By Chinki sinha
In a dilapidated primary Aanganwadi centre in a little hamlet off the main road called Noorsarai, a young woman is reading out from a booklet called Paheli ki Saheli a story of three girls. From time to time, she glances at the bunch of girls that have gathered this morning to listen to her.
The story she reads out isn’t just a tale of three young women. Embedded in the narrative there is an important lesson - myths about menstruation and hygiene. It isn’t easy breaking the taboos. Priyanka Kumari, 22, is the facilitator of a programme aimed at improving menstrual health and hygiene in rural areas where poverty coupled with myths have contributed to low levels of hygiene.
In rural areas, women and girls use cloth and there is a lack of awareness regarding menstrual health and hygiene.
She sings and looks at the girls, and then picks one and asks her if she can solve the riffle.
They are shy but after a while one answers.
“Monthly cycle,” she says, and Priyanka then goes on to explain the process to the women, taking care to also dismiss myths along the way.
Myths such as if you burn the used sanitary napkins or the cloth used during menstrual cycle, it might lead to evil eye and even death.
She also goes on to say this is not dirty blood but a sign of girls reaching puberty, and should not be confused with myths. She explains it with the booklets made with technical support by UNICEF. Through stories, they talk about changes in a woman’s body and other issues.
Priyanka Kumari is pursuing her master’s in computer applications and joined as a facilitator last year when the mukhiya (village head) asked her if she wanted to work. The salary is around Rs. 4,600, and she has to cover two panchayats, and 21 aanganwadi centres.
The job also includes walking, taking buses, and hitchhiking too. But she isn’t shy, and even when the sun is at its peak and hot winds blow, she wraps the dupatta around her head and keeps walking. This is a rigorous exercise.
There are training sessions and there are other things like getting the list of young girls in the age group on 9-14 years of age in the panchayats and convince them to come for the meetings. But Priyanka Kumari is a confident young woman who relates easily and also commands the attention with her ways of engaging.
She isn’t shy and she isn’t inhibited. She is a storyteller and with the booklet’s help, she makes them act, sing along and understand the issues that many young women in rural areas face regarding their monthly cycles.
“We are trained to remove stereotypes. I have learned many thing myself and in the beginning, I was shy to tell my parents about the work, but then I brought them to one of the meetings and my mother was impressed,” she says.
“However, I haven’t yet told them that we also have to speak with men in the villages about the issue. It is important to engage them.”
It isn’t an easy job for her, as she needs to convince women and men about health issues and then they ask for money to buy sanitary napkins. Those are moments when she feels helpless.
She relies on her training to tell them cloth is an alternative but it must be cotton and must be washed properly and dried in the sun, and then kept along with other clothes and not in a corner where they store cow dung or in the tiles in the roof so it is hidden.
“There is nothing to be shy about”, she concludes.