By Anwesha Dhar:
As human beings, we are capable of being part of amazing stories; stories which we ourselves create, abounding in hope, miracles and awe-inspiring moments. Stories which involved taking that one big decision, that one big leap of faith. I had the good fortune of coming across one such incredible story of a girl, who amidst societal taboos and stigmatization, has taken it up on her to raise awareness about women’s health in rural Rajasthan. Not only that, she has gone a step ahead and started working on the production of sanitary napkins using the local cloth for women of that area. Meet Simren Singh, a graduate of International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University, an SBI Youth for India Fellow 2014, a believer, a change-maker.
When Simren completed her Masters a few years back, she had the world at her feet. She could have continued with her studies or gotten a job anywhere in Delhi. What made her leave everything and take the plunge? “I got bored, basically”, Simren told me. “I wanted to gain a practical insight into the real world. I could have worked with any NGO in Delhi, in fact, I did volunteer for an organization. However, those NGOs cater to a very different kind of target groups. The SBI Fellowship offered me a different kind of opportunity – a way to work at the grassroots, in the rural setup. I did not want to miss out on it.”
Wasn’t it scary then, to go to an unknown place, to work amidst unknown people? “I just wanted to go. I just wanted to explore.” Simren did confess about having second thoughts before going for it, but once she took her leap of faith, there was no going back. “What I realized was that people in rural India are warm, welcoming and quite amicable. They are in no way different from those of us hailing from metropolitan cities.” She initially wanted to work on the issue of trafficking during her Fellowship, knowing very well the ramifications it could have had. But once she started working in the village, she observed how the women were using dirty rags as a substitute for pads for their periods. The village being located in the remote interiors of the state, they had no means of procuring a packet of sanitary napkins. Given the price of pads, they would not have been able to buy them either. In such a situation, Simren felt the need of doing something. In collaboration with the NGO, Seva Mandir, she started teaching the women to make sanitary napkins at home using a locally produced cloth. “I have twin objectives, ” she says, “One, I want to improve the awareness and state of women’s health and two, by teaching the women to make these pads, I wanted to introduce them to a way of earning their livelihood. Selling these pads would help them to earn some much needed money.”
In this area, she got help from Jatan Sansthan, an NGO working on reproductive and adolescent health for the last two decades. Jatan supports the production of UGER reusable, washable, eco friendly cloth pads through a women’s self help group. “I conducted an awareness workshop on reproductive health and menstrual hygiene in December wherein I also shared the knowledge and information I gathered with support of Jatan. To make the workshop more meaningful for the participants we also distributed their UGER pads to a group of rural girls and women. The idea was to offer rural women an alternative sanitary napkin for better personal hygiene and create overall awareness about menstrual health. Following this, we garnered a positive response from the users. However in their feedback they suggested that if the local women make such napkins at affordable prices, they would buy and use the same. The need and demand from the village could not be neglected. The challenge was how to make such napkins available in the village at a low price and regular basis. Therefore, it was thought to mobilize a group of enthusiastic women in the village who would be willing to make sanitary cloth napkins locally for self use and local sale. This would help them become self reliant along with ensuring better menstrual hygiene of rural women and girls. Even if the women don’t succeed in developing any business model for themselves they’ll at least learn how to make their commodity of need the knowledge of which they can pass on to others and future generations. So currently, the women make a modified and simpler design from locally available material suiting their convenience, skill set and affordability.”
The first question that came to my mind was the kind of difficulties she must have faced while undertaking this project, given the everyday trauma associated with periods. Her answer, however, took me by great surprise. “It was actually not that difficult”, she told me. “Once you are upfront and honest about it, people open up. Recently I conducted a survey where I asked very straightforward questions related to menstrual health. The survey generated a great response. The logic is simple – if you are honest, sooner or later, people will be honest with you. Our next step is to mobilize school children. We are still working on it.”
I was amazed. In a world where an extremely popular social media platform shies away from the topic of menstrual health on grounds of the topic being inappropriate, there was a young girl in rural Rajasthan working relentlessly on the issue, far away from the amenities a city life has to offer. I wanted to know more. I wanted to know her plans. I felt inspired, I felt hopeful. “I do not know”, she replied, “It all depends on the funding. My fellowship ends in a few months. I do want to continue. I want to stay here and see the project taking off. I have my fingers crossed.” When I asked her about one message she has for youngsters who often shy away from taking that one big step, she said, “You have to take the leap. And believe me, you won’t regret it.”
The last words moved something within me – I again thought of this beautiful story she is both creating and taking part in. I thought of the great moments, the spots of time, which enable us to be greater than just an amalgamation of few thousand cells. I learnt that to keep these wonderful stories going, like Simren, we too must take that one big leap of faith.