 

Reporting by Sabir Ojha and Samana Bishynkhe, Gorkha; Dipika Joshi, Kathmandu 

Summer is winding down and children in the US are preparing to head back to school, signaling a time-honored tradition: the frantic scramble to stock up on supplies for the upcoming year. And for teenage girls, that may include feminine products, overlooked but much-needed for school survival.

Middle and high school years can be fraught with stress, embarrassment, and discomfort from trying manage your period while navigating the school day. Add to that turbulent mix frustration from having limited access to bathrooms and sanitary products as well as having no place to dispose of used pads, and the end result discourages girls from attending school when they are menstruating. That was the situation in Nepal, where girls preferred to leave school rather than face social stigma from period stains.  

“After the [2015] earthquake, there were no latrines for us in the school,” recalls Sangita Gurung, 15, a 10th grader at Manikam Devi Higher Secondary School in Gorkha, Nepal. “We would be in the same sanitary cloth all day. If we felt like it was going to stain our skirts, there was no other option than to go back home with a shawl wrapped around your waist, and miss classes.” 

Even before the earthquake, her school had a limited number of bathrooms. “Four [of six] were for students, and of those, one was for girls,” she says. “The latrine had a place to throw used sanitary pads, but when it became full, there was no system to dispose of them.”

Oxfam and local partners in Nepal are working to stop menstruation from interfering with girls’ education. We are raising awareness about feminine hygiene, and ensuring there are girl-friendly latrines in schools. Last year, we worked with 72 schools to provide menstrual hygiene management faciliites. At Manikam Devi Higher Secondary School, we constructed eight latrines, four of which are for girls. 

We have also been supporting the installation of incinerators to destroy the pads, making bathrooms more hygienic and more inviting for use. "We no longer have to miss our classes because of our periods," reports Gurung. 

At Kirtipur Secondary School in Kathmandu, the construction of girl-friendly facilities has significantly increased the attendance of female students. Bhawana Lama, a 10th grade student at Kirtipur Secondary School, remembers, “Earlier there were pads thrown everywhere around the toilets.”

Students are also reaping the benefits of a newly established sanitary pad depot and operation and maintenance fund. Funds are collected every Friday during school assembly. The money goes toward replenishing the stock of sanitary pads and supporting extracurricular activities.

"I am thankful to Oxfam and [local partner] Lumanti for the support of female students,” says Anisha Tamang, a ninth grader. “Now, we can attend school freely during menstruation period.”

De-stigmatizing periods 

Before attending an Oxfam-organized discussion on menstruation hygiene management, 13-year-old Amrita Gurung of Gandaki Lower Secondary School in Gorkha had minimal understanding of how menstruation works. “I had not had my period yet, and I was not aware of what to do during menstruation,” she says. “I was too shy to ask others.” The discussion provided a space to have her questions answered.

Orientations on menstruation hygiene management and consultations with teachers and child club members have helped to decrease the stigma surrounding menstruation. Tamang says she and her friends are able to ask their teacher for sanitary pads without feeling ashamed. 

Students participate in a workshop to fashion their own sanitary pads from remnant fabrics. Photo: Dipika Joshi/Oxfam

Taking matters into their own hands

Oxfam and partner groups ENPHO (Environment and Public Health Organization) and Goreto Gorkha are conducting trainings on designing alternative sanitary napkins in Lalitpur, Bhaktapur, and Gorkha districts with the goals of promoting female entrepreneurship and making sanitary napkins available in local markets. School volunteers and teachers are encouraged to champion the use of sanitary napkins. “We are happy to get this opportunity,” says one primary school teacher. “I hope to train others as well and would like further support with materials.”

In these workshops, we are teaching girls how to design homemade sanitary pads using cloth from saris and shawls. Rima Gurung, 15, of Gandaki Lower Secondary School now makes her own sanitary napkins since she says they are hard find to find in stores, and the sanitary pads that are available are expensive.

“I had no idea that we could make sanitary napkins at home,”she says. "Now I am motivating my friends to use the sanitary cloths available in the sanitary depot, and I can prepare reusable sanitary napkins at home and teach others." 

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