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Locked-Down Schoolgirls: No Basic Needs, Period

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This post is a part of Back To School, a global movement to ensure that access to education for girls in India does not suffer post COVID-19. Click here to find out more.

By Jigyasa Mishra/PARI

Phoolwatiya waits for her turn while her younger brother, 12-year-old Shankar Lal, takes his last joyride of the day on their bicycle – right up to a nearby neem tree. “I will go for a short ride today myself and come back quickly,” says the 16-year-old. “For five days from tomorrow, I won’t be able to cycle anyway. It becomes risky while using cloth,” she observes, while petting a puppy on the roadside.

Phoolwatiya (name changed) expects her menstrual cycle to begin from tomorrow. But this time – unlike in earlier months – she won’t be getting free sanitary napkins from her school. “We normally get pads there when our periods begin. But now I will use any piece of cloth I can.”

Her school in Chitrakoot district of Uttar Pradesh, like all others in the country, is closed due to the Covid-19 lockdown.

Phoolwatiya lives in Sonepur, a hamlet in Tarouha village in Karwi tehsil, with her parents and two brothers. She also has two sisters who are married and live elsewhere. She had given her Class 10 examinations and was about to re-join school after a 10-day break when the lockdown was announced on March 24. She is a student of the Rajkiya Balika Inter College in Karwi block.

“I will look for a piece of cloth not being used for anything else – and use that. I’ll wash it before using it a second time,” says Phoolwatiya. An outline of dust – probably from walking barefoot – sits on the shining fuchsia nail paint decorating the toes of her dusky feet.

Phoolwatiya, 16, says, ‘We normally get pads there [at school] when our periods begin. But now I will use any piece of cloth I can’. Image credits: Jigyasa Mishra/People’s Archive of Rural India

Phoolwatiya is not alone. Over 10 million girls like her in Uttar Pradesh are eligible for free sanitary pads – which would have been distributed though their schools. We could locate no figure on how many were actually receiving them like Phoolwatiya. But even if it were a 10th of that number, it would be over a million girls from poor families who are now unable to access free sanitary napkins.

The number of girls in Classes 6 to 12 in UP is 10.86 million, according to a report of the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, titled School Education in India . These numbers are from 2016-17, the last year for which data are available.

Under the Kishori Suraksha Yojana (a government of India programme covering every block in the country), girls from Classes 6 to Class 12 are eligible to receive free sanitary napkins. In Uttar Pradesh, the programme was inaugurated by then chief minister Akhilesh Yadav in 2015.


Where does she dry the cloth after washing it? “I put it somewhere inside the house where no-one will spot it. I can’t let my father or brothers see it,” says Phoolwatiya. Not drying the used and washed menstrual cloth in sunlight is a common practice among many girls and women here – as elsewhere – to hide it from the men of the house.

Before the lockdown: Nirasha Singh, principal of the Upper Primary School in Mawaiya village, Mirzapur district, distributing sanitary napkins to students. Image credits: Jigyasa Mishra/People’s Archive of Rural India

As UNICEF points out, “A lack of information about menstruation leads to damaging misconceptions and discrimination, and can cause girls to miss out on normal childhood experiences and activities.”

“Usage of soft cotton cloth as a menstrual blood absorbent is safe if it is properly clean, washed and then dried under direct sunlight. Only then can bacterial infections be kept at bay. But all of this is not taken care of in most rural areas and vaginal infections are a common problem among them [girls and young women],” says Dr. Neetu Singh, a senior gynaecologist at the Ram Manohar Lohia hospital, Lucknow. Girls like Phoolwatiya are now back to using unhygienic material instead of pads – which will probably expose them to allergies and diseases.

“We were given 3-4 packets of pads in January in our school,” says Phoolwatiya. “But those are finished now.” And she simply cannot afford to buy them on the market. She would have to spend at least Rs. 60 a month. The cheapest she can get is a pack of six for Rs. 30. She would need two packs each month.

