One out of the six schools in the national capital that was covered in a 2016 study on the link between menstruation and absenteeism amongst girl students—the findings have just been published—doesn’t even have sex-segregated toilets. The study, conducted by the Hamdard Institute of Medical Sciences and Research, found that 40% of girls who have reached menarche skip classes on the days of their menstrual cycle. It also reports a lack of private spaces to manage changing of sanitary napkins, lack of disposal systems and lack of running water supply in schools as significant factors, apart from, of course, pain and discomfort. Unsanitary conditions during the menstrual cycle ups the risks of acquiring infections amongst students who brave the lack of infrastructure at schools. This means significant academic costs for both girls who skip school and those who attend.
While India has done well on improving toilet coverage in schools—the proportion of schools without toilets fell faster between 2010 and 2016 than even the proportion of Indians defecating in the open—it needs to tackle providing for proper sanitation at these toilets if the gains of increased access to toilets are to be fully realised. According to a recently-released UN report, a quarter of Indian schools have no basic sanitation services—like pit latrines—and 46% had no hygiene services—like soap or running water. Nearly 40% of Indian schools don’t have covered dustbins for disposing sanitary napkins and 64% don’t have any safe disposal like an incinerator; 36% of schools didn’t even talk to their students about menstrual hygiene. Against such a backdrop, where menstruation is allowed to become a barrier for educational attainment, it is hard to imagine a level playing field for girls vis-a-vis boys. There is a need to reimagine the Swacch Bharat programme from a gendered perspective. Increasing toilet coverage is, no doubt, important; but there must be a focus on making sanitation facilities in schools friendlier for adolescent girls.