Our amazing ambassador Harriet Hewitson is currently in India with an organisation called ASHA, and has some beautiful experiences to share with us at TABOO:
The community centre we worked at had a small doctor’s office, where women would come in for pregnancy tests and pregnancy check ups. We spoke to our supervisor, Sweeta, about the role ASHA plays in teaching slum-dwellers sex education and menstruation education from a young age. ASHA works across approximately 90 slums in India and aims to provide sanitary items for all of the women and girls in need. However, unfortunately those who miss out are stuck wearing rags. This creates risk of a variety of health complications.
At each slum it works at, ASHA creates a women’s group. The women’s group provides an opportunity for the women and girls to come together once a week and come up with solutions to problems they are facing. The womens’ groups have achieved incredible things, such as successfully pitching to the Government to introduce street lights in their slum, so that it is safer for women at night time. Not only does this provide an opportunity for legal change, it also gives the women a chance to open up, be themselves, and let loose in front of their peers. They mentioned that even just catching up to hang out and chat was something they hadn’t experienced before. ASHA also runs classes to give the women advice on healthcare (e.g. vaccinations, family planning and sexually transmitted diseases). Sweeta explained to us that at the beginning, some of the husbands were skeptical – letting their wives go to a weekly meeting had previously been out of the question. Now, after seeing their wives grow and feel empowered from the women’s group, they hold a positive attitude towards it. Not all women are able to come to the meetings, but it is the responsibility of the women who can come to spread the values and advice they have learnt amongst the group. When asked about how they cope with their periods, they all looked at each other, then at the boys, then grinned. Sweeta explained to us that they didn’t feel comfortable speaking about it in front of our male counterparts.
After meeting the women’s group, we were able to meet some of the University students that ASHA supports. A few years ago now, ASHA decided that there needed to be a change in the number of girls going to university in India. Within the slums they worked in, they went door-knocking to motivate parents and girls to enrol for university, offering financial assistance. In many cases, the ASHA representatives were knocked back twice. It was only on the third time that families began to realise the benefits of education for their daughters. We met a girl whose father still, even now she is happily at University studying, isn’t supportive of her studies. This girl predicts that once she is out of university and warning money, that’s when he will understand.
I had a good chat to the founder’s husband, Freddie. He spoke about his daughter’s experiences teaching sex education for ASHA. For the teenagers she was teaching, it was their first time hearing about most of this sort of stuff. Within this time, she discovered that some of the girls were being raped by their fathers or uncles. Freddie explained that in their communities, girls and women remain shy and rarely have a chance to voice themselves, hence why the volunteers were uncovering this awful news for the first time in these sex education lessons. ASHA became motivated to make a change. They started filing as many law suits as they could and implementing sex education in their centres for as many children and teenagers as possible. They also arranged for one of the boys to almost “spy” on their laneway. If this boy hears any news at all that could be sketchy, he reports it to the women’s group who then deal with it, in coordination with ASHA.
ASHA has learnt a lot about the level of knowledge the women have, and how to most effectively teach things like sex education. There are so many anecdotes that illustrate how different the approach to education has to be. For example, when they taught women to use condoms, they taught them by demonstrating on their fingers. One day, a lady came in saying she was pregnant! “I’m pregnant, I’m pregnant! But I used the condom?! I put it on like this around my fingers while we were having sex!”
How awful is that!!! So Freddie said after that they had to start giving more realistic demonstrations!It was so nice to speak to Freddie, who was so open about period and sex talk in front of me.
I think what our group loved most about supporting ASHA was not just what their practical goals are (education, healthcare, getting people out of the slums…) but the conscious effort, time and resources they put into instilling the ASHA values into the communities they help. The ASHA values (joy, compassion, generosity, non-violence, the power of touch, optimism…) were present in all of the children, teenagers and women we encountered.