After over two years, I’m back in India. For whatever reason, this country has grabbed me more than most, and I have returned to the same place again in my travels, with plans to return for many many more visits…
In the middle of an unrelenting heat-wave, I am back at the BIRDS campus in the village of Muthylapadu, in the Kurnool District of Andhra (no longer Andhra-Pradesh), India. The school children are on summer break and without them, the campus feels empty but at peace. Taking their place, are the widowed employees of Shelter International’s Sanitary Napkin Project. Visiting them in their workshop and my interactions with them have been a highlight of the last few years. Words do not begin to express my sentiments and I hope that I am able to process and share these feelings in the future.
While I am here for the widows, I am also here to research the beliefs and practices of feminine hygiene in this portion of village India. Two friends have joined me and together we are trying to create a concrete and evidence-based picture of the area’s current feminine hygiene practices. As tools, we are using focus groups and individual interviews with women and Community Health Workers (CHWs).
So far, only two days into the individual interviews, our results are quite interesting. It seems that the majority of women here already use sanitary napkins, most having adopted them recently because they wanted the “freedom” and “comfort” to move about. Previously, they used bits of cloths that restricted their movements, caused mortifying menstrual mishaps, unpleasant smells, rashes, and were embarrassing to wash, dry, and reuse. When I ask these impoverished women the maximum price that they would pay for napkins, they almost unanimously reply, “Napkins are now a necessity. Even if the cost was 100 rupees (current prices in the villages range from 26-45 rupees), we will pay it, because we will never go back to the old ways.”
Despite this unexpected progress, many of the women still face restrictions on their behaviors and movements during menstruation. So far, none of them worship during their menses, as they feel “impure.” Several do not travel or leave the house, many restrict the foods that they eat, and some are forced to stay outside or in a corner for the duration of their period. Thus, while some women do have the freedom and comfort to go about their days normally, because of custom, many women are still restricted and stay home from work or school during menstruation.
Education is also lacking and, perhaps surprisingly, mothers do not tell their daughters about menstruation until after menarche (their first period). And, as one might expect, sex education is lacking in the Indian school system. Thus, when girls see their first drops of blood, they fear disease or death and run crying to their mothers, who then tell them that this is a normal process for girls– their entrance into womanhood. Several of the women revealed that they never had the opportunity to learn from their mothers, because they were married within a month of menarche and their mothers did not have time to explain how to manage menses. Furthermore, women have no knowledge of the physiological process of menstruation and very few women are able to identify the origin of menstrual blood.
Still early in this process, my mind rolls over future projects and mostly educational interventions. I am also dreaming up ways to expand Shelter to employ more widows, as widows frequently travel great distances hearing that we employ widows and treat them well (unfortunately, the stigma of widows is still strong). While I do have a slight bias, I have already seen the impact that Shelter has had on the lives of our employees and even on women in the villages. I feel so lucky and thankful to be able to do this work. It is what drives me and gives me the energy to succeed in my studies.
More to come as time, internet, and power allow…