Deepika is seen dropping the Rs 2/- coin in the sanitary napkin vending machine. The thirteen-year-old is caught unawares by the onset of her monthly periods. Yogeshwari, her friend and classmate accompanies her to the staffroom. Deepika is terribly embarrassed but greatly relieved to get a sanitary napkin in time. This is the common case with most adolescent girls her age and the napkin vending machine in the school premises is a blessing.
“Puberty can set in at the tender age of ten for many girls and in the rural areas, keeping them in school is a challenge,” explains Banumathy, Assistant Headmistress, Nemmeli School, “particularly if they are unprepared.”
She says that the napkin vending machine sponsored by UNICEF and Shri Cheema Foundation, an initiative in corporate social responsibility by TVS Electronics Ltd., is a boon to the girl students.
The community in and around Kancheepuram District comprises low-income groups. Since the households cannot afford sanitary napkins, the adolescent girls resort to the traditional method of using old cloth.
But now, the Tiruvidenthai Akshaya Self-Help Group manufactures and supplies low-cost sanitary pads for just Rs 2 innovatively through vending machines. The school also has an incinerator for the safe disposal of sanitary waste installed by the Tamil Nadu Government in 2004 under the Total Sanitation Campaign.
Menstruation in India has traditionally been associated with myths and taboos and adolescent girls find it extremely difficult to even discuss the issue with their parents or elders in the family. Most of them turn to their teaching staff for advice on personal hygiene.
“The girls feel comfortable asking us questions and we are glad to help,” smiles Banumathy. Shri Cheema Foundation conducts classes on menstrual hygiene and other issues of puberty for students in classes VIII to XI at Nemmeli School, adding to the students’ capability to deal with this vulnerable time of change.
“When the doctors first came to speak on menstruation, we were all very shy and did not know how to clarify our doubts,” reflects Seetha of Class IX B, looking at her batch mates, “but when they started talking about how important it is to keep ourselves clean, I realised that I wasn’t doing the things I ought to do.”
Mohana is fourteen and her menstrual cycle began when she was barely ten years old. “I was using home-made cloth-pads earlier and I used to wash them for reuse,” she says embarrassed, “but after I heard the Trainers speak on the harmful effects of doing this, I switched over to sanitary napkins.” In fact, Mohana takes home five sanitary napkins from the vending machine during her menstrual cycle.
The girl students of the rural school are now aware of the issues of reproductive tract infections and of the importance of hygiene practices. “I used to change my napkin after 12 hours but after listening to the talk by the doctors, I have realised the importance of changing it at least every 5 hours,” twelve-year-old Rajeswari says.