This article on ‘SC directs states and UTs to file responses in a plea to frame National policy on Menstrual Hygiene’ was written by Toya Sen, an intern at Legal Upanishad.
The topic of menstrual hygiene is a sensitive one in India. Although India has progressed immensely in the context of women’s rights, the taboo around menstrual health and management is still prevalent. Many individuals including parents and adolescent girls themselves, do not have adequate knowledge with respect to menstrual health and practices and these socio-cultural restrictions result in adolescent girls dropping out of school and being ostracized for the duration of their period every month.
According to a recent study conducted by UNICEF1, 71% of adolescent girls in India are not informed about menstruation until they experience their first period. This lack of knowledge often leads to girls dropping out of school. A 2019 report by NGO Dasra highlighted that annually, 23 million girls are forced to leave school due to inadequate menstrual hygiene management facilities, including the unavailability of sanitary pads and information about menstruation.
Additionally, public health experts and NGOs working in this field have pointed out that the absence of basic services such as clean water and access to toilets, along with social stigmas, harassment, and taboos, further worsen the situation.
This article talks about an appeal that was made to the Supreme Court by Congress MP Jaya Thakur addressing this issue. The plea sought the provision of free sanitary napkins and separate toilets in all government and residential schools. The argument was that the lack of proper menstrual hygiene management options was a significant obstacle to education.
Supreme Court’s Response
In an ongoing legal battle in the court regarding the plea made by the Congress MP, the Supreme Court recently directed all States and Union Territories to send responses and create a standard operating system (SOP), a national model for menstrual hygiene management for school-going girls. The bench comprising of Chief Justice of India, D.Y Chandrachud and Justice J.B Paridiwala, and Justice P.S Narasimha declared the issue as immensely important.
The bench directed states and Union Territories to submit their menstrual hygiene management strategies and plans to the Mission Steering Group of the National Health Mission within four weeks (by August 31). This decision was made because out of 28 states and 8 union territories, only 4 States which are, Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal have submitted their response as per the former decision held in the month of April this year.
The apex court said that the response should include plans executed with both central government funds and their own. The Secretary of the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare was nominated to coordinate with state governments and Union Territories to re-evaluate guidelines.
The bench also ordered all states and Union Territories to notify appropriate ratios of girls’ toilets for residential and non-residential schools and steps to ensure low-cost sanitary napkins and vending machines in schools. The bench emphasized the importance of safe disposal mechanisms for sanitary pads. The Centre was directed to file an updated status report by the end of July 2023.
A previous affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare claimed that they have established education and training programs and provided resources to young girls throughout the country. However, a recent plea filed in court has pointed out that girls between the ages of 11 and 18 from impoverished backgrounds struggle to receive adequate education due to limited access, which is a basic constitutional right guaranteed under Article 21A.
The plea emphasized that girls aged 11 to 16 do not have access to hygienic methods. According to the ministry, menstruation and menstrual habits are typically obscured by stigma and socio-cultural constraints for women and young girls in India. This, combined with limited access to sanitary hygiene products and a lack of safe toilet facilities, makes maintaining appropriate hygiene challenging for young females.
Furthermore, in the past, girls used old garments, and other materials such as a straw as pads, which not only impacted menstrual cleanliness but also had long-term consequences for reproductive health. The government has committed itself to educating young girls about menstruation hygiene, as well as to promoting self-confidence and enabling them to better socialization. The government has also attempted to improve rural girls’ access to high-quality sanitary napkins.
Existing Schemes for Menstrual Hygiene in India
There are various schemes that have been introduced by the Government of India to spread awareness of menstrual hygiene in India. A few schemes have been mentioned as follows:
- Scheme for the Promotion of Menstrual Hygiene or Menstrual Hygiene Scheme: This initiative was one of the first schemes that was introduced in India for advocating and spreading awareness about the menstrual cycle. It was introduced in the year 2011 and worked under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW). Administering on a rural level, the scheme aims to encourage awareness of the menstrual cycle and increase access to safe practices among adolescent girls. This scheme mainly puts emphases on the distribution of sanitary napkins in districts of India.
- Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK): This scheme came out in the year 2014 under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW). It focused on the promotion ion sexual and reproductive health among adolescents. This scheme sought to train and identify Peer Educators (or Saathiyas) at a rural level to spread awareness of adolescent health issues. This scheme operated at both urban and rural levels. One of the objectives of this scheme was the distribution of sanitary napkins under the Menstrual Hygiene Scheme.
- Jan Aushadhi Suvidha Sanitary Napkin (JSSK): This scheme was introduced in 2019 and worked under the Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP). It sought to provide bio-degradable and eco-friendly pads available at Rs. 1 at more than 8,000 Pradhan Mantri Bhartiya Jan Aushadhi Pariyojana (PMBJP) kendras across India.
The fight to break the stigma surrounding menstrual hygiene is an ongoing battle. The recent decision by the apex court to implement a plan for menstrual hygiene management in schools is a step forward in reducing the shame surrounding periods. It also provides a means for girls to break taboos and empowers them to lead healthy lives and pursue education without any hindrance. As per the Supreme Court’s directive, all states must create a plan for menstrual hygiene management in schools.
There are existing schemes and efforts in place that aim to provide awareness and access to affordable sanitary products. By working together, we can break taboos and empower girls to lead healthy lives and pursue their education without any obstacles.
- The Constitution of India, 1950
- Shruti Kakkar, ‘Frame menstrual hygiene policy: SC to Centre’, Indian Express, 11 April 2023, available at: https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2023/apr/11/frame-menstrual-hygiene-policy-sc-to-centre-2564724.html
- Tanya Rana, ‘Menstrual Health Services in India: A Comprehensive Overview of the Public System’, Centre for Policy Research, 2 September 2022, available at: https://accountabilityindia.in/blog/menstrual-health-services-in-india-an-overview/
- UNICEF, “71% Adolescent Girls in India Remain Unaware of Menstruation till Menarche” https://help.unicef.org/in/WASH/menstrualhygiene?language=en#:~:text=71%25%20adolescent%20girls%20in%20India,enrollment%20and%20retention%20in%20schools ↩︎