WHEN A 14-YEAR OLD school girl recently committed suicide in Ambarnath, a Mumbai suburb, it was initially attributed to academic pressure. Her friends, however, revealed that the girl had been depressed. She used to stay away from school every month, sometimes even during exams because of menstrual cramps. It was during such a period that she killed herself. Her parents had not known what she was going through.
“There is no official record which says that the girl committed suicide due to menstruation problems. But every other fact points to it,” says Shalini Thackeray. Her NGO Kalki has started a sustained campaign to keep girls in school. She is also general secretary of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.
Numerous studies have indicated how serious the issue is. Unavailability of sanitary pads, lack of separate toilets for girls in schools and inadequate sanitation are the primary reasons for girls quitting school. A 2015 survey conducted by Unicef with the help of Nielsen India and NGOs, Vatsalya and Water Aid, found that 2.8 million adolescent girls miss school in Uttar Pradesh every month and 1.9 million leave school due to menstruation. Another pan-India survey found that about 23 per cent of adolescent girls in the 12-18 age group drop out of school after they begin menstruating. Those who are in school do not attend school during their menstruation cycle.
A 2010 survey conducted by AC Nielsen found that only 12 per cent of India’s 355 million menstruating population use sanitary pads during menstruation. Those who use cloth have the arduous task of washing and drying it out. In a majority of households, the cloth has to be dried in a corner where no one can see it. Severe rashes and infections of the reproductive tract are common side-effects in these cases. “If the Beti Padhao slogan of Prime Minister Modi has to be a success then the problem linking menstruation and girls dropping out of school has to be addressed very seriously,” says Thackeray.
She has been popularising the Napi Vend machines which dispense sanitary pads when a certain sum of money is put into a slot. She has also been writing letters and making personal visits to educational institutions in Mumbai, urging them to install Napi Vend. “There has been an overwhelming response from all those we have approached. In fact, many institutions have started doing it on their own,” adds Thackeray.
The first Napi Vend machine was installed at Swami Vivekanand School in Charkop in the western suburbs of Mumbai. Another was installed at the Rotary Sanskardham School for differently-abled children in Goregaon. At both schools, each pad is priced at Rs 5. Lata Nayak, principal of Rotary Sanskardham School, says the machine is the recognition of a long standing basic need. “Now [girl students] do not have to look everywhere for a pad. It is dignity for them,” says Nayak.
Counsellors say it is a tough challenge to dispel taboos surrounding menstruation because mothers are wary of changing traditions practised in their own homes. “Counselling in isolation is non-productive for they go back to being discriminated at homes,” says Anjali Thatte, a counsellor. “Menstrual taboos are as rigid in the educated urban households as it is in rural homes. Changing mindsets is not easy.” Cruel rituals that girls have to endure include sitting in a corner of the house when they are menstruating, not being able to touch anything or entering the kitchen, eating from separate utensils and later washing the vessels themselves and being allowed to use the bathroom only after everyone else in the household.
Many state governments, like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu, have been aggressively pushing for free distribution of sanitary pads and subsequently, dropout rates of adolescent girls from schools have seen a significant improvement. A Unicef-developed menstruation counselling kit is being used in schools in Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu and has seen impressive success. These states have also started installing Unicef’s low-cost incinerators in girls’ toilets for the disposal of soiled pads.
Others, however, are lagging. The Maharashtra government started implementing the programme for the free distribution of sanitary pads in rural areas in 2012, but it was abruptly stopped in 2013. The reason ascribed was that the pads being supplied were of low quality.
Thackeray says guidelines from the Union Women and Child Department and the National Commission for Women for free distribution of sanitary pads in government schools are largely ignored. “No one speaks about this topic as it is embarrassing. There is not much awareness about hygiene during the cycles. When educational institutions make it available to their students, only then will the picture change,” she says.
Ignorance is abysmal even among social workers. Open travelled with a woman social worker distributing free sanitary pads to a village in Thane district and she had no clue about the biological reasons for why women bleed every month or other facts related to menstruation.