When faeces overflow from the choked Indian-style toilets outside the Kaka Nagar civic school building in Mumbra, the boys shrug and get on with it. The girls, on the rare occasion that they came to school “unprepared” for their monthly period, send a coy message to the class monitor or a woman teacher, and then head home.
The MMRDA-funded toilet block tells the tale of senseless, insensitive attitudes towards providing basic social infrastructure in Mumbai’s schools, where girls continue to drop out quietly on attaining puberty.
Shilpa Naik, working president of the Brihanmumbai Mahapalika Shikshak Sabha, says, “Despite high court directives about toilets in schools, other issues remain — maintenance and water problems, toilets getting choked, the need for soap. The girls thus prefer to stay at home as they feel insecure here.”
Naik estimates that only 2% to 4% of Mumbai’s 1,200 municipal schools have properly functioning toilets.
The four-storey Kaka Nagar municipal school building is home to nine schools, 6,200 students, almost half of them girls, and no toilets. In 2010, when activists from Aawaz-e-Niswan found a worrying number of dropouts of adolescent girls from the school, MMRDA funds were sourced for a public toilet right outside the school.
At BMC’s Subhash Nagar School in Chembur, a girl says her elder sister dropped out due to unavailability of toilets. “Now she works at home.” There are only three toilets for the 1,000-odd students of the co-ed school. “The doors don’t even have bolts, how can we use them?” she asks. Girls from the V, VI and VII standards say the buckets are broken and soap is an occasional luxury. “When the toilet chokes up, sometimes it takes three days to solve the problem, sometimes two months,” complains another girl.
Back in Mumbra, giggling teens say they have each located a friend’s residence near their school to rush to in an emergency.
The Adolescent Girls Health Education Programme has been implemented in seven states in the country, covering more than 8,00,000 girls. Experts however admit that it’s a drop in the ocean. A study in Uttarakhand two years ago showed that only 64% of adolescent girls had prior knowledge of menstruation and less than 30% of the girls identified the reproductive system as the source of bleeding. In a 2002 study, an NGO found that pre-puberty girls residing in slums and attending Mumbai’s municipal schools were not considered old enough to use paid toilet facilities like adults.
Feminist writer-activist Vandana Khare says unless societal attitudes change, the girls will continue to feel insulted as it prevents their mobility. “The girls feel that an injustice is being done to them and they want to revolt.” Khare’s Marathi play, Ata tujhi paali (Your turn now) has had 50 screenings followed by hour-long discussions on menstrual hygiene.
Ramesh Joshi, deputy general secretary, All India Federation of Teachers’ Organisation and president of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) teacher’s union said little has changed after an awareness programme launched six years ago. Despite reaching a million students, the lack of adequate toilet facilities has not been addressed by the state.