Her father, mother and elder brother are all daily wage agricultural labourers who together make around Rs. 400 a day in normal times. “Now that’s down to Rs. 100 at best and no one wants to give us work in the fields either,” says Phoolwatiya’s mother Ram Pyari, 52, while feeding a grandson khichdi.

Alternative delivery channels don’t exist here. “We are focusing on the basic needs right now, which are ration and food. Saving lives is the only priority in this condition,” Chitrakoot district magistrate Shesh Mani Pandey told us.

Ankita (left) and her sister Chhoti: ‘… we have to think twice before buying even a single packet. There are three of us, and that means Rs. 90 a month at the very least’. Image credits: Jigyasa Mishra/People’s Archive of Rural India

The National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) tells us that as many as 62 per cent of young women in the country in the 15-24 age group were still using cloth for menstrual protection in 2015-16. In Uttar Pradesh, that figure was 81 per cent.

There won’t be much to cheer about on this front when Menstrual Hygiene Day comes up on May 28.


The problem seems to be common across districts. “We received the new lot of sanitary pads just a day prior to lockdown and before we could distribute them to the girls, the school had to be closed,” says Yashodanand Kumar, principal, Upper Primary School Salauli village, in the Gosaiganj block of Lucknow district.

“I’ve always ensured the menstrual health of my students. Apart from giving them the napkins, I would hold a monthly meeting with the girls and female staff to talk about the importance of menstrual hygiene. But now the school has been closed for almost two months,” says Nirasha Singh on the phone. She is principal of the Upper Primary School Mawaiya village, in Mirzapur district. “Many of my students have no access to nearby shops where they could find a packet of pads. And needless to say, many others won’t be spending Rs 30-60 a month on it.”

Back in Chitrakoot district, Ankita Devi, 17, and her sister Chhoti, 14, (both names changed) certainly won’t be spending that amount. Living in Chitara Gokulpur village, around 22 kilometres from Phoolwatiya’s house, both teenagers have also switched to using cloth. So has another sister, older to them, who was away when I visited. Both Ankita, in Class 11 and Chhoti in Class 9, go to the same school – the Shivaji Inter College in Chitara Gokulpur. Their father, Ramesh Pahadi (name changed), works as a helper in a local government office and earns around Rs. 10,000 a month.

The Shivaji Inter College (let) in Chitara Gokulpur village, where Ankita and Chhoti study, is shut, cutting off their access to free sanitary napkins; these are available at a pharmacy (right) three kilometers from their house, but are unaffordable for the family. Image credits: Jigyasa Mishra/People’s Archive of Rural India

“I have no idea if we will get the salary for these two months or not,” he says. “My landlord has been calling to remind me to pay the house rent.” Ramesh is originally from Banda district of Uttar Pradesh, and migrated here for work.

Ankita says the nearest pharmacy is over three kilometres away. There is a general store, barely 300 meters from her house that does stock sanitary napkins. “But we have to think twice before buying even a single packet for Rs. 30,” says Ankita. “There are three of us, remember, and that means Rs. 90 a month at the very least.”

It is clear that most girls here do not have the money to buy pads. “There has not been any rise in sale of sanitary pads after the lockdown,” says Ram Barsaiya, who I spoke to at the pharmacy he runs in Sitapur town in Chitrakoot. And that seems to be the picture elsewhere, too.

Ankita sat for her high school examinations in March. “They went really well. I want to choose the biology stream in Class 11. In fact, I’d asked a few seniors for their old biology textbooks, but then the schools closed down,” she says.

Why biology? “Ladkiyon aur mahilaaon ka ilaaj karungi [I want to help girls and women],” she giggles. “But I have no idea yet how to proceed on that.”

Cover illustration: Priyanka Borar is a new media artist experimenting with technology to discover new forms of meaning and expression. She designs experiences for learning and play, juggles with interactive media, and also feels at home with traditional pen and paper.  

PARI and CounterMedia Trust’s nationwide reporting project on adolescent girls and young women in rural India is part of a Population Foundation of India-supported initiative to explore the situation of these vital yet marginalised groups, through the voices and lived experience of ordinary people.

This article was originally published in the People’s Archive of Rural India on May 12, 2020.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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