Patna, Bihar: Neeta Kumari* (15) is a class 10 student at Kalanand High School in Dhurvapur village of Bihar’s Purnia district. Every time there is an ‘emergency’, the teacher reluctantly gives her a sanitary pad, only on the condition that another will be deposited later.
“We have demanded several times that a sanitary pad vending machine be installed, but the teachers here decline it with the excuse that when they installed an LCD screen for smart classes a few years ago, it was stolen. The school is no longer interested in getting machines,” she said.
There are many schools in Bihar, where girls or even teachers have no idea about sanitary pad vending machines and incinerators required to burn used pads. This, despite a Patna High Court order in April, directing the state government to install such machines in all middle, high and higher secondary schools. Apart from ensuring adequate menstrual hygiene facilities in proportion to the number of enrolled students, the court also asked the government to ensure clean toilets and clean drinking water.
Nevertheless, little seems to have happened on the ground. “We have separate washrooms for boys and girls, but they are very dirty. Thankfully, for drinking water, there is a reverse osmosis system as well as a hand pump,” said Neeta.
Bihar was the first state in India to introduce menstrual leave, a revolutionary step in the 1990s. But when it came to menstrual hygiene, the state has lagged behind in facilitating an effective programme. “If we are in school when the periods begin, we take leave and go back home. Naturally, studies suffer in those few days,” Anu Kumari*, a class 11 student of Ramdayalu Adarsh High School of Damodarpur village in Vaishali district, told 101Reporters.
“Teachers do not discuss ‘such issues’ with us. Whatever I know about menstruation, I learnt from my elder sisters and mother,” said Anu in a hushed voice, as her father was present while she talked to this reporter.
At 59%, Bihar ranks lowest in India in terms of adoption of menstrual hygiene practices among women. Only 7% of the state’s total budget is allocated for health and family welfare, out of which Rs 2 crore is dedicated for menstrual hygiene schemes.
Last year, the state education department launched a pilot project to install sanitary pad vending machine and incinerator in schools. As many as 93 schools got the machines in the first phase of the project and 243 in phase two. Each school was given Rs 40,000 to purchase the machines. Maintenance was the responsibility of the schools.
Bihar has 90,000 government schools, of which about 40,000 are middle, high and senior secondary schools. In that context, a vending machine in less than 350 schools is like a drop in the ocean, said activists working on menstrual health.
“Even in schools that have vending machines and incinerators, the staff do not know how to use them. Sometimes, sanitary pads are not available. The government, apart from giving machines, also needs to organise training sessions for teachers. Otherwise this project might not last long,” Amrita Singh, chairperson of Nav-Astitva Foundation in Patna, told 101Reporters. The foundation has been working on menstrual hygiene awareness in Bihar for the last eight years.
Apart from vending machines and incinerators, other WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) components like clean toilets and safe drinking water are also a struggle to achieve in many Bihar schools, making lives difficult for girls in the age group of 12 to 18.
No regular support staff is available in schools to clean toilets. “There are five washrooms in our schools, but not one is usable. They are extremely dirty and remain shut most of the time. Students are forced to use toilets in the old school building. A few days ago, a teacher came from Pune for a teacher training programme. When she raised the issue, the management unlocked the toilets and got them cleaned,” said a teacher of Mahavir Middle School in Lutaha village of East Champaran district, on condition of anonymity.
The situation is no different at the middle school located at Makandpur in Bhagalpur district. “There are separate toilets for boys and girls, but the boys’ toilet is non-functional so they have to go out in the fields. Even the staff toilet is in bad shape. For drinking water, we have a hand pump and a water tank connected to a borewell, but both are not operational. So we have to depend on water decanters,” Riya Rani, a science teacher in the school, told 101Reporters.
“I have no idea about a vending machine and we do not have a pad bank in our school. Many girls take a period leave… I try to hold discussions on menstruation, puberty and conception with both boys and girls, but I see that boys are hesitant to talk about these issues. Sometimes, they make inadvertent comments,” she added.
The state government organised the Teenage Girls’ Health Awareness Programme in Patna last year, in which some teachers from each district participated. All the participants were distributed four packets of 10 sanitary pads each for use in their schools. Given that most middle and high schools have more than 100 girls, this meagre quantity stood out starkly, raising a question on the state government’s seriousness about menstrual hygiene.
Bihar also runs Mukhyamantri Kishori Swasthya Yojana, under which Rs 300 is deposited annually in the bank accounts of girls studying in classes 7 to 12 for buying sanitary napkins. The amount was increased from Rs 150 this year.
“But we do not get it regularly. Anyway, this amount is too less to buy good quality sanitary napkins throughout the year,” said Reena Kumari*, a class 10 student of Shambhupur Higher Secondary School in Vaishali district.
Teachers felt that for students coming from a weak economic background, even this small grant was used for other things. “For people who cannot afford basic food, clothing and housing, menstruation has always been a secondary issue,” said Sapna, a teacher at the Girls’ Secondary School, Khagaul, Patna.
“The government has been running a strong campaign for full attendance in schools for the last few months, but it is still difficult to get girls to attend schools. Unless there are proper toilets in schools, girls will not be able to have full attendance. There should be a mandatory pad bank in each school,” said Rashmi Jha, a gender expert based in Patna.
She said the government should promote start-ups working in the field to provide reasonably priced sanitary pads or set up its own production unit where women from Naari Niketan (a shelter for women and children) can make sanitary pads.
UNICEF has instituted meena manch and bal sansad platforms to involve girls and schoolchildren in creating awareness about health, hygiene and WASH issues. “We do not have a vending machine but we do run a pad bank in school with the cooperation of school management and teachers. We also discuss puberty issues with teenagers,” said Kavita Kumari, a teacher at Bariyapur Middle School in Munger district. Since 2015, Kavita has been a government appointed state trainer under the Bihar Disaster Management Campaign to educate children on health.
The Women and Child Development Corporation (WCDC) plans to install sanitary pad vending machines and incinerators in all Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas, the residential schools run by the Central government for girls from economically weaker backgrounds. “The WCDC’s main responsibility is to create awareness about menstruation. We are working on a major policy around it. However, for the supply of resources for menstrual hygiene in schools, the education department is responsible,” said Bandana Preyasi, Managing Director, WCDC, Bihar.
“Socio-economic status has a deep connection with education. Good education means better access to information and financial resources. To improve menstrual health in India, there is a need to invest in girls’ education as well as campaign for behavioural and social change on a large scale, so that people are more vocal on the issue,” said Dr Arundhati Muraleedharan of the Menstrual Health Alliance India.
(Rachna Priyadarshini is a Bihar-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)