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Do not head near the prayer room or the kitchen during that time of the month! I am sure every Indian girl has had these statements directed at her during her menstrual period at least once in her lifetime.

We are always told to not speak out loud about ‘that time of the month’. It is not good etiquette to speak about your periods out in public, they say. Some women and girls do not even have the space to talk about these within their very own households. This was the every month scene at Ayisha and Tamilarasi’s (aka Tamil) households. This story is about these two 17-year-olds arising from the rural communities of Tiruvannamalai district of Tamil Nadu. In rural India the rules are much more intense and strict, but Ayisha and Tamil have broken barriers around menstruation to help themselves and their community!

Ayisha and Tamil are two 17-year-olds are peer educators at their respective schools. As peer educators, their objective is to educate more women and adolescent teens about menstruation and its effects. In the small hamlets that comprise the rural community of India, nothing is a secret amongst its society members. Hence you can imagine the many restrictions and barriers the two girls face daily. Ayisha is from a religious minority background where her extended family is eagerly urging her parents to stop her education and have her married and Tamil’s mother is also keen on getting her married off as soon as she turns 18.

At Hand in Hand India (HIH India) we had Menstrual Health Management (MHM) training conducted at all regional rural schools to educate the girls and this is how we discovered these two young influencers. Both exhibited great interest in the training and seemed very keen to help others understand the importance of MHM. They wanted to raise awareness and make sure no other women or children face the same struggles and restrictions they did. For Ayisha and Tamil, the training they received from the HIH India was like a wake-up call.

“I had no idea about menstruation or on ways to dispose of the pad as my mother would not talk about it,” says Ayisha. She also noted that the girls at school were also not aware of the safe disposal of pads and would often leave the used pads or clothes lying around in the washrooms at school or stuffed into windowsills. This is why she took it upon herself to educate these girls and ensured that they are aware of the hygiene practices that need to be followed during menstruation. Ayisha is a change maker in her community as she did not just break barriers of the religious restrictions and the myths around menstruation through raising awareness but through her continuous persuasions and efforts, she had two incinerators installed at the school.

As for Tamil, she is known as an independent and headstrong girl in her village community. She is also a peer educator and an activist who has advocated for the need for toilets amongst the rural communities. Her is goal is to see everyone in her village strive and evolve, “I want my village to the best of them all” she says with bright and twinkling eyes. She has been instrumental in more than a dozen households’ decisions to build toilets. She noted that health and hygiene go hand in hand and that it is very important for people to conform to it and that this is accomplished by raising awareness.

Tamil quotes that “If I educate one person or 10 people about the need to use toilets and about the various complications that arise from defecating out in the open, then they would intron educate and raise awareness towards more people. This would then become a chain reaction and the numbers will keep growing. This is what I want, I everyone to take responsibility and make this world a beautiful place.”

The belief will power, and determination of the two girls have created a massive impact in their society and communities. This has also caused a lot of women and adolescent girls to leave the unhygienic practices behind and move on to safe and healthy options. This is the exact output the Menstrual Hygiene Management training provided by Hand in Hand India at India’s government school hopes to achieve. We aim to create strong and independent women who do not have to conform to some old and rusted myths and beliefs of menstruation. For years these prejudices have bounded our women and have given the impression that they are not capable of certain things in life. Ayisha and Tamil are the shining examples of how these prejudices can be abolished that women are made for greater things and are anything but equals to men.

The menstrual hygiene training catered to by HIH India has enabled numerous women and adolescents to move out of their restricted spaces. HIH India’s Healthcare pillar has been training the community to take care of their nutrition and sanitation needs that are part of our integrated approach. Menstrual hygiene camps, school health camps, maternal and child health training, and child growth monitoring system are some ways by which we prepare communities for a healthier future. Till date through the Menstrual Hygiene Management program the Health pillar has assembled 1259 peer-educators and raised awareness on personal hygiene, reproductive health and sanitation among 8043 women and adolescent girls.

Hand in Hand India works across India in the area of Child Labour Elimination. In addition to our residential special training centres for child and bonded labourers in Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh, we run 2 schools for first-generation learners in Kanchipuram. Through our initiatives, more than 3 lakh children have been mainstreamed into formal Government schools and have converted more than 1000 panchayats (groups of villages) into child-friendly ones. Read more about our work here.