Ensuring menstrual hygiene during Nepal lockdown

All photos: VSO

Despite restrictions on gatherings,  women across Nepal mark Tij this week, the festival of women, on Friday. Increasingly, Tij songs are less about lamenting gender justice and more about striving for equality.

One manifestation of entrenched patriarchy in Nepal is menstrual taboo, an extreme form of which is chhaupadi, the practice in parts of Nepal of the monthly banishment of women to an outhouse during their periods.

In a country where period stigma is still prevalent young women, adolescent girls are facing extra barriers under lockdown to maintain their period in a safe and dignified way.

During the pandemic girls are mostly confined to the household, and during their periods are forbidden to touch communal objects in the household. Added to this, the economic crisis hitting these communities is leaving young women and girls unable to afford period products.

Under a unique Sisters for Sisters' Education started by the UK-based VSO (Volunteer Service Overseas), big girls in rural Nepal who were already mentoring younger ones have stepped in during the lockdown to guide them about using and accessing period products.

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Muni Kumari Gupta is a ‘Big Sister’ who has been mentoring 11 little sisters in her community in a village in Parsa, the district in Nepal hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. “These days we are all living in a fear of the coronavirus,” Muni Kumari says, “ever since the first case was found in our village, there has been more fear.”

Muni Kumari Gupta is a ‘Big Sister’ who has been mentoring 11 little sisters in her community in a village in Parsa, the district in Nepal hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“These days we are all living in a fear of the coronavirus,” Muni Kumari says, “ever since the first case was found in our village, there has been more fear.”

Because the lockdown has been re-imposed in Parsa, Muni Kumari keeps in touch with her little ‘sisters’ through the mobile phone telling them to wear masks, maintain distance and keep elderly relatives safe.

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When the lockdown eased for a few weeks in July, she visited the homes of her ‘sisters’ to coach them in school lessons. Most schools in Parsa had been converted into quarantine centres for returnees from abroad, and had been closed.

Muni Kumari herself takes classes through the radio and joins her ‘sisters’ to learn English through the remote radio classes.

“It has been very difficult to communicate properly with girls and their families. I was allowed to visit a few families near my home so that I could teach them how to wash hands and use a face mask properly,” says Muni Kumari, who had been trained in making reusable sanitary pads, and she shares this skill with family members and girls in the community.

“During the lockdown, we were unable to buy sanitary pads at the shops. Therefore, the skills helped us to make our pads at home,” she adds.

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Anjali Patel is now in Grade 10, and is thankful that she has her ‘Big Sister’, Muni Kumari Gupta to help her navigate the dangers of the pandemic, the shortages of everything during the lockdown, and setbacks to education because of the closure of schools.

“My Big Sister is the closest person I can share my problems with,” says Anjali, “she lives nearby and is always available to guide us and the other small sisters. She helps me with my studies, and tells me how to stay safe during the pandemic.”

When Anjali was 10, her parents made her do household chores so she missed school a lot. Her parents also did not find school to be that important for a girl child. It was Muni Kumari who convinced her parents that Anjali should get an education.

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Anjali Patel is at home listening to a remote classroom on the radio, and helping her nephews with school lessons.

After the lockdown started in March, Anjali found it difficult because she could not meet her mentor face-to-face. But Muni Kumari called her on the phone and gave her confidence, instructing her how to protect herself and the family against the virus.

The Sister for Sisters program is supported by UK Aid through VSO and has distributed sanitary hygiene packs to nearly 1,200 families in Surkhet, Lamjung, Dhading and Parsa districts of Nepal. The kits include soap, towel, toothbrush, reusable sanitary pad, underwear, nail cutter, hygiene kit bag and liquid chlorine. The project is implemented by Global Action Nepal and Aasaman Nepal. 

Nitu Gupta is also a ‘Big Sister’ for 13 smaller girls in an adjoining village in Parsa district. As elsewhere in Nepal, the young girls cannot go to school, their families are in a precarious economic situation, and there is the need to protect themselves from the spread of the coronavirus.

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Nitu was already helping to educate her 13 ‘sisters’ before the lockdown, and she has been carrying on that work to make up for the closure of schools.  

“During the lockdown, our economic situation became much more difficult, and the girls were mentally affected because there have been suicides in the community,” Nitu says.

Sisters for Sisters helped girls like Nitu with remote training through radio to stay safe during the pandemic. She kept in touch with the girls under her care, teaching them to wash hands frequently. 

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Nitu Gupta is another mentor in the Sister for Sisters project, raising awareness about Covid-19 and supporting the education of girls who are out of school in Bahubari of Parsa district. Here she is handing over a hygiene kit to the mother of one of her little 'sisters'.

She adds, “The most challenging has been the lack of access to reading materials and menstrual products during the lockdown. But we have been able to provide the families with hygiene kits. This has helped the girls stay clean and comfortable.” 

Joya Parvin,18, is also a ‘Big Sister’ with 13 younger girls under her charge, but during the lockdown she has only been able to keep in touch with four of them who live nearby. She says the biggest challenge for the girls in her group is accessing menstrual products, soap and sanitser and masks.

When she first became a ‘Big Sister’ her main role was to convince parents from her Muslim community to send their daughters to school. But now that schools are closed, he mentoring is different – to make sure the girls keep up with their studies through radio, and have the necessary support to maintain hygience and stay safe.

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Joya Pravin showing the little 'sisters' under the charge how to make their own sanitary napkins.

One of the little ‘sisters’ in the group that Joya mentors is Rami Khatun, and she says she was seized with panic when Parsa became a coronavirus hotspot in July. “But she gave us tips on how to stay safe, and when the shops ran out of sanitary pads, Joya taught us how to make our own,” says Rami.

Rami spends her lockdown days at home helping with chores, and taking care of her nephews. Even though the schools are closed, Joya used to visit when the lockdown was eased. But now that are restrictions of movement, she calls frequently and Rami listens to the radio program to improve her English.

Read also: Tipping point on menstrual banishment in Nepal, Marty Logan