By: Satish Deshpande
Translated by: Rucha Satoor
Rupali Bhimraj Gaikwad is studying in the 9th standard in a government primary hostel, in Paregaon, Chandwad, Nashik. Rupali’s family lives close by to the Ashram Schools in Pingalwadi, Chowsal, Dindori, Nasik. This is an Adivasi settlement.
Rupali has been staying in an Ashram School since the first standard. Along with Rupali, this school has proved to be a boon for a number of children in her Adivasi community. Since the time that the provisions for education have been made available in this area, the children have started developing an aspiration for education. While infrastructure remains critical, cleanliness and health of the children are equally important concerns.
Scientific knowledge about hygiene, health and menstruation was scarce in this area. Along with UNICEF, a number of other institutions started creating awareness campaigns. Rupali made an effort to understand these nuances in great detail. Thanks to the encouragement from her teachers, and the volunteers from the non-government organisations, she felt confident to speak up. She first brought changes to her own life. Today, she talks about menstrual health and hygiene to her school friends, other girls in her Adivasi community, her mother and women of her mother’s age. Thanks to her speaking up, many women attribute their healthy and hygienic environment to her. Because of her exemplary work, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call her a messenger of good health.
What are health and hygiene? How do you maintain them? Why are they important? Rupali explains the answers to these questions in an extremely lucid and friendly way to the girls and boys around her. She takes the lead in keeping her classroom, her hostel room, house and community clean. She formed a group to talk about the importance of cleanliness. When these children sit together for group discussions, they talk about everything: right from cutting their nails to washing their hands after defecating. Rupali says, “In the beginning, when I used to broach this topic with the girls around me, they used to be often silent. They didn’t say much. Slowly, they started opening up. My questions and their realities weren’t very different. They were exactly the same. I started guessing the questions in their minds and addressing them. Today, a lot of these girls talk. They share and ask openly. I try to answer their questions as best as I can.”
Even today, we don’t have an atmosphere where one can talk about periods openly and scientifically. The situation is even more worrisome in Adivasi hamlets. In addition to using unclean cloth during periods, not being allowed to touch vessels and family members, and considering periods to be ‘impure’ and ‘dirty’ are some of the myths that still exist today.
Speaking about menstruation, Rupali shares, “Even if we uttered the word ‘Paali’ (period) women used to feel shy. No one discussed it. Here, we tend to use cloth mostly. I’ve noticed that even school-going girls used cloth during their periods. Sometimes, this cloth used to remain unclean. Then they used to contract infections and fall ill. They couldn’t even discuss this infection with anyone. First, I explained that periods are natural. When we get our period, we shouldn’t feel shy, scared or liken this to a negative experience. Instead of cloth, I recommended sanitary napkins. What exactly is a pad, how does one use it, how this doesn’t cause rashes or infections, because of which we don’t fall ill, I explained all of this to them. Since I use it, others started using it too. The girls started inculcating such hygienic habits since then.”
In the evenings, girls sit together and chat. Rupali answers their questions. Starting with health and hygiene, they even share dreams about educating themselves and becoming someone important one day. Rupali takes leadership when it comes to interacting with the Headmaster for everyday issues that the girls face. These interactive sessions on health are almost equivalent to classroom sessions. Even parents and teachers are responding positively to them.
Her activism doesn’t stop at menstrual hygiene. Recently, Rupali took part in the Science Exhibition. Her experiment demonstrated how the commercial sector could work to reduce air and water pollution. Her teachers also encouraged her. She seems hopeful about the society around her when she speaks about her experiment. She shares about how her work should contribute meaningfully to society. She received a district-level award for her experiment and also got an opportunity to participate at the state level. The fact that one child amongst them is able to reach the state-level competitions is a huge source of wonderment and inspiration for the Adivasi parents and teachers in the Bahul area. Everyone is amazed at her success.
Rupali dreams of becoming a Computer Engineer someday. In school, she received information about how to become one. But she’s determined to ensure that her work contributes to the well-being of the nation. She wants to be a part of the Indian Armed Forces. When she shared this, her mother warned her about how soldiers have to fight wars. But, her resolve to serve the nation was not deterred.
One encounters issues around health and hygiene when it comes to menstruation, but issues about blind faith also abound. Branding a woman as ‘impure’, they’re often relegated to a corner or kept outside the house. During her period, a girl is neither allowed to go close to the place of worship, nor is she allowed to cook. She’s not even allowed to touch others or any household chore. Myths around health have encouraged myths around impurity as well. When asked about these misconceptions, Rupali shares, “All this is blind faith. Not touching someone because she’s menstruating is so wrong. We don’t follow this anymore at home. How much ever I repeat this, people find it hard to believe. But my friends in the Ashram school listen to me. I’ve managed to convince them that if menstruating monthly is natural, then we cannot discriminate on its basis.”
Rupali, who talks about health and menstruation scientifically is truly a messenger of good health. Thanks to her leadership skills, she’s going to be able to organise and inspire many girls in her village for a healthy life. She never misses an opportunity to participate in activities at her school. Today, Rupali’s inspirations are soaring high, with her resolve to view things scientifically, work on environmental concerns and contribute to the success of her nation.
*Feature image is for representational purposes only.