“You’ll ask for condoms too?” : Bihar IAS officer’s ill-conceived reply

When a school girl asks for sanitary napkins to be provided at an affordable price, the Senior IAS officer responds that the girl might ask for condoms too.

Senior IAS officer Harjot Kaur Bhamra is the Managing Director of “Women and Child Development Corporation” of Bihar. In the project “Towards enhancing the value of girls” which was conducted with the partnership from UNICEF, a workshop was conducted in the name of ‘Sashakt Beti, Samriddh Bihar’ (Strong Daughters, Prosperous Bihar) on 28th September 2022. During an interaction with the school girls from the region as part of the workshop, a student asked the IAS officer if the Government can provide sanitary napkins at an affordable price of Rs.20-30. The IAS officer shockingly responds that “you ask for sanitary napkins at Rs.20-30 and tomorrow you’ll say the Government can give jeans too. Why not some beautiful shoes after that? And then condoms too.”

The shocking and irresponsible response from Harjot Kaur didn’t end there. When the student pointed out that people vote for the Government in an attempt to justify her plea, Harjot Kaur responds “Don’t vote. Become like Pakistan”. However, the student responds “Why should we? We are Indians.” In another shocker from the same event, the IAS officer questioned if the student has different toilets for everyone at her home when the student complained that the walls of toilets in her school are broken which resulted in male students entering the bathrooms.

Harjot Kaur Bhamra had written to the Press Council of India demanding action against a local Hindi newspaper. The letter mentioned “The report was false and malicious and aimed at defaming me. I am a woman myself and have been serving as an administrative officer for the past 30 years. I have been at the forefront when it comes to rights of girl children.” However, with continued criticism from across the nation and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s assurance that action will be taken against the IAS officer regarding the issue, Harjot Kaur Bhamra had issued expressing regret over the incident. According to the ANI, the statement said, “I express regret if my words hurt any girl’s sentiments. I didn’t intend to humiliate anyone or hurt anyone’s sentiments.”

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There are many aspects from these reckless statements from Harjot Kaur. First, the student’s request to issue sanitary napkins at an affordable price is a valid one. There are many state governments that issue sanitary napkins for girl students free of cost in India which was originally pioneered by Tamil Nadu in 2011 by then Chief Minister Jayalalitha. Over the past decade, several other states followed Tamil Nadu’s footsteps and imitated the scheme in their respective states as they saw the value in the project.

Scotland has made it compulsory to provide menstrual products such as sanitary napkins and tampons free of cost for anybody in the country who needs them. This was done through separate legislation in the Scottish Parliament that passed the “The Period Products (Free Provision) Act” unanimously in November 2020. This ensured all Scottish women to have a legal right to have access to all period products free of cost. Several attempts have been made in Scotland to help women gain access to free menstrual products across all local offices and education providers through specific apps such as “PickupMyPeriod” which assists in finding the nearest collection point.

This move was aimed to tackle period poverty. United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) defines it as, “the struggle many low-income women and girls face while trying to afford menstrual products.” It highlights that the period poverty does not affect only women and girls in developing countries but also women from wealthy, industrialized countries. Now, the Scottish law makes more sense in this context as period poverty is something that all women across the world face mainly due to the stigma and taboo surrounding menstrual health.

In India, 50% of the women still use cloth rags for menstruation as per the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5), 2019-21. So, it is far more pressing for India to have a universal free menstrual products distribution plan and in the interim, at least Government can provide school children with menstrual products.

Moreover, India is soon to be the most populous country on the planet with the population fast approaching 1.5 billion people. Although India’s total fertility rate has fallen below the replacement ratio for the first time, 5 states including Bihar are yet to achieve India’s fertility target of 2.1 whereas Bihar’s fertility rate is almost 3. Meghalaya (2.91), Uttar Pradesh (2.35), Jharkhand (2.26) and Manipur (2.17) are the other 4 states which are yet to achieve India’s target. So, the need for condoms as a population control tool is still relevant in India.

More than population control, India has the 3rd highest number of HIV/AIDS cases in the world, which mostly spreads through sexual contact. Condoms act as the most important deterrent in this regard, in addition to countless sexually transmitted infections(STI). WHO claims that there were over 374 million new STIs in 2020 alone and most of these could be prevented using condoms. Apart from population control and sexually transmitted diseases, condoms are very helpful for consenting adults engaging in sex for better family planning and avoiding unwanted pregnancy which could lead to unhealthy abortion practices.

Although the Supreme Court of India had declared that abortion is a legal right all women are entitled to, the ground reality and taboos revolving around abortion, especially in the case of unwed pregnancies force many women to try unsafe abortion practices and contraceptive methods. There is a need for a nationwide awareness campaign regarding sexual health and sexual education. Condoms and menstrual products should be made ubiquitous to break the taboo surrounding them for a better healthier society. An IAS officer making these statements with an insulting tone is highly disturbing and regressive which should be condemned and discouraged publicly to send a clear message to the citizenry.

Links

https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/sexually-transmitted-infections-(stis)#:~:text=STIs%20have%20a%20profound%20impact,and%20trichomoniasis%20(156%20million)

https://www.timesnownews.com/india/action-will-be-taken-bihar-cm-nitish-kumar-on-lady-ias-officers-condom-remarks-during-unicef-workshop-article-94533261

https://theprint.in/india/after-rebuking–requesting-cheap-sanitary-pads-bihar-female-ias-officer-alleges-defamation/1147493/

https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/forceful-pregnancy-of-a-married-woman-can-be-treated-as-rape-supreme-court-101664429398909.html

https://www.firstpost.com/explainers/explained-why-scotland-is-providing-free-sanitary-napkins-and-tampons-11064571.html#:~:text=Scotland%20has%20made%20menstrual%20products,Scottish%20Parliament%20in%20November%202020.

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Ramasamy Jayaprakash

Ramasamy works as a Senior Sub-Editor at YouTurn and writes articles in Tamil and English. He also makes videos for YouTurn's Tamil & English YouTube channels.
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