By Simran Gulati
On May 23rd, third day of my menstrual hygiene project, I was at a local government school in Dhanas, about to begin my presentation when a female, science teacher stopped me. She said my actions of educating teenage boys and girls on menstruation were unacceptable, disrespectful and misguiding. She said they polluted the minds of young children. I stood there in shock AND certainty, knowing that I was doing the right thing. Menstruation is as normal as the biological process of respiring yet neglected from being taught the same way. The holes in their education leads holes in their health. It is essential for boys and girls to be aware of every process to ensure adequate care is taken for themselves and each other.
My 10 week stretch project with The Rotary Club, Chandigarh, India centered around educating individuals about health, hygiene and specifically menstrual hygiene. Nevertheless, this experience was more than just an act of teaching; it was rather an eye opener for me to a completely different culture, different norms, different ideologies, different protocols. Throughout the trip, I gained many insights on why the cultural differences existed and why the things that are so normal for us in Canada are abnormal for them. All these are delicate ideas that I could have learned from a distance, without living within them.
I began my stretch experience excitedly on May 20th, looking forward to sharing the knowledge and the leadership qualities I had gained from my experience. Although I was able to apply my knowledge in health and hygiene, the rest was a completely different world. I had to learn it myself before I could apply. For example, basic communication, addressing a fellow teacher at a school as Mr./Ms. is considered quite disrespectful. Three weeks into my trip I figured out that you are supposed to address them as “ma’am/sir” to show respect. As I went on, this project opened my eyes to many societal values that are unique to not just India but specific cities within the diverse country, values that I could not have imagined before. I knew it was normal for residents to hang their clothes outside after a wash to be sundried, but I did not know that they were ashamed of hanging female underwears. Many would refrain from drying them out in the sun, or if they did, they would place a thin scarf (called chunni) on top to hide them. I did not know that girls did not wear an underwear unless they were on their period; neither did they shower or pray during the days they were menstruating.
Further, I was enlightened that there was in fact a reason behind each belief. Refraining from showers during menstrual days was an old tradition in northern India that was followed because in the olden days, the whole village would use a common source of water, often a nearby river, to take a bath and wanted to prevent contamination from a female’s menstruation. However, from the past few decades every house has their own water supply and do not face the same problems anymore. After I learned about the reasons, I educated the students on why the stereotype existed and why it should, could, and must be modified now.
My biggest asset in this trip was knowing the local language, Hindi. I began practicing the language when I decided to do my stretch in Indian in January of 2018, and was moderately proficient in Hindi and Punjabi by May. Although English is commonly spoken nowadays, especially in urban areas of Chandigarh, I found I was able to make a connection with my coworkers and audience members when I spoke in their language. They were more comfortable bringing me their personal questions and queries on a personal matter like their hygiene. Moreover, by being comfortable in Hindi, I also opened the door for myself to go in slum areas like an area in Saketri that is located on the outskirts of Chandigarh, where English is rarely utilized. The comfort people felt in me, encouraged me to try to blend in more with them. Soon enough, I began wearing suits and kurtas as well, that are Indian outfits commonly worn by females.
To top my experience, I met some heart-warming, friendly, amazing people who all had something I could learn from. I met individuals who resisted stating cultural taboo and those who encouraged my initiative. I met teachers who proudly taught girls to never feel subordinate to boys, speak up for their rights and encouraged my efforts. I also met teachers who strongly disapproved my intentions. I met highly experienced Rotarians and Retractors who guided me throughout, and without whom this trip would have been extremely difficult to manage. Working with government offices in India is quite different than the Canadian system I was used to, they familiarized me with the systems, the procedures to take permissions and taught me enough to be confident to do them independently. Through them, I also got the wonderful opportunity to participate in other Rotary projects while I was there expanding my bag of experience. I gave a presentation on ‘What is a Good touch vs. Bad touch’ (such as a touch to private parts, as juvenile rape is rising in some areas). I worked on a Green Chandigarh project, and distributed free insulated water bottles and towels to local Rikshaw pullers.
This trip showed me of the essence of service. Every step to help has a bigger impact and the impact has been evident in my journey with the Rotary Club, this summer. In every question I got, or experience an audience member shared, I felt the impact of my work. I am truly grateful to Rotary Club and PLLC stretch team for giving me the opportunity to stretch beyond my comfort zone. I really could not have obtained this experience otherwise.
As I touch foot back on land of my home, Canada, I feel I have accomplished something, learnt the expanse of a new culture and achieved greater understandings; understanding of myself, peers, multiculturalism, people’s limitations and dreams. The project of providing education on menstruation does not end here, if anything, now I know how much more there is to do. There will be more.