When I was working with kids at a school in a Noida-based slum, I noticed that girls would miss school more often than boys. I wanted to know why, and casually I asked a group of girls. They just giggled and walked away. “What’s so funny?” I asked, but got no response. I tried checking with another group of girls, but got nothing more than giggles and embarrassed looks.
One of the teachers later told me that most girls stay at home during their menstrual cycle. “Seriously?” I almost screamed. Why? So I decided to Google to check if more girls in the world were being held back by shame. And I was shocked. One in five girls in India drop out of school due to puberty, according to an A C Nielsen study. An average Indian adolescent girl misses 50 days of school every year, it says.
Don’t get me wrong. I always knew that puberty could be a source of humiliation and it’s a taboo to talk about it. But I never realized that it could be an obstacle to learning.
I tried talking to few girls at the school. It took a little bit of nudging, but they opened up. They all had their stories – some funny and others embarrassing. It wasn’t easy for them to talk about it. And the worst part is that it’s not their biggest problem. Most of them don’t know about feminine hygiene products and can’t afford them either.
And this quagmire of poverty, misinformation, stigma and superstition is holding them back. This seemed to be a problem no smaller than lack of education, and possibly much more basic. And it is not on many people’s radars because of shame and derision associated with it. They had so many questions about the changes in their bodies. And nobody seemed to be willing to talk about them.
And I started looking for ways to educate these girls about feminine hygiene. It took a few months but I discovered Pasand. I hope I can make a meaningful contribution to their effort of helping these young girls take control of their bodies.
Vancha Verma, born in India, is a high school student in New Jersey. Fascinated and intrigued by technology, she loves to play with computer code. She worked as an intern at Spotify this summer. While working at a school in a Noida slum in 2012, she discovered the misinformation and stigma around female hygiene. She is hoping to develop education technology and tools that will adapt to the needs of underprivileged kids and adolescents.