By Sana Afreen
Published on: June 15, 2023
Training women about menstrual hygiene in remote locations is a challenging task on many levels. Sana Afreen gives a better glimpse of what it takes to conduct a training session with women along with sharing her insights and experience as a trainer on a personal ground.
I left for Jasidih, Jharkhand on 5th of February for training for Digital Didis’ who are going to work in the Jamui district of Bihar. Boarding the train from Kolkata Station, my mind was filled with all the thoughts that arose from the conversations I had with my family and colleagues when they got to know that I will be travelling alone to Bihar. One of the most prominent concerns emanated from the conversation I had with my brother, who exclaimed, “You aren’t in your right mind to take up the task of travelling alone in Bihar”. This was because a woman from a city like Delhi, going for an official visit to Bihar, is somewhat unheard of.
I deboarded the train in Jasidih, as this was the closest station to the Jamui district where the program was scheduled. This decision was taken keeping in mind the ease of travelling. This was the first trip where I was on my own. Travelling to Jharkhand and Bihar alone, especially around areas which are associated with Naxalites, and is thought to be a difficult terrain if one is going to conduct any developmental activities, seems like a brave task. The rigidity that I was apprised of was evident when I visited the hotel that was booked. My fear heightened when I entered the hotel looking at twelve to fifteen men hovering around. The very sight of this scared me. Then gathering all my courage, I went up to the reception. The person at the desk looked at me puzzled wondering why I was here all alone. It seemed as if no other girl had ever been to this hotel alone for a stay. The person at the reception added to my anxiety when he shifted my room from 3rd floor to the 1st floor emphasising that it was for my own good.
I felt relieved knowing that I can always reach out to my family and my reporting manager also gave me the option to change hotels if I was not so comfortable with the one I was staying at. But, somewhere in my heart I had taken up the challenge to survive the hurdles and fears, because I have regularly been told by my reporting manager that getting on the field like one is a part of it, ditching the luxuries and the self-created nuisance of sophistication can only help to understand the glory and obscurity of the field. I was also told that not just expressing my concern, but by empathising through action will make it feel like one is very much part of the community instead of being seen as someone who has to be nice while adjusting to the environment and maintaining the status of being prominent in some ways.
In the morning, leaving behind the previous day and its issues in the room, I stepped into the new day which came with its own adventure and challenge. After getting ready for the day ahead, I called our district coordinator from Jamui, Bihar to direct me about the road ahead so that I can reach the training centre. The training centre was thirty to forty kilometres away by auto. Reaching the centre, I was awaiting the arrival of our Digital Didis to initiate the training. The training took an hour to start, because all our Digital Didis are homemakers involved in economic activities similar to our program, but majorly occupied with household chores. The training centre was a government property which was assigned to Self Help Group (SHG) women for production of sanitary pads. It is ironic that a centre dedicated to sanitary pad production was witnessing a training which was mainly intended to reverse the course of women from using synthetic sanitary pads by switching to cloth-made sanitary napkins to avoid health and environmental hazards arising due to its usage.
18 of the total 20 Digital Didis attended the training, the remaining 2 had dropped out of the program intimidated by the requirements and strenuous field activities associated. The training began, and that is when I realised that most of the women I was going to work with have been working on and off for the past few years and are also linked to SHGs.
As the training began, it was a little difficult to control the group and lead the training the way I wanted it to. Most of the women were older to me, who have seen more of the world, have more experience, and are better equipped with knowledge and practice both at home and at the workplace.
It was an eye-opener for me, since it brought to light the realisation that handling more experienced people is an arduous task, because they get carried away sharing their experience diluting the flow of the training and the ongoing conversations. And a more strenuous task is to de-cocoon housewives to break out of their shackles to make them voice their opinion and speak liberally. This program on Digital Didi, being based on Menstrual Health and Hygiene is an important subject matter for society to understand. But during the training, I felt like even the women have become sheepish and disillusioned to voice it out.
In the earlier training sessions, I always accompanied the reporting manager. His presence and interventions made it easier to set the norm and the environment was aptly prepared to conduct the training with contributing inputs instead of unnecessary disruption which distracts from the topic of the conversation. But, despite all the hurdles, the training was conducted, and like every other session in the world this too had mixed trainees, some of them were proactively participating in the discussion, while for some even continuous coaxing could not help.
I began the conversations by raising the most basic question: Is menstrual blood pure or impure? This question is particularly essential in the context of this program, because we are ought to mobilise and advocate women and girls to understand the menstrual phenomenon and bring out a change in their practice so that they switch to better and healthier options. Perspective building on this phenomenon is specifically important to help women and girls treasure natural occurrences, instead of thinking about it with a sense of shame and guilt. Every woman in my opinion should be proud of her menstruation and never be guilty about it. This question got responses where a major chunk of them were favourably saying that menstrual blood is impure. There were also few astonishing responses like that of Kumari Pratima, “I was studying in class 6 when my first period arrived. A year before that, in class 5, one of my friends got her period. The girls at that time were using a code word like ‘Mamaji aa gaye hain’. When my friend got her period, she told me that her Mamaji (Maternal Uncle) had come. And saying the same to our teacher, she went home during the school hours. The next day a male teacher asked her for sweets. And that is when my friend explained that it was not her uncle who had come, rather it is a code word that they use to address menstruation secretly.” She has earlier intervened twice in the topic of menstrual health, and is well aware of the nitty-gritty of working on the topic. So far, she has become very active in her field/village, and has been able to train around 60 women on the LMS Chatbot and Menstrual Health and Hygiene.
Babita Devi is also one of our Digital Didis. She responded that the menstrual blood is impure. Oozing of this blood from the woman’s body is a natural process to release toxins for body purification, to protect them from various diseases that those toxins might cause. But, when I asked if that means all men are impure and intoxicated because they do not bleed for purification, everyone laughed and she too said I did not ponder on it that way.
Babita