Umme Sharmin Kabir’s journey with Wreetu in breaking the taboos about puberty and menstruation while building an informed and impactful society
Access to timely and necessary guidance to adolescent girls regarding puberty is a rare thing to observe in Bangladesh. The harsh truth is one of the things that our diverse social classes have is a taboo about what is a natural process. “It is a shameful secret; don’t talk about it in public is the most common advice a girl gets from her family and society.
The good news is that ripples of change have already started to alter the prevailing circumstances. Many initiatives have been taken to break the thick wall of stigma, taboo and myth.
Wreetu is one such beacon of hope which is working on building a nation with a population enlightened about menstruation, reproduction and puberty. Initiated by Umme Sharmin Kabir, the organization has been working relentlessly to bring changes since 2016.
Sharmin was working with adolescents as part of an NGO project when she noted the absence of credible information and proper guidance on puberty, menstruation and reproductive health. This, coupled with her own experience and struggles at a younger age prompted her to start Wreetu
According to a baseline survey of the RITU project supported by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, conducted in February 2017 on menstrual hygiene, 66% of surveyed girls did not know what menstruation was when it started. The majority of the girls hold misconceptions mostly based on myths about puberty and menstruation. Umme Sharmin mentioned that it is hampering their life in every aspect including confidence levels, and negatively impacting education. The survey also conveys that 53% of surveyed girls miss school on an average of 3 days a month during menstruation.
“I think it is every adolescent girls’ right to have that accurate information and obviously on time,” said Umme Sharmin.
The first step
Instead of applying all strategies together, Umme Sharmin chooses to progress slowly and steadily with proper planning. Her first step towards the goal was initiating interactive workshops by including the community itself. She explains this as “ if we only work with the girls without incorporating the community within it then the idea of menstruation will never be normalized.”
One of their projects is a collaboration with schools, where Umme Sharmin observed that despite information about puberty being included in textbooks, the school authorities are reluctant to teach the material to the girls. This is where Wreetu comes in with their Wreetu Shathi team, a team of six which includes two boys and a teacher, and a rotation of doctors and medical interns, to take on the job of informing the students of both genders, and to normalize the conversation around puberty and menstruation. They have a dedicated station where they sit on a specified day of the week, so the girls know where they can seek counselling and advice. Umme Sharmin’s hope is that by having timely information about bodily changes, the girls can learn to love and not feel shame about their bodies.
After an interactive workshop with grade 4 students of a school in Badda, the Wreetu Shathi Team encouraged the students to celebrate their first period. A few months later, Umme Sharmin got a call from one of the teachers, saying that the class celebrated the first period of one of the girls. “Yes, the very first period of that class was being celebrated and attended by the principles and other teachers. This is a huge change where our schools consciously avoid chapters of the textbook which talk about puberty and menstruation,” she said.
Umme Sharmin’s experience with different schools has taught her a lot about the prevailing mindset among people. “I find less privileged/slum areas people are more open compared to privileged communities. Since the slum schools are mostly NGO supported they have shown enough tolerance whereas convincing the mainstream teachers are tough,” said Umme Sharmin.
A road paved with difficulties
Umme Sharmin prefers not to worry too much about the challenges she faces, stating that the young generation aspires to change the situation.
Initially, all the workshops were conducted personally by Umme Sharmin. As the workshops increased in number and frequency, she built a team of trainers. She chose to include people from diverse backgrounds to build her trainer team. “I never prioritise on a medical background since the information these people work with are very basic and should be known and understood by everyone regardless of sex, age and educational background,” she added. She currently has 25 trainers working around the country, most regularly in Dhaka, Comilla, Khulna, Faridpur, Kishorgonj, Rajshahi and Sirajganj.
Wherever she has worked in Bangladesh, be it urban, rural, or remote areas, Sharmin has found glaring gaps in knowledge about menstrual health. She talks about horrifying revelations from girls in private universities. Many of them have no idea how often sanitary pads need to be refreshed, padding these with toilet tissues to extend the duration. “Considering the economic and educational background of those students they are reluctant to expend 150tk for their menstruation hygiene. People with higher economic and educational background contain low levels of period hygiene management out of the stigma, considering it as taboo or simply from reluctance. On the other hand, rural and remote areas don’t have the capacity to access information and lack facilities to maintain it. “There is hardly any comparison regarding knowledge gap regardless of location and social class,” said Umme Sharmin.
She shared the mortifying experience at a mainstream school where she was made to wait for two hours before the principal declined to meet her. In another story, one of Wreetu’s trainers faced resistance from the local women during the first day of a two-day long workshop in a rural area. The women said since they hadn’t faced any problem (according to them) without knowing anything about menstruation, it should follow that their daughters would also not require to be informed. It was only after a determined sensitization and presentation of scientific facts on the next day that they willingly accepted knowledge. Working with a community has its own kind of challenges since it has a certain defence mechanism to protect its existing belief system.
A book to rescue
If not through workshops are there any resources in Bangla that can mitigate that gap? That was Umme Sharmin’s next project, initiated in 2016.
Three years of rigorous research and hard-work finally resulted in the Wreetu Comic Book titled ‘oyoshondhi, mashik ar berey berey othar golpo”. Launched in 2019, the book, written by Umme Sharmin allows adolescent girls to learn about their puberty, menstruation and other changes through a beautifully illustrated story. “The book is designed in such a way where information is embedded in an organized and friendly manner,” said Umme Sharmin.
The book can be purchased through their online platform. Different NGOs’ and government agencies have used the comic book to serve the greater purpose.
A token of support
Proper management of menstrual hygiene is extremely important for every woman, because it impacts, amongst other things, the childbirth process. If menstruation hygiene is not properly maintained, it would have a long term impact on the number of patients having complications due to unhealthy practices during menstruation. This would consequently have an adverse effect on the entire health system.
Reusable cloth pads can be complicated. Disposable sanitary items can be cleaner and easier, but have an ecological footprint, and may not be affordable for many girls and women. Umme Sharmin tackled both problems by creating a sponsorship system, whereby you can pay for an entire year’s worth of biodegradable sanitary napkins for a single girl. Wreetu launched its own line of biodegradable sanitary pads in the midst of the pandemic last year. The response has been heartwarming, with NGOs and individuals alike pitching in to sponsor underprivileged adolescent girls to make their menstrual journey smooth and healthy. Last month, for example, an anonymous donor donated Tk15000 through Wreetu’s Facebook page, ensuring that 30 women and girls were taken care of.
“We are working not only to disseminate information but bring a change. We are focusing more on creating an impact. Because I believe that the absence of impact will lead to an end result that will be unsatisfactory,” said Umme Sharmin.
The most recent step taken by Umme Sharmin through her platform Wreetu is conducting online courses about puberty and menstruation. Although the initial target group is 9 to 14 years old adolescent girls, in future she plans to include adolescent boys.