Can you explain the Ritu programme and the presentation you gave in Prato, in a bit more detail?
‘The presentation I gave in Prato was about the Ritu programme and on how we can measure the social impact of this programme. We’re really interested in examining the exact effect on the wellbeing of adolescent girls when it comes to their Menstrual Hygiene Management. Bangladesh has a perfect research setting, especially for programmes like Ritu, when you are working on the promotion of education. It has seen such a strong economic growth in the past few years. If you can make sure that, through the means of education, the rural regions can catch-up as well, everyone will be able to benefit from the economic growth.
One thing that is very interesting, is the age of these girls. They’re around 10 years old, when starting the Ritu programme and one of the main taboos in Bangladesh is that girls don’t go to school when they have their periods. This programme is really trying to tackle that taboo. By improving their self-esteem and also giving them the knowledge and practices in managing their menstruation. The key element here is the importance of them going to school. Education has been proved to have long-lasting, positive impact on someone’s wellbeing, and on a more practical note: the longer girls stay in schools, the later they will get married. Although this is not the main focus of the Ritu programme, we might be able to give it a push in the right direction.’
Can you explain why menstruation is still such a taboo topic in some parts of Bangladesh?
‘First of all: I think taboos surrounding menstruation are everywhere, even in our country. It’s level might be a bit different, but even here in the Netherlands, we often hide our tampons. We don’t enforce strong taboos around it but we also don’t shout it from the roof tops, so to say. And in Bangladesh there’s also different degrees of taboos. Especially in the region we’re working. Everything that involves tradition and social norms are very important. Because we’re working in rural areas, people are more interconnected than the people living in bigger cities. In the bigger city you might not even know the name of your neighbors for instance. It’s a very different setting, so the backlash is also much stronger when you don’t follow these social norms.
Another thing, that’s also worth mentioning, is the availability of resources. When you have a bit more money, you’re able to buy good menstrual pads, making it easier to hide your period. Unfortunately, too many girls in Bangladesh don’t have these resources and use old cloths to hide their menstruation. When you use these cloths, you’ll have to wash them and dry them, which makes it harder to hide and easier for other to spot. Cultural norms and social beliefs even prevent the subject being openly discussed, even between mothers and daughters. So that’s also something to take into account, that money or the availability of resources plays a big part in this as well.’
What do you think about the collaboration with Simavi and what are your most interesting findings?
‘It is quite an unique collaboration between the Maastricht University and Simavi. In the beginning, it could sometimes be a bit challenging to align the interests and the constraints of an academic institution with that of an NGO. So communication is really key and I think that is one of the things that is going incredibly well. The link between our team and the team of Simavi is so tight, it is really a very pleasant collaboration. Now the programme officially started, it is all running very smoothly and we are waiting to capture the first impact. It is definitely really exciting to work together on this.
As from what I’ve seen on the ground, is that at least the programme’s implementation is going incredibly well. Everything that was planned has been implemented and I think that is quite great for such a big, complex programme. With any programme in the field, many things happen all of the sudden and you have to react ad hoc. I think the team on the ground, Mahbuba KumKum and Ahmed Khabir, are amazing. They are really on top of everything, and their whole goal is to let everything run smoothly. So I think they are doing an incredibly good job.
The question related to our most interesting findings is a bit more difficult to answer, because the programme hasn’t finished yet, so we can’t draw any conclusions. However, I think the most interesting findings for us, so far come from our baseline survey. We’ve questioned 4000 girls and just wanted to know what their life was like and how everything is going in regards to their menstrual health and hygiene management. I think one of the most shocking things that I found was that 66% of the girls who had their period did not even know what it was, when they first got their period. So they started bleeding, obviously being very afraid and having no idea to what was happening. For me that was very difficult to relate to. I can’t imagine what it must be like if that happens to you. I sincerely hope that a programme like Ritu can really help these girls, even before their first period. So that they know that it’s a normal and natural thing happening to their body. Every woman and girl in the world menstruates every month: it’s a core aspect of women’s life and their reproductive system.’