Two reporters, one bike and a 500-km ride across Bundelkhand. For Gaon Connection reporters Jigyasa Mishra and Pragya Bharti, these seven days were a mix of fun, adventure, learning and some serious journalism. They visited many villages and tried to understand life from women's perspective. This journey was about understanding their lives, struggles, hopes and aspirations of women living in villages.
Edited by: Swati Subhedar
It was just another day of our trip when we accidentally stumbled upon our next story. While riding towards Khohi village from Chitrakoot, when we stopped by a petrol pump for a refill, I saw a school girl walking by. Her school bag was unusually large for her size. I stopped her. Kavita and I had an interesting conversation.
A class 7th student, there are eight students in her class.
"Do all of them come to the school," I asked her.
"Do nahi aate, unke MC shuru ho gaye hai," she replied.
(Two of them have stopped coming, they have started getting their periods).
I had only read reports and heard stories about girls who stop going to schools once they hit puberty.
According to Rutgers University report, 23% girls drop out of their school after they hit puberty. After I met girls living in Bundelkhand, I could easily believe this staggering number.
During the course of our 500-km Bundelkhand trip, I met many women. I asked them specific questions about menstruation and what they told me came as a shock to me. Most of the women don't use sanitary pads for various reason and almost all of them ignore their personal hygiene which leads to infections and diseases.
When I met Suman in Rajula village, I was aghast to know that this 21-year-old girl had seen a sanitary pad only on TV. When we reached her house – a typical village house -- Suman was dressing her younger sister up. Her sister is 17-18 but behaves like a 12-13 year because of her mental illness. "She has been like this since childhood. She is completely dependent on us. We take care of her, but when she is on her period, it becomes bit difficult. I have to be on my toes all time," Suman told me.
"Few years back, when I saw other kids laughing at her because she started bleeding, only then realised that her body functions normally, but she is mentally a child," she added.
I then asked her how does she manages.
"Kapda hi lete hain (I use cloth),"she said.
"Why? Pads are not available here?" I asked her.
"I don't know. I have never used it. I have no idea how to use it," Suman said and started thinking about something. Suddenly she recalled an ad she had seen on TV and said, "Yes, yes. I remember I've seen it on TV. They talk about pads. People use them."
While packing my bag, I had kept few extra packs of sanitary napkin. I took out a pad and gave it to her. She asked me innocently, "How do I use it, didi?"
I wished I had packed more pads so that I could have distributed them among as many girls as possible.
I remember while in highschool I had this amazing biology teacher, Suman Rai, who taught us about menstrual cycles and hygiene. After meeting Suman I was wondering why don't mothers or other female family members guide and educate their daughters. Issues related to personal hygiene crop up only because these girls don't get proper help and guidance. Almost all girls living in villages feel menstruation is some kind of diseases.
In one of the villages, I met Sushila. She told me, "We use old, torn clothes. We use them for few months and then burn them."
While using a cloth is quite common in villages, it was shocking to know that women use the same cloth repeatedly. Besides, many taboos and stigmas attached to periods leads to women ignoring personal hygiene while menstruating.
A perfect example is this is Neetu's story.
Neetu, 22, lives in Kemasan village of Panna district. She got married two years back and has a kid. Neetu told me that whenever she's menstruating, she is not allowed to touch anyone in her home. She is strictly not allowed to touch food that is being cooked or clothes, especially those of her husband's. "If I touch his clothes, my mother-in law beats me up. I can't touch anything – food, clothes or water. I have to sleep in a separate room. That's how it is here."
While some women I met were willing to use pads, but they couldn't afford to buy them. "It costs Rs 40. I don't earn anything. I can't afford to spend Rs 40 on pads. We have children to feed. That's our priority," said Aarti, who also lives in Kemasan village.
While leaving from the village I realised that people living in cities have an option to choose from a range of pads available in the market and they even have an option to choose among pads, menstrual cups and tampons, but women living in villages would continue to suffer in absence of availability of the most basic option – affordable pads.