Ever since Project Jatropha was launched in 2007, environmental protection, sustainability and preventive health care have been its primary objectives. This year, we decided to expand our outreach programs by adding ‘Women health awareness and empowerment’ to our core objectives.
Women, especially from rural areas in India need a support system where they feel reassured that they are not alone in their struggles and they have someone to turn to when faced with difficult and uncomfortable situations at home or the workplace. Discussion of topics like menstruation and sexual health education are taboo, with many unhygienic orthodox practices during menstruation. With little access to internet, girls studying in rural schools and colleges suffer in silence as they are left with many unanswered questions. Our objective is to educate these girls about hygiene, menstruation, and personal safety and establish a support system to empower them.
Our first stop was at DTMN school in Bettadapura village, Mysore, India. 300 young women assembled under the tent that the school had so thoughtfully erected for our convenience. We spoke about three inspiring women who were pathbreakers in their respective fields – Kalpana Chawla (1st woman of Indian descent to go to space), Indra Nooyi (PepiCo’s 1st female CEO), and Anandibai Joshi (India’s 1st female Doctor). We believe that if we focus on the personal journey and the stories of struggles of these women, it would be more effective than just listing out their career milestones. When we watch a movie or read a story, our natural tendency is to try to identify ourselves with the story or with the protagonist. We tend to find some common factor with the protagonist and their journey becomes our journey. So, we thought that through sharing the stories of how these women overcome their struggles and closed the mouth of their naysayers, these girls would also realize that through hard work and determination nothing is impossible for them no matter their social and economic status.
We also touched upon the topic of menstruation, where we taught them about menstrual hygiene and distributed 400 sanitary napkin packs. We made them realize that menstruation is a natural process and definitely not something to be ashamed of. Only by overcoming our shyness in discussing the topic with our friends and families can we overcome the orthodox and often unhygienic practices regarding the same. Victim blaming and shaming is quite prevalent in rural areas (and elsewhere) when it comes to molestation and sexual assault. Oftentimes, these young girls on facing such situations suffer in silence as they fear the wrath of the society. It was our duty to inform them that it is not so and to always approach a person of authority on whom they have trust whenever they encounter such situations and that irrespective of our feelings towards another girl, we should always support one another. We also conducted similar camps in Hullekere school and Dombaranahalli school.
When we started to talk about menstrual health and personal safety, there was a pin drop silence irrespective of the school clearly indicating the girls’ discomfort in addressing these topics. But by the end of the workshop, they were not only comfortable but also paid rapt attention to what was being said. We have reached out to 400 young women and hopefully, we managed to help reduce the taboo on talking about these delicate issues. The beginning of a story is always the hardest to write. Similarly, the initiative in educating these young women about their health and personal safety is hard, but we are hoping that this initiative would encourage talks about the aforementioned topics and help establish a support system for these women.
Blogger: Dr. Navya Narendra, Medical Director of Project Jatropha.