Menstrual Health and how it Empowers: Reflections by Oda Foundation Operations Fellow Radha Bhatnagar
Walking into health class during the sexual health unit was always an awkward time. It was a unit where we weren’t sure whether to laugh or to cringe, and I never really wanted to go. I grew up with the privilege of not wanting to learn information about my body.
Here in rural, Midwestern Nepal, the community is constantly held back by a lack of awareness. People will always make decisions based on the best knowledge they have, but when the material is scarce, wrong, or they can’t read it, decisions being made aren’t always the best for oneself, one’s family, or one’s community. Menstruation is a taboo topic, with most women living in cowsheds, every month, for the duration of their period. No temples, no touching family, no sharing food, no ventilation, and no light. Apart from this dangerous tradition, women don’t have the means to have healthy, hygienic periods. With no products, girls and women don’t go to school or work during this time. Handling menstruation is a huge issue for women’s and girls’ progress.
Lucy and I hold a youth development group multiple days a week and have gotten very close with the teens. Some of them have come to us, pulling me aside secretly to whisper that they were on their period, could they have a pad? I dug around the medical for pads and slipped it to them, but it wasn’t enough. Girls and women here don’t own underwear and it just wouldn’t be possible to use. They were frustrated and asked if I had underwear to give them, or something that could work, and they had to walk away without. It is truly such a difficult thing for them to undergo every single month.
Currently our organization is partnering with Days For Girls and beginning menstrual health education and women’s empowerment programs. Seven women from across our municipality were hired to be our Women’s Health Educators. On the first day of their training, everyone filed in and began their introductions. One woman hid her face with her shawl the entire day. Two of the seven ventured to ask and answer questions. By the third day, though, there was enormous change. Everyone was answering questions and there was real discussion happening. We asked them, “How does being a woman make you feel?” (A question I myself have yet to answer.) It started out with a lot of the bad. “Sometimes being a woman is not good.” “Being a woman is hard.” They cited that they felt this way from the start. They were the ones not getting as much food as their brothers, taking care of younger siblings, not going to school in order to do chores. They were the ones who had to leave their homes when they got married. Who had to work the fields and cook the food and tend the home. But, it’s not all bad. They started to say that being a woman is beautiful, too. Women are like flowers, women can create life. This was the first time they were told women are important. And over the course of the training, they really did bloom.
The first huge day was taking place at the Up School. Lucy and I went door to door with two of the Women Health Educators, reminding families the program was taking place. “Chitto aaunos! Ahile suru gardaichha!” Please come quickly! It’s starting now! We saw hordes of women and girls walking up the hill, while their brothers and sons and husbands stayed home.
The instruction began, with three classrooms filled to the brim and two classes outside. Lucy and I were constantly saying hello and checking off our mental lists of who we hoped would come. Truly, I have never seen people so rapt in attention looking at a drawing of the uterus. And people were loving it! Smiling and learning and asking lots of questions. So many of the women in attendance had already gotten married and had children before learning about their own bodies. It is electrifying seeing a sea of women and girls that you know learning and growing more confident.
One educator, who had her small child with her throughout the training and instructing process, told me that she was so nervous and that her heart was beating so hard. And yet they all excelled. Our educators were spectacular. Brilliant and knowledgeable, fearless and kind. None of them had spoken in front of a group like that before. They ended up giving out nearly 100 reusable Days for Girls pads. That knowledge and those pads are power. I saw faces filled with excitement and each face meant someone’s life would be a little bit easier.
All of our youth group teens came for the program. One in particular, who had come to me several times about her period, came to find me. Usually on the quiet side, she could not stop talking. Telling me random things, like who her siblings are and where her mom used to live. She started calling me, “Didi.” Older sister. (Something she hadn’t done before.) She said she was really happy, that they all were. I’m really happy to be a little cog in the works of the menstrual health program.
I love women, I support women, I believe in women. I believe to invest in a woman is not only to invest in a person, but in a family, and in an entire community. This is a great, big stride for the women of Kalikot, but there is yet so much more to do and achieve. Taking control of one’s menstruation is one of the first steps towards empowerment and I cannot wait for the day these women soar.