The story so far: The Supreme Court on April 10 directed the Union Government to devise a uniform policy to ensure menstrual hygiene for school children. The policy should ensure all government, government-aided and residential schools provide adolescent students with free sanitary napkins and access to a vending and disposal mechanism, the Bench said. Schools should also be equipped with separate washrooms for girl students.
Absence of menstrual hygiene and awareness drives “period poverty” — or the lack of access to sanitary products, toilets, waste management, handwashing facilities and menstrual hygiene education — globally. Studies show period poverty has a ripple effect: girl students drop out of school, are pushed into child marriage, and are more like to experience domestic violence, infections, reproductive illnesses, malnourishment and poor mental health.
In 2019, Sanjay Wijesekera, then UNICEF Chief of Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene, said: “Meeting the hygiene needs of all adolescent girls is a fundamental issue of human rights, dignity, and public health.”
What does the petition say?
The Bench, comprising Chief Justice D. Y. Chandrachud and Justices P.S. Narasimha and J.B. Pardiwala, responded to a PIL which sought directions on two accounts: that governments ensure schools provide girl students from class 6 to 12 with sanitary pads, and that there be a separate toilet for girl students.
These should also be padded with State-wide measures to ensure washrooms have clean running water and waste disposal facilities. Out of 10.8 lakh government schools, 15,000 have no toilets and 42,000 lack drinking water, Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal shared in 2021.
“A safe place for changing and disposal of used pads is hardly available in rural areas,” says Rajesh Srivastava, a research officer at Public Health Resource Network.
Investment in social awareness programs is also needed, the petition argued, adding that inadequate menstrual hygiene management (MHM) is a barrier to education. The SC nominated the Ministry of Family Health and Welfare to coordinate with the Jal Shakti Ministry and Ministry of Education to implement policies over four weeks.
What have governments done so far?
Since 2011, the Union Government has launched three initiatives. The “Menstrual Hygiene Scheme” provides sanitary pads to girls aged 10 to 19, at a rate of ₹6 for a pack of six napkins. In 2019, the government began distributing eco-friendly and biodegradable pads at a subsidised rate under the Suvidha scheme; data shows as of 2021-22. over 1,128 lakh pads were distributed. Another initiative, the Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK),focuses on promoting sexual and reproductive wellness for all adolescents.
At the State level, the governments of Kerala, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, and Sikkim, among other regions, have launched varied schemes to distribute subsidised sanitary napkins, thus making them accessible and affordable to girls who may otherwise be hindered by knowledge gaps or patriarchal norms.
The Union Government in 2013 issued guidelines for setting up mini incinerators in schools to burn sanitary waste. However, there are concerns about emissions from burning disposable pads made of plastic polymer products
. In 2012, Kerala had banned such mini incinerators as “they were of single chamber working in low temperature” and not complying with government norms.
What about implementation?
Experts note that the implementation of schemes remains a challenge due to poor product quality, irregular supply, lack of funds and prevailing stigma. While the Jharkhand Government distributes sanitary pads and iron tablets, “the situation remains the same”, Mr. Srivastava says.
Affordability is a barrier. The latest National Family Health Survey data showed at least 30% of girls were using “unhygienic” methods of protection – including cloth, make-shift sanitary pads, dried leaves, newspapers or nothing at all.
National Family Health Survey-5 findings
An analysis of the data found that “rural Indian adolescent women with higher education, from general category, with medium mass media exposure and from the richest wealth quintile were more likely to use hygienic methods exclusively”. Usage also differs along caste lines: the use of hygienic methods is lower among girls from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes than those belonging to other castes.
Mr. Srivastava also explains that nodal teachers are unwilling to carry sanitary pads to school. “Once taken, the pads are kept in a store and rarely distributed among girls. The quality of pads also has some issues,” he says, adding that girls who come from better socio-economic conditions end up buying market-based products.
