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Menstruation – still a taboo topic in India’s culture – is hampering the education of young women, says the Agra, India-based Indian Dreams Foundation, which has launched the “Smiley Day” initiative to distribute sanitary pads and educate girls about their periods.

“Menstruation is an integral and normal part of female life, yet the majority of India’s girls lack access to clean and safe sanitary products, and a private place to change and keep themselves clean,” Punit Asthana, founder of IDF, told India-West. Economics is a huge factor in girls’ ability to access feminine hygiene products, but families must also put a priority on such needs, he said.

Cultural taboos force young women to be isolated during “that time of the month,” which means they cannot go to school, he explained to India-West. As girls get behind in their studies, they tend to drop out of school, added Asthana, who founded IDF in 2005. Over the past 11 years, the Foundation has launched several initiatives aimed at helping girls access primary and vocational education.

IDF is partially funded by Indian Americans who donate to the organization through the Northern California-based Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Earlier this year, the Foundation launched “My Daughter, My Pride,” which aims to help Indians celebrate their daughters’ lives, and to acknowledge the mother-daughter bond.

“Smiley Days” came about after IDF conducted a survey of 570 girls in Agra to determine how they tackled their “special days” each month. “The results of the survey were shocking,” said Asthana, adding that girls considered themselves to be unclean and impure while menstruating, and exhibited a startling lack of knowledge about their periods. Almost half the girls surveyed were anemic, and very few used sanitary pads, resulting in genital-area infections and rashes. Most girls used old cloths and then reused them, often without the ability to adequately sanitize them.

Girls who used feminine hygiene products seldom had adequate privacy to change their pads, noted the survey.

IDF’s Smiley Days initiative is currently working with 2,000 girls and their mothers in Agra, and hopes to scale up to serving 10,000 low-income girls. Each girl gets a kit with feminine hygiene products, along with instructions on proper use. The kit comes with a piggy bank so that young women can save to buy the products themselves.

IDF is also aiming to place sanitary disposal boxes in schools so girls can properly dispose of the pads. Long-term, the Foundation is aiming to construct separate toilet facilities for girls at schools in the area. IDF is also organizing menstrual health awareness workshops.

The Foundation is currently raising funds for the initiative through the Global Giving web portal. The fundraising campaign – which ends Sept. 30 – can be viewed at http://bit.ly/IDFGG.

This story was originally published on India West.