Politicians Give Gifts for Votes, Why Not Sanitary Pads, Asks Bihar Girl

New Delhi: A girl’s statement at an event organised by UNICEF, Save the Children, and Plan International, at Patna’s Hotel Maurya on September 27 has sparked controversy.

If politicians can spend lakhs and crores on gifts and freebies for people’s votes, why can’t an essential item like a sanitary napkin be given for free, asked Bihar school student Riya Kumari in an exclusive conversation with CNN-News18 on Thursday. A similar question from her this week elicited a startling response from female civil servant Harjot Kaur Bhamra that grabbed headlines and sparked nationwide revulsion.

“Tomorrow you’ll say the government can give jeans too. And why not some beautiful shoes after that?” the IAS officer said in a video that has gone viral. “You will eventually expect the government to give you family planning methods, condoms, too.”

Speaking to CNN-News18, Riya said the officer could have reacted more sensitively.

“We had gone there to discuss our problems. We never knew about sanitary pads but when we came to know about the benefits we started using them. We are from slums and there are thousands of girls who cannot afford sanitary pads. The government already gives so many subsidies, scholarships, etc, so we wanted it to be made free at least in schools. We have been raising this demand to other leaders as well. It’s up to them whether they consider this,” the student was quoted as saying.

Bhamra, who has previously worked as principal secretary, department of science and technology is seen angrily telling Riya, “This is heights of stupidity. Don’t vote, then. Become Pakistan. Do you vote for money and services?”

Here is how the student reacted. She told CNN-News18, “We live in India. Why become Pakistan? She said what she deemed fit. But politicians come and ask for votes, they distribute gifts and money in lakhs, then why can’t such a low-priced essential item be given for free? Is it that demands will be fulfilled only for those who vote? What about girls who have not attained the age of voting? Will their problems and demands remain unheard?” she asked.

The National Commission for Women (NCW) has taken cognisance of the matter and its chairperson Rekha Sharma has sought an explanation from the IAS officer within a week over her remarks.

“If there is so much discussion on 20-30 rupees, then the government should roll back all kinds of yojanas (schemes) in which crores are spent in marriages, scholarships, in Beti Padhao Yojana. The population is high here, so it’s very difficult for people to spend on sanitary pads,” Riya was quoted as saying.

Bhamra, who issued an official apology on Thursday, told CNN-News18.

“The purpose of the workshop was to educate girls and also to check on what policies we are following and where we are and what road we should be following next,” said the officer. “We were discussing a large number of issues since morning with all the girls present over there. The government is giving money to all the girls for sanitary pads through DBT since 2014-15 and even our department is giving sanitary vending machines and sanitary installation machines to high school girls. We are educating girls about safe mensuration, how to dispose of sanitary pads, from where they can get it, and what should be the right way of disposal of the sanitary pads. Sentences have been taken out of context and in-between sentences have not been shown so the context of the sentences is changed, and suddenly people find these statements coming out from somebody like me. They were spoken in a context and I would humbly say that people should watch the full clip and then come to their own conclusions about what I said, why I said it, and what was my purpose.”

Bhamra maintained that her intention was not to hurt anybody’s sentiments. “And if anybody’s sentiments have been hurt, of that girl or any other girl in the country, or in the state, I would definitely express my regret for that, but I would also like to say issues were reiterated again and again and we were talking in that particular manner…But, yes as CMD of the women and child development corporation, if my words have hurt anybody, I express my sincere regrets,” she said.

“We were impressed when she was motivating us to become independent,” Riya told CNN-News18. “But when we asked a genuine question, it turned into a heated argument which we never intended. In fact, we want more of this kind of discussion so that our voices are heard. And government and officials should seriously think about thousands of girls like us.”

Notably, in Bihar, only 59% of women use a hygienic method of menstrual protection, according to the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5). And nearly 23 million girls in India drop out of school annually after they start having their periods due to a lack of access to menstrual hygiene facilities.

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