A girl’s death turns the spotlight on toilets, sanitary napkins
Shoma A. Chatterji, Kolkata
January 3, 2018

Not many of us are aware of the struggle pubescent girls go through during their monthly periods every month. Due to lack of sanitation facilities in schools, such as toilets, most girls in cities, suburban towns and villages stay away from school during their periods. Most girls use old cotton rags and re-use the same napkins after washing them. Roll Number 17 is a short film inspired by a real life tragedy and it scores with several pertinent messages on the subject

According to a survey report by AC Nielsen, 88 per cent of girls and women in India use ash, newspapers, sand husk and dried leaves during their monthly periods. Because of the unhygienic practices, more than 70 per cent of girls and women suffer from reproductive tract infections, increasing the risk of contracting associated cancers.
According to a national survey, 66 per cent of women and girls across the country do not use sanitary napkins
Roll Number 17 is a short film inspired by a real life tragedy. Ananya, a girl in Std VIII of Mathurapur School, an institution for boys and girls in the Sundarbans in Bengal, fell victim to a fatal disease from infection due to lack of hygienic drinking water and toilets in the school. She stopped attending school and never returned. She had died of the infection.

Ananya’s grief-stricken friends were doubtful whether they would attend school, especially during their periods. This is when the concerned headmaster with his single-minded commitment and dedication, decided to solve the problem. He approached several NGOs and government departments for funding and succeeded in building hygienic toilets, for boys and girls, in the school. Ananya’s death thus becomes a trigger for action.

Roll Number17 Ananya with friends still from the film
A scene from Roll Number 17.

Dhananjoy Mandal, the director of the film, based the 20-minute Roll Number 17 on Ananya and the issues raised by her death. The film begins with a girl missing from class when the teacher is taking attendance. She has been absent for some days and the scenes move on to find out why. The story is set in a contemporary setting and was shot in the school and village where the tragedy occurred.

In the real-life story, the headmaster, Chandan Maity, ran from pillar to post to garner funds before finally building hygienic toilets. Worried about unhygienic practices by girls during their periods, Maiti set up a sanitary napkin-vending machine within the school. Girls could thus get napkins easily. A new culture, a new social practice and a new way of looking at girls – this is the central subject of the film directed by the self-effacing Dhananjoy Mandal who has made around 37 short and feature films.

“I discovered during my field research how a small village school in the Sundarbans initiated a positive movement towards removing the social taboo against girls having periods and having to remain absent for four days every month because the school cannot provide hygienic drinking water on the one hand and does not have proper toilet facilities on the other. Even urban girls suffer because of the social taboo and the conspiracy of silence around periods (menstruation) in young girls and women though everyone knows this is a biologically structured natural process in girls,” says Mandal.

Mandal was amazed at how the headmaster approached government offices and various NGOs and finally succeeded in his mission, creating a healthy new lifestyle for the girl students. It was a lesson for neighbouring schools and also one about social responsibility – fulfilled well by the headmaster.

“Roll Number 17 is based on the principal objective of establishing a living example of the government’s credo of Swachha Bharat (Clean India) on the one hand and Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (Save the Girl Child, Educate Her) on the other,” says Mandal.

The film emphasises in an understated way the following points:
Girl students are forced to miss school when they have monthly periods
Most schools lack even an ordinary toilet and girls relieve themselves in the open
Girls refrain from drinking water even when they are thirsty because of lack of toilets Diseases of the urinary tract, kidneys and uterus could be fatal
Ignorance is the main enemy, not poverty
Preventive measures can avoid illness and death
Including boys in awareness campaigns helps

The film, produced by Monotosh Bera of Inner Eye Creations, makes generous use of voice-over, sound effects, some music and dialogue to provide entertainment value. The director uses a multi-linear script that is a fine blend of a few fictionalised flashbacks, a school programme to inaugurate the sanitary napkin vending machine, and a decorated school complex ready for the programme – moving forward after the girl’s death without making it sentimental or dramatic.

Why did the director who also scripted the film decide to insert a scene of the school function? According to Mandal, the school function has several uses: to shed light on what happens to girls because of the conspiracy of silence; to focus on the vending machine and how it is to be operated by the girls themselves; the method of discarding used napkins in the right way; celebrating the tragic death of Ananya in a positive way to initiate, sustain and promote change among the lives of women; and including boys in the process of change by making them aware of the issues.

At the function, the headmaster relates his experience of how he had gathered the funds, says no child should face the situation Ananya did, and stresses that an environment where girl students can have free access to sanitary napkins must be created. A sanitary napkin vending machine in a school for boys and girls must be a rarity, but the approach taken by the director is positive and is likely to create greater awareness about a subject that is often not talked about.

November 2017