Taboo in India

After a crazy and rewarding 11 days in Kenya, the three of us were off to our next destination India! Many of the issues we heard to be common in Kenya were also common in India.
We started off in Delhi visiting a home for the mentally disabled as well as two children’s homes! Due to the caste system in India, people living on the streets are rarely directly reached out to by local people. The organisation we toured with has established a home to care for mentally unwell people from the streets of Delhi and has provided homes for girls and boys who need somewhere safe to stay.
Throughout our 3 days in Delhi, we were very confronted and saddened by the enormous amount of people living on the streets. The homeless were made up of many men but also many children. It was explained to us that many of the women will become sex workers instead of living on the street. The mission of TABOO is to provide sanitary health care and education to girls and women who need it in order to help them continue with their schooling or work. It was heart breaking to see young girls walking through traffic attempting to sell pens for money instead of using pens at a school they should be attending.
We found that the circumstances of girls living in the city of Delhi is different to the girls living in smaller and more rural cities and communities. Due to the strong but “illegal” caste system, cows are openly worshiped and women are explicitly “worth less” than the cattle. Due to the strong stigma of periods in these places, parts of India commonly use menstrual huts to ensure the women do not come into contact with the cows or any other human or animal that is ranked higher than them on the caste system. These menstrual huts can be lonely, unsafe and completely degrading. However, some women do enjoy their time in it as they approach it as a spiritual time away from duties and responsibilities. In India, women are not able to enter a holy place of worship whilst they are bleeding for this is considered to be unclean and unholy.
We discovered that both countries have extremely high poverty rates which means that women who fall into this poverty will not have enough money to purchase pads. However we found that in India, periods are considered to be so culturally TABOO that more than 80% of the entire female population would not use sanitary pads during their period. Some traditional methods that women will use instead is most commonly old rags that are washed and reused. The complication that occurs from this is infection, discomfort and ineffectiveness of absorption. These rags are rarely cleaned with proper clean water and it’s difficult for women to dry them properly as it’s culturally insensitive to have the rags showing in public or to their husbands. Things such as leaves, bark and dried cow patties are also common methods which result in similar consequences.
Thankfully there is a team of passionate women working together to create an awesome solution in Bhopal! We visited these women mid way through our time in India and they were able to explain to us their model of work. These 5 women along with another team of 20, will be opening a new factory where women will be employed to make quality and cheap sanitary pads. They will then work closely with the government and some other NGO’s to distribute these pads around the country providing women micro finance businesses to sell cheap pads to girls and women. This model provides jobs for many women and also gives girls and women access to affordable sanitary care. Along with the distribution of pads, the women running the business educate the buyers and school girls menstrual health education to ensure they are taking care of their body correctly.
After meeting and chatting to these women, we were fortunate enough to meet with a group of social workers who work in some slums of India. These workers raised our awareness of child marriages, child pregnancies, birth complications and more. Because of the large stigmas around menstruation, pregnancy and early marriages, girls will rarely seek appropriate heath care for the TABOO complications and circumstances.
Kenya and India had clear similarities, however we found that India’s culture has such strong stances on menstruation, the road to spread appropriate menstrual health care and education to so many women will be more of a challenge than anticipated.
Words by Eloise Hall
Alicia Franceschini

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