New Delhi: The staff at Navi Mumbai Mahanagar Palika School No. 6 didn’t quite know how to address the issue: stained petticoats.

“The girls come from poor families. They had no idea how to deal with periods," said teacher-in-charge Yugandhara Anant Thakur.

So, when health-care giant Johnson & Johnson (J&J) came calling a month ago, Thakur jumped at the chance to organize the first workshop in the co-educational school on menstruation. The one-hour session drew 150 girls between the ages of 12 and 14, learning about their monthly cycles and receiving a free sample of sanitary napkins.

Yugandhara Thakur explains adolescence-related issues to girls of the municipal school No. 6 in Nerul, Navi Mumbai

At J&J, which wants to reach one million Indian girls annually, only 20% of the school- reach programme is now targeted at girls in elite schools. The rest is for schools where the girls are from the middle-class and lower middle-class, and in non-urban locations.

“We have consciously gone beyond the top 25 cities because we realize that is where information requirement is the highest," said Shrikrishna Bharambe, general marketing manager of the women’s health business at J&J.

In some cases, schools and teachers, unsure of how to broach the subject, are reaching out to product makers such as J&J and Procter & Gamble Co. (P&G) to dispatch professionals to deal with their students’ queries. The companies’ involvement also allows schools to introduce the topic without raising parental or government protest over a subject that borders on sex education, banned from many states’ curricula recently. For the companies, it is also a question of getting a customer early—and possibly for life. J&J sells the Stayfree brand of sanitary napkins in India while P&G’s brands include Whisper. Both compete head-on in the Indian marketplace for customers. Neither company manufactures tampons—a more recent product popular in the West, and championed by doctors—in India, and students are given information only on napkins.

Meanwhile, not-for-profit organizations are also making an effort, from spreading awareness of the hygiene value of disposable products to publishing educational materials for distribution in schools.

Room to Read, a global non-profit organization founded by former Microsoft executive John Wood, which funds libraries in poor schools and gives scholarships to girls, will send out its first book on menstruation to libraries it funds in poor schools in India.

The book features a teenage daughter questioning her mother’s directive not to enter the kitchen, eat from separate utensils and not touch any member of the family during her period. “Why should I follow something without understanding its reason?" the daughter asks.

The story, illustrated in traditional Madhubani art, ends with the mother wondering why she never raised these questions herself.

Some 38% of urban women, at least those who are still of menstruating age, use sanitary napkins, compared with 30% in 2002. Others rely on cloth, perhaps more environmentally friendly, but uncomfortable, unhygienic and potentially a cause of infection.

In the poorest areas of the country, such as parts of Rajasthan and Bihar, women use cloth stuffed with ash or sand to make it absorbent. They will wear a single such napkin, without any change, for the entire duration of the period, says the not-for-profit organization Goonj, which won a World Bank award this year to develop re-usable napkins.

Affordability and practice are the key points that need to change, the companies and non-profits say.

“It is far more difficult to bring a change in a middle-aged woman who experienced her first period long back and has built notions and taboos around it," said Bharambe.

J&J runs its urban school workshops with the Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Societies of India. In another programme, it reaches municipal or government-run schools.

P&G conducts similar workshops in some 5,000 schools in 90 towns. Though the two companies do not have exclusive contracts with schools for these workshops, and consider it a category-building exercise, their brand is focused in the leaflets and free samples distributed. One of the giveaways that P&G distributes to girls in such sessions is a “fun calendar" that has the firm’s branding and is intended to keep track of their menstrual cycles.

It is not just poor schools that need help tackling the difficult subject.

New Delhi’s privately run Ramjas School, whose principal Meera Balachandran is considered a pioneer in the Capital’s education circles, invites sanitary napkin makers for a workshop on menstruation on an annual basis.

“Kids sometimes feel inhibited asking questions from teachers. The companies send young girls who are easier to deal with," said Ramjas School’s biology teacher Veena Marwaha, who sits in on these workshops. Nearly 200 of the school’s girls attended the workshop last year.

Besides teaching hygiene and the use of sanitary napkins, the schools say they are breaking myths about menstruation, handed down from one generation of mothers to the next, which is another challenge.

Room To Read, which works closely with Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the flagship programme of the Manmohan Singh-led coalition government to put every child in school, plans to send the book out to its libraries in government schools in five states.

“The book will also be used to impart life skills training to the 1,000 school girls who get our scholarship," said Bindiya Nagpal, programme officer with the organization.

Companies that conduct workshops in schools are adding their own bit to challenge conventions. “One of the things which they (company representatives) said was that things like not going into the kitchen should not be believed," said Suraksha Shivaji Gore, a 12-year-old student whose father works as a bus conductor and mother takes on odd jobs in stitching. Gore was one of the girls who attended the menstruation workshop at the Mumbai school last month.

One way in which companies have tried to help is by inviting mothers to the school workshops. Though many cannot attend due to their busy work schedules, the companies concede that better than their efforts, the best way to reach the daughter is to educate the mother.