A misfiring sanitary pad scheme has Delhi’s schoolgirls skipping classes

Heena Kausar
Saumya Khandelwal

In the washroom at her home in south-east Delhi, a 15-year-old school girl saw blood flowing down her thighs. Unaware of what was happening to her, she took it for a disease and screamed.

Her mother, a home maker, came rushing in and comforted her daughter, saying that this was a natural phenomenon that all girls go through after a certain age. She explained how to use a sanitary pad.

The next day, when she went to Class 10 at her government school in a working class neighbourhood, and informed her teachers about her condition, she was given a free sanitary napkin packet.

A few years ago, in 2011, the Delhi government had announced a scheme with an annual budget of Rs 12-15 crores to give free sanitary napkins to female students.

Before the scheme was implemented, Sonu Nijhawan, vice principal of the Government Girls' Senior Secondary School in Sangam Vihar, said she used to send menstruating girls home. The program made "a huge difference for girls for multiple reasons," she said. "The scheme helped [girls] maintain personal hygiene, kept them regular in school, and eased the financial burden of some really poor families."

But since November 2016, the program has come to a halt. The initial tender given to provide the napkins ended, and a new one, issued in December, included requirements that none of the applicants could meet. Another tender, issued in August, elicited seven qualified applicants. But according to the Delhi Directorate of Education (DoE) (sources), it might be another month or two before they can decide which company is most suitable and the supply of sanitary napkins can be restored. DOE did not respond to a detailed questionnaire sent on the matter.

In the meantime, Nijhawan said she's returned to sending girls home. Around eight lakh girls, ages 10-18, in the government school system now undergo a monthly struggle. The new GST rate of 12% on sanitary napkins makes them expensive for poor families. A 2011 study conducted by AC Nielsen, a global survey company, found that only 12% of India's 355 million menstruating women use sanitary napkins and that 88% of women resort to unsanitised cloth, ash and husk sand.

Menstruation is also the most common reason for truancy among female students, according to 12 girls attending government schools interviewed by Hindustan Times. At least 9 of them had attendance lower than 75%, the minimum required to sit for Board exams. All of them requested total anonymity and seemed uncomfortable discussing a topic.

The former Class 10 student says that, at the time of her first period, she "didn't know much about it. Even though most of my friends used to menstruate, we never talked about it." She had attended seminar in school about menstruation once in Class 7, but "I couldn't understand it much." She misses school, she said, for at least two days whenever she got a period, in part due to the condition of the washroom in her school. Teachers there and at other institutions say they regularly find used rags and cloths in the women's bathroom.

A costly taboo

A packet of sanitary napkins with eight pads costs between Rs 30 and Rs 80 across India. For girls whose families make between Rs 5,000 and Rs 10,000 monthly, this is a financial burden. Delhi's government-provided packets of sanitary napkins had 10 free pads, which was at least almost enough to get a girl through a month.

The lack of sanitary napkins, along with a host of attendant sources of pain and embarrassment, encourages girls to skip school.

"It is not just access to sanitary napkins, but there is physical discomfort coupled with stigma that many girls feel during this period," said a female principal from a government school in south Delhi who requested anonymity to speak freely.

"Another factor is access to a clean washroom. So, if a girl, while she is in physical discomfort, doesn't have access to sanitary napkin and has to deal with the worry about what will people say if she stains her clothes and then has to use an unclean washroom, chances are she may skip school altogether."

A retired deputy director of education with over 35 years of experience in Delhi, who was working during the implementation of the program to distribute sanitary napkins, said the initiative grew out of an increasing awareness that many girls were not using healthy or hygienic menstrual practices, and that this was leading to truancy.

"There are many reasons for why girls miss school, and it was one of them," she said of menstruation. "We observed that some girls were missing school every month for some days. So some principals took an initiative and kept sanitary napkins in school on their own expenditure. Eventually the government decided to start the scheme."

Without the program, the official said, many girls do not get enough support. "The family background of most of our students is poor and there is limited or no focus on health, especially health of a girl child. Many of our girls were using material such as ragged clothes as they could not afford to buy sanitary napkins."

Delhi's government schools have stopped giving free sanitary pads since November 2016. This put the health of girls from some of the city's poorest families at risk.

If the DoE reinstates free sanitary napkins soon, it will make school a respite from the circumstances many girls face at home and elsewhere. A student at one government school told Hindustan Times that she wasn't allowed to move outside of a particular room during menstruation. She said that her family subscribes to a tradition in which menstruating women are prohibited from being seen by male relatives. During her periods, she said, her family effectively forbade her from attending school.

When contacted, her family denied observing the custom, saying it has not been widely practised even in their ancestral village for many years. The family said the girl made up the excuse to justify her sparse attendance.

"The topic is such a taboo in most families that young girls are not even taught about menstrual hygiene and health," said Bandana Sodhi, a gynecologist who recently helped produce an educational comic book on the subject. "Especially in rural areas and conservative societies, there are restrictions on moving around, praying, and eating."

In 2015, the Indian government issued menstrual hygiene management guidelines that acknowledged the topic was taboo and stressed the need to change common social practices.

The guidelines emphasized the need for teachers to address menstrual hygiene in school, where girls can learn healthy habits to be continued over the rest of their lives.

Principals and teachers both say that providing sanitary napkins is only one of many measures needed to improve girls' menstrual health. An Educational and Vocational Guidance Counsellor is supposed to provide information about issues around menstruation, but not every school has one. Delhi school do gives classes on menstrual health, but they occur only once a year.

"As teachers our role is also to break the taboos around menstruation and tell girls that they need not be ashamed about it," said one female government-school teacher with over 13 years of experience. "They can enter kitchen, go out and just basically live their life as usual."