"What Next, Condoms?" — Indian Official Chastises Schoolgirl For Requesting Sanitary Pads

The officer, who was interacting with schoolgirls at a UNICEF workshop for empowering women, told the girl that asking for such things from the government is the "height of stupidity" and that if people vote for services, they shouldn't vote at all.

Cover image via Fabian Media (YouTiube & The Lallantop (YouTube)

Follow us on Instagram, TikTok, and Telegram for the latest stories and breaking news.

In India, where nearly 23 million girls drop out of school every year after they start menstruating due to a lack of access to proper menstrual hygiene facilities, periods continue to remain a taboo topic

The social stigma that menstruating women face in the country often forces them to live under severe restrictions or face ostracisation for the duration of their menstrual cycle every month.

According to surveys by the Indian government, many of them face health problems such as menstrual dysfunctions, anaemia, prolonged or short periods, and reproductive tract infections, which are preventable — but are not due to a lack of awareness or poor menstrual hygiene management.

Given the severity of the situation, young girls engaging in conversations around periods and wanting proper menstrual hygiene facilities should be encouraged and not disparaged on stage

Unfortunately, that's exactly what happened at a workshop organised by the government with UNICEF in the capital of the eastern Indian state of Bihar, according to a report in the Hindi-language daily, Dainik Bhaskar.

Ostensibly, it was titled, 'Sashakt Beti, Samridh Bihar' (empowered daughters, prosperous Bihar).

At the workshop, a schoolgirl was on stage with Harjot Kaur Bamhrah, a senior officer of India's premier civil service (IAS), who heads the state's Women and Child Development Corporation.

The schoolgirl, Riya Kumari, asked the senior female officer if the government could help provide sanitary pads at a subsidised rate of INR20-30 (approximately RM2) as it does for other basic needs.

The girl's question prompted the audience — mainly comprised of 15 and 16-year-old students — to break into applause, which didn't appear to sit well with the IAS officer, who first chided the crowd for clapping and then focused her attention on the girl on stage by asking her if these "demands" have an end.

"Free clothes, shoes, and even condoms"

"Tomorrow you'll ask the government to provide jeans, too. And why not some beautiful shoes after that? And so on. Eventually, you will ask the government to help you with family planning methods, and condoms, too. You all just want everything for free from the government," she was heard saying disparagingly.

The student, who resides in a slum, then informed her that the government is because of the people and their vote, and fulfilling the people's basic needs should be the responsibility of the government of the day.

However, annoyed by the girl's presence of mind, Bamhrah, who is a senior bureaucrat in the women and child welfare ministry, mocked her by saying that "demanding" such things from the government is the "height of stupidity" and that if people vote in return for services, they shouldn't vote at all.

"Don't vote. Become Pakistan. Do you vote for money and services? Why do you need to take anything from the government? This way of thinking is wrong. Do it yourself," Bamhrah responded in anger.

To this, the girl asserted, "I am an Indian. Why should I (go to Pakistan)?"

For context, telling people to "go to Pakistan" is used as an insult by the Indian government and its officers to shut Indian citizens up for daring to ask questions or even enquiring about basic facilities.

The exchange took place in Hindi. The English translation is done by SAYS.

While one would expect a woman in a position of power to be sympathetic to the basic issue of menstrual hygiene that plagues millions of girls in the country, the officer went on to tell female students that even asking for a separate toilet is too much

When another female student highlighted the fact that their school toilets are broken and male students often enter toilets meant for girls, Bamhrah asked if they had separate toilets for men and women at home.

"If you keep asking for a lot of things at different places, how will it work?"

Later on, when her remarks were picked up by the media, the female officer claimed that she did not say what she said (despite there being a video) and that the reporting of the event was to "malign" her reputation.

"It's false, malicious, and wrong reporting of an event," she said, adding that she's "known to be one of the most vociferous champions of women's rights and empowerment" in the country, reported The Hindu.

However, with the National Commission for Women (NCW) and several prominent people condemning her remarks and dubbing her "unfit" to be a public servant and the state chief minister promising action if the officer was found guilty, Bamhrah has since tried to downplay the severity of her remarks, saying that she expresses regret "if some girl or participant's sentiment was hurt with some of my words".

She claims her "intent was not to humiliate", but to "encourage them to progress" in the future.

Meanwhile, the 20-year-old student has defended her question

In an interview with the media, Riya said that her question about sanitary pads wasn't wrong.

"It was not a big demand that I made. I just said that the government should provide free sanitary pads because, as it is, the government is giving away lots of free things. And I didn't even ask the officer to personally provide me with sanitary pads. I can buy them for myself, but many in the slum can't afford them. People in my slum can't even afford to go to the clinic when they fall sick, so in such a situation, how can they buy sanitary pads?" she said, adding that she asked the question not just for herself but for all girls.

"We went there to present our concerns and not to fight."

The below interview is in Hindi. The English translation is done by SAYS.

Period poverty also affects Malaysia.

However, last year, UMNO president Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi's daughter Datuk Nurul Hidayah made light of the issue here:

Unlike Hidayah, there's a Malaysian who is fighting period poverty and empowering women through education. Meet Anja Juliah Abu Bakar:

You may be interested in: