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. Then on I understood the importance and relevance of my project and knew I was making an important contribution to the local society of northern India. Of course I understood the limit of the impact of my lectures but it was an essential stepping stone. Menstruation is as normal as the biological process of respiring yet neglected from being taught the same way in many schools of the state of Punjab and Haryana, India. The holes in their education leads holes in their health. Thus, 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 bizarre for them. All these are delicate ideas that I could not have learned from a distance, without living within them.
I excitedly began my stretch experience 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 many things myself before I could apply them. 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 I am 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 air dry their clothes outside after a wash, but I did not know that they were ashamed of hanging female underwears or sanitary napkins. 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, losing an essential disinfection. More surprisingly, 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 to know 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, and wanted to prevent contamination from a female’s menstruation. However, from the past few decades every house has obtained isolated water supply and do not face the same problems anymore, yet the tradition persists. 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 develop a deeper connection with my co-volunteers 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 step into smaller slum areas like an area on the outskirts of a small town called Saketri 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 their cultural taboos and those who supported 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 Rotractors 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 rises). 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.
Simran’s Stretch Experience won the Tavender award, a $5,000 donor-funded award that recognizes students’ positive community impact and allows them to continue the project.