Punjab’s ambitious new scheme to provide sanitary napkins every month to 6.83 lakh girl students in all government schools will improve school attendance, the government hopes. The scheme, under the ‘Swastha Kanya Yojana’, is the first ever in Punjab that will cover every girl child from class 6 to 12. Also, it is the first when a budgetary allocation of Rs 24 crore has been proposed for sanitary napkins only.
Education minister Daljeet Singh Cheema said the menstrual health of every girl child will be a priority of the government now. “It is not a women’s issue, it’s a humane issue that cannot be ignored. This will improve enrollment and retention of girls in schools,” he said.
Before this, a couple of districts experimented with similar schemes, with some success, to prevent girls from taking four or five days off every month during their menstrual period. But contrary to its image as a fairly literate and prosperous state, the government effort so far to introduce best practices in female hygiene have been restricted to voluntary initiatives by individual officials.
The introduction of the new scheme has made menstrual hygiene a talking point for the first time in a state where a majority of women still hesitate to ask for sanitary napkins in shops, and in rural areas, many are not even aware of it.
Anshu Gupta and Meenakshi Gupta, the founders of Goonj, manufacturing sanitary napkins out of recycled cloth for rural and slum areas women under project ‘Not Just A Piece of Cloth’, say the situation in Punjab should have been different by now.
“Women in Punjab are in dire need of cloth. We believe Punjab is literate, prosperous and has all the amenities for a decent living. But when it comes to menstruation, majority of women in rural Punjab are still using cloth. We came across two girls in a village who were sharing undergarments during periods. Imagine, they did not even have undergarments to hold the cloth they used. Rural Punjab is full of women who never had any access to clean piece of cloth, forget sanitary napkins,” said Meenakshi Gupta.
Disposal of napkins remains an untouched issue too, she adds. “Throwing used napkins in ponds, near drinking water sources, in fields, etc. is what women do in Punjab villages. It is not their fault. They have been taught to remain mum on the issue and just let those 4-5 days pass away. If government is now providing napkins to girls in schools, disposal machines should also be installed,” she said
Individual officials in the state have made some efforts to make sanitary napkins more accessible.
Noticing the girls missing from schools for 4-5 continuous days, IAS officer Ravi Bhagat, now deputy commissioner, Ludhiana, was brain behind a small napkins manufacturing unit in Faridkot in 2012. He took this to Amritsar where now two such units supply napkins to five vending machines installed in schools. Now, ten vending machines providing low-cost napkin for Rs 2 coin have been installed in Ludhiana government schools and women’s jail.
He says, “Girls had no one to speak to when they had their periods. I wanted a solution where a girl is independent to get something as basic as a napkin. Attendance records showed girls miss schools due to lack of menstrual hygiene. 38 more machines will be installed in Ludhiana schools. HLL Lifecare Limited is providing us machines for Rs 23,000, including napkins,” he said.
The project is now being replicated in border district Fazilka. DC Isha Kalia said seven schools will get machines and incinerator. Rs 10 will get a set of three pads.
The only government scheme, ARSH (Adolescent Reproductive and Sexual Health) programme under National Rural Health Mission, has failed to take off.
Launched 10 years ago to provide health facilities to adolescents, ARSH clinics were to be set up in the office of every medical officer in government hospitals.
“Every medical officer had to set up an ARSH clinic but the majority of them never did. Sanitary napkins are distributed but rarely. Auxiliary Nurse Midwife were to hold monthly meetings with girls in their area but everything is just on the papers. A majority of civil hospital have not even put signboards to tell that an ARSH clinic for adolescents also exists.” “ARSH clinics have been set up in civil hospitals but sanitary napkins was a pilot project in few districts. It is yet to be implemented in all districts,” said Renu Chhatwal, civil surgeon, Ludhiana.