Transformation of A. Asha, a class IX student of a Tamil Nadu school, from a regular absentee to a bright student can provide hope of better academic achievement to girl students in 15 states.
Her academic record has improved over the last eight months after a sanitary napkin vending machine and an incinerator came up at her MC Palli secondary school in Krishnagiri district, 350-km southwest of Chennai.
“She is now one of our brightest students. Her performance has improved a lot,” said M.V. Murali, the principal of the school that installed the machine with assistance from UNICEF.
The class IX student used to miss school at least five days a month. During those days, she stayed in a solitary hut outside her tribal village Eklanatham with an old woman as she was considered unclean.
But since the vending machines have arrived she has not missed any classes. Back home, her newly attained menstrual hygiene knowledge has helped her convince her parents against keeping her at home.
Now, she and 150-odd girls in her school feel the difference. R Subhashami acknowledged she has overcome talking about menstrual hygiene. “Menstruation is not a stigma. It is a natural course and we are not ashamed about it,” she said with a beaming smile.
It is this smile and sense of confidence that made the vending machine worth the money Murali had to spare from the school’s shoestring budget. The machine cost the school Rs 10,000.
An analysis of attendance data in 30 schools by the District Education Office also demonstrated the link between the machines and higher attendance and enrolment rate of girls. “Absenteeism has reduced,” M Bhaskaran, the district’s Education Officer said.
“Andhra Pradesh and Kerala have already initiated the process for installing machines. States like Bihar and Madhya Pradesh are following the suit,” said Devraj, a UNICEF programme officer.
Empowering girl students is not all that the experiment has achieved. It has also provided an alternative source of income to thousands of women in Tamil Nadu enrolled with the Self Help Groups (SHGs) that manufacture the sanitary napkins.
“The schools have provided us an extremely good market to sell our product,” said S Nagalaxmi, who has trained women in SHGs in 18 states to make sanitary napkins at home since 2003.