The central government is considering setting up sanitary napkin-vending machines and incinerators in government schools across the country. A decision to do so is long overdue and the Centre shouldn't dither or drag its feet on making this plan a reality. Making sanitary napkins easily available to young girls will make their lives a bit easier. But also, it will improve their personal hygiene and contribute to better health. Poverty forces many Indian women and girls to use waste cloth rather than sanitary napkins. Worse, women often wash and reuse such waste cloth. This leaves them vulnerable to infection and an array of diseases. Setting up machines will push them to use sanitary napkins.
Improving availability of sanitary napkins will also help improve literacy and education of India's girls. One of the major problems in education in the country is the gender gap in education and literacy. At every stage of schooling the number of female dropouts is far greater than that of males. Under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, India has been successful in improving enrollment of children - both boys and girls - at the primary school level. However, a significant number of girls either skip classes or dropout completely at the middle-school level, that is, around the time a girl usually attains menarche. Lack of access to safe toilets, apprehension over staining their clothes because of menstruation, absence of facilities to safely dispose of used/stained cloth, embarrassment over being made fun of or teased by boys prompts girls to stay away from school. The number of students who do so isn't small; it is estimated that over 20% of Indian girls drop out of school after reaching puberty. This isn't a problem that is particular to India. Girls in several developing countries are grappling with the problem. In Nepal and Afghanistan, for instance, 30% of girls are said to be skipping school during their periods.
Setting up machines that dispense sanitary napkins will enable young girls to overcome the problem to some extent. But setting up such machines in schools will not by itself solve the problem. While it will improve availability of sanitary napkins, it will not improve girls' access to it if the napkins are unaffordable. The government must therefore ensure that the napkins are inexpensive. Else, this will be an exercise in futility. Also, it is important that the napkins are biodegradable. Several non-government organisations in the country are producing recyclable and environmentally-friendly napkins, which are also inexpensive. It is important, too, that boys and girls are made to understand that menstruation is normal, not a process that one should be ashamed of or ridiculed over.