By Shreeya Maskey

Availability of sanitary pads among other facilities such as clean running water are crucial for maintaining menstrual hygiene at school. Easy access to these basic facilities ensures school attendance for menstruating girl students.

In Nepal, public schools are attended mostly by people with low income settings. While such schools run on government fund and charge minimal to no fees from the pupils, their students barely have the money to buy uniforms. Hence, buying sanitary pads during menstrual cycle is next to impossible to the girl students attending public schools.

“Earlier when we did not provide free pads at the school, menstruating students used to return home and miss their classes whenever they got their period,” said Geeta Kafle, principal of Shree Nandi Ma Vi Secondary School at Naxal, Kathmandu. “Later, the school bought sanitary pads and charged students Rs 5 for a single pad. Doing so raised girl students’ attendance.”

In 2020, the government allocated a budget of Rs 1.82 billion for the purchasing and distribution of free sanitary pads to approximately 29,000 government-funded community schools. It became easier for schools to better facilitate their menstruating pupils. However, while pads play an important role, it is not the only reason why menstruating girls are deprived of education.

“Besides the unavailability of pads, painful menstrual cramps along with heavy bleeding also causes girls to miss school,” said Rita Tiwari, principal of Padma Kanya Vidyashram Secondary School, one of the oldest all-girls schools in the country.

“Keeping these factors in mind, we have nurses available to support and help our students in any way possible,” she added.

Anjali, a seventh grade student at Shree Seeta Bal Bikash Basic School, Gairigaun, Kathmandu, shared that she had missed school during her period. “It was my first period and I had no idea what was happening with my body. Neither was I equipped with the know-hows of menstruation,” she said.

The free distribution of pads by the government has been helpful, but not enough to discourage girls from missing school, as the atmosphere there matters heavily. “There are still some students who do not feel comfortable at school while on their period, and would rather stay at home,” said Tiwari.

If open conversation and discussions regarding menstruation and menstrual taboos among all genders are overlooked, despite having access to basic facilities for Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM), menstruating students would still be deprived of education.

“Thing are changing gradually. The other day, a fourth grade student came up to me and asked for a pad,” said Kalawati Awasti, health and social science teacher at Shree Seeta Bal Bikash Basic School. “She stayed in school the rest of the day and never even asked if she could go home,” Awasti proudly stated.

Awasti said that she values and advocates for open mindedness regarding menstruation. “Being a health teacher, I have seen most of the students shy away from topics such as ‘sex organs’ and ‘menstruation’. They listen to my teachings with their head down and a hand hiding their eyes,” said Awasti.

“So I continue to confidently speak and encourage, especially our female students, to discussions about menstruation and sex education,” she added.

The government’s initiative of free pad distribution has been impacting female students’ school days positively. Students such as Anjali went from not knowing about the menstrual process — causing her to miss school — to students such as the fourth grader actively asking for a pad and staying the whole day in school.