If you followed the SEE curriculum in Nepal, it is likely that you first learned about the menstrual cycle in grade 8 in your H.P.E book. But chances are you began menstruating before that, and it’s a good thing that the government has introduced lessons on menstruation from Grade 4 itself.
Some of us reading this could be girls that started their first period while we were at school. Maybe hearing the phrase “Oi pad cha??” (Do you have a spare pad?) rings a bell for most of us who have had a day where you got your period in school when you least expected it. Periods often arrive unannounced – and for adolescent girls, can be a nerve-wracking experience.
Thankfully, the government of Nepal introduced distribution of free sanitary pads in community schools from 1st January 2020 – which has been a relief to many, however, as it is with most government initiatives, challenges remain.
To understand the status of safe management of periods for adolescent girls inside Kathmandu Valley, I visited three community schools – one from each district (Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur) respectively. When asked about the availability of sanitary pads, all students agreed that the school was able to provide them although students are encouraged to bring their own.
The schools rely on the area’s respective local governments for their supply of pads which are distributed to them through their respective Education Department. However, uncertainty looms as one school in Kathmandu claimed they were concerned about their depleting supply of pads and another school from Lalitpur reported that pads have now become purely the school’s investment causing them to be reluctant to offer pads immediately to students in need or encourage the use of cloth pads. In some schools, the cost of pads is included in the bill for parents to pay off at the end of the month.
The next issue is the inefficiency of “sanitary pad vending and burning machines”. In the rare case that you have not heard of them, pad vending machines are exactly what they sound like. These machines require a coin to dispense a pad immediately while pad incinerators can be used to dispose of used pads. Companies or NGOs have taken the initiative to install these machines in different public schools.
In one school, the vice principal disclosed that Laxmi Bank had sponsored the installment of the machine. However, it is not the availability of the machines that is the problem, but the management of it. The unpredictable supply of pads makes it difficult for the schools to stock the machine and the misplacement of coins which are required to operate the machine also becomes an issue with students and the management. Thus, in all three schools, the pad vending machines were present but not in use.
Similarly, the sanitary pad incinerator machine also being labeled bootless in these schools brings forward a separate issue of educating students on proper disposal of pads. Although the books explain the biological aspects of menstruation, often practical knowledge and stigmatization that surrounds periods is left unaddressed.
Teachers in Lalitpur and Kathmandu explained that girls do not seem to use the pad incinerator but instead shoved used pads against window panes or other areas in toilets in an attempt to hide them from other people. This apparently has brought up multiple complaints from sanitation workers in the school. They also mentioned that this caused dogs and crows in the area to pick the used pads and drag them out of the restrooms.
In all schools, dustbins or buckets were present within stalls to dispose of pads; however, teachers reported that the dustbins were often broken by the students or kicked out of stalls. The vice principal in Lalitpur also mentioned that it is the stigmatization surrounding the topic of menstruation at homes of students that contributes towards such behaviour.
Of course, pads or period products are not the only accommodation girls need during periods. Factors like clean water for hygiene, medicines or other products for cramp relief also play important role to prevent significant compromise in learning for girls at school. Students of all schools testified about clean running water in the toilets (most of the time) and about how girls were always given permission to use the bathroom during class hours.
Besides this, medicines (eg .. cetamol) to aid period pain were provided if needed but teachers in Lalitpur elaborated on how there were cases where they could not leave students alone as they were afraid she would faint due to the pain. Since the only school that had a disability-friendly toilet for girls was one in Bhaktapur, a concern we had was also the obvious lack of disability-friendly toilets in public schools to accommodate menstruation for students living with a disability.
Another concern brought forward by students in school in Kathmandu was that the sinks are placed outside the bathroom so it is difficult for them to wash their hands after they change pads. Most of the schools also did not have an infirmary room (none except in Bhaktapur) for students to lie down or hot water bags to soothe their bodies when they experience period pain.
Menstruation is intrinsically related to human dignity – and every menstruating person should be able to manage their periods with dignity. Period poverty in schools has often been associated with increased absenteeism which affects a young girl’s education.
While the provision of free sanitary pads is a welcome step to ensure safe management of periods in schools, schools and the local government must also ensure access to other requirements such as access to clean water and provision of soap, a safe place to manage periods, and dispose sanitary pads. Furthermore, supportive environments at school, especially from teachers would go a long way for young girls to manage their periods with dignity.