A 2016 analysis of the Menstrual Hygiene Scheme in north India found only 30% of girls used sanitary napkins due to irregular supply. Further, a report by The Hindu found that despite Karnataka Government’s Shuchi Scheme, most schools neither had functional toilets with water nor dustbins.
Awareness programs face administrative challenges too. In Jharkhand, Mr. Srivastava explains that male teachers are usually nominated for health education, but their capacity to deal with the concern is limited. “Their sensitivity to the issue, cultural barriers in engaging with adolescent girls and absence of proper information education communication are some major bottlenecks,” he explains.
The COVID-19 pandemic, and subsequent school closure, further restricted access to affordable sanitary napkins. Most States ceased menstrual schemes due to a lack of funds. Outside of schools, people were unable to afford sanitary napkins sold by private pharmacies, the report added.
Moreover, current programmes focus on able-bodied girl students, overlooking non-binary, gender non-conforming folks, and trans-men who also menstruate. Others with disabilities may also be sidelined, as “limited mobility, cognitive capacities and self-care pose even greater challenges”, according to an expert.
How are menstrual facilities and awareness linked to education access?
In April 2021, the Karnataka High Court said, “If you want to empower young women and young girls, provide [menstrual] facilities... This will not only “[lead to] empowerment of the girl child, but also implementation of the fundamental right under Article 21A [Right to Education].”
Girls’ enrolment in schools reduces at the secondary education level due to varied factors, with MHM being one. 23% of girls in India drop out of school due to a lack of menstruation products, inadequate washrooms and absent disposal facilities, according to an estimate by the United Nations Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council.
Knowledge gaps are also an issue- almost 71% of adolescent girls are unaware of menstruation until they get their first period, a study by UNICEF found.
Even when adolescent girls attend school, absent menstrual infrastructure results in irregular attendance. The latest Annual Status of Education Report found that in Bihar, girl school students had low attendance because 36.7% of primary and upper primary schools did not have separate toilets. A 2022 paper estimated one in five girls dropped out of school after their periods started, and 70.5% of people missed school and workdays due to periods.
In 2018, The Hindu reported that 60% of adolescent girls skipped school while on their period; a key concern was anxiety around staining their uniform (since most used homemade pads). The lack of clean toilets, running water, or a disposal system further deterred attendance. Sanitary napkins were incinerated, buried in the ground or flushed in toilets due to improper waste management and lack of awareness, other reports suggest.
Alternatively, when schools provided menstruation products, improved sanitation facilities and launched awareness programmes, the proportion of girls reporting anxiety about their period decreased from 58.6% to 34%, with an upswing in attendance rate, according to a Uganda-based study published in BMJ.
Under Chattisgarh Pavna, a community-led programme focusing on awareness, sanitary napkin usage increased from 40% to 75% within a year in 2022, according to government data. Activists also note that governments should move towards eco-friendly products and allow students to choose between sanitary napkins, tampons and menstrual cups.
From a policy standpoint, Mr. Srivastava identifies the need for more female teachers at school, regular assessment of pad quality, proper implementation of schemes and capacity building on health education. “Functional toilets at school are very important” and a starting point for menstrual hygiene management, he adds.
An estimate shows that India can advance its GDP by 2.7% ($86.7 billion) by positively addressing period poverty, as it can improve girls’ and women’s health, education, well-being and economic independence.
- The Supreme Court on April 10 directed the Union Government to devise a uniform policy to ensure menstrual hygiene for school children.
- The Bench, comprising Chief Justice D. Y. Chandrachud and Justices P.S. Narasimha and J.B. Pardiwala, responded to a PIL which sought directions on two accounts: that governments ensure schools provide girl students from class 6 to 12 with sanitary pads, and that there be a separate toilet for girl students.
- The COVID-19 pandemic, and subsequent school closure, further restricted access to affordable sanitary napkins. Most States ceased menstrual schemes due to a lack of funds.