22 May 2015

Armed with pamphlets and diagrams and bursting with information about the importance of menstrual hygiene, my mother and I made our way to the bustling town of Anupshahr, where the Pardada Pardadi Educational Society (PPES) ‐ a non‐profit organization committed to fight poverty through education‐is located.

I came to be interested in the cause of menstrual hygiene when I read a few facts on the UNICEF websites. India has the highest percentage of women with cervical cancer. 12% of the women use sanitary napkins, while the rest resort to using ashes, newspaper and even plastic. While cloth is a viable and eco‐friendly option, sometimes five women of one household would use the same cloth, increasing risk of infection. Researching on the education material, I realised though very informative, they often missed the practical aspects of menstruation and hygiene which would address the concerns of the ‘new adolescent’. This set me on a journey of compiling an illustrated booklet in very simple Hindi targeted at addressing the concerns of a newbie grappling with adolescence and menstruation.

I compiled an illustrated booklet on menstrual hygiene in simple Hindi, got the initial 200 copies crowd funded by friends and families. I’ve made presentations at many other schools in and around NCR, but my experience at PPES was completely new. As a person trying to spread awareness about bodily changes during adolescence and how to deal with it, I’ve become quite accustomed to seeing awkward glances, stifled laughter, and most unfortunate of all, complete cluelessness. In a country where menstruation is seen as something shameful and disgusting, these reactions were to be expected. I planned many games that would help in rapport formation so that both teachers and children would respond and ask questions about the ‘taboo’ subject.

This visit was different. Once we had our icebreaker session, I began the presentation using placards for the children of classes 11 and 12. The girls asked questions without much encouragement, and some of them even helped out when I began rambling in broken Hindi. Soon after, the perennial question of ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ was thrown into the room, and everyone broke into smiles and emphatically explained their dreams of being a doctor, teacher, nurse, engineer and even a radio jockey. In the presentations for students of classes 6 and 7, the girls were not so forward, but still asked me questions in hushed whispers after the presentation was over. I also attended a Personality Development class that was unlike any other. Madhu Ma’am explained society perceptions by starting with the difference between gender and sex (ling), something that very few teachers ever explain. In fact, I only learnt that sex referred to biological differences between men and women and gender referred to the roles given to us by society this year. I have to say it was one of the most enlightening classes I have ever attended. It’s very difficult to talk about such a subject that conflicts with what is taught at home, and the teacher managed to change centuries old perceptions (like how it is the girl’s role to work in the kitchen) just by raising questions.

After my interactions with the students, the school nurse gave my mother and me a tour of the city. We were accompanied by Sonam, the only student who lives on campus. We saw the Ganges and a temple, and then went on towards Sonam’s house, which is in the poorest part of the town. To encourage that area about PPES and the importance of education, community toilets had been built in the area. A solar energy system using lanterns was also established o that the villagers could have access to light, at the low cost of Rs.45 per month. Despite continued efforts, the area has a resistance to regular work; most children of the area do not go to school, and end up in jobs such as Rikshaw wallahs and cobblers. Young girls end up in the flesh trade. It’s times like these I realise that 70% of the country lives and thinks like this. However, I am happy to say that Sonam is an anomaly. While we ate dinner, she told us that she wanted to fight for human rights on a large scale level in the future. When we went up to the roof of the guest house, she emphatically told me that she can’t wait to go to college and see the world.

The next morning, I spoke with the teachers about my booklet. I learnt about the extensive syllabus the school had to offer, and offered a couple of ideas that could be used to strengthen unity amongst the children. We then went up to see the plant where the sanitary napkins are made. This unique system results in a high rate of attendance, as now there is no reason such as lack of facilities or discomfort which prevents girls from missing school. Both the students and staff get the pads at subsidised rates. Finally, we had the pleasure of meeting Sam, the man behind the idea that changed the life of an entire town and village communities. He spoke to us about how the school started, the problems the area is facing and plans for the future. We left after a mere 24 hours, but every minute of the visit taught us something new.

PPES strives for excellence and equality, a goal that is reflected in every part of the school experience: the girls excitedly greeting us hello, primary school kids reciting Hindi and English poems with equal aplomb, the signposts that ask whether you loved your daughter today. It is so encouraging and impressive to know that many of their class 12 students end up studying engineering, sports education, journalism in cities like Bangalore, Gwalior and others. In fact there are some students who are headed to community colleges in the US. But above all, the school fills you with hope. The school is like a family away from home, which not only cares for the needs for over a 1000 girls from Anupshahr, but also gives them a platform to be able to dream. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see one of the girl’s name in the newspaper one day for excellence in their chosen field. I came to the school with the purpose of making a difference‐but I learnt so much more in the process. I know I’ll be back soon, ready for more.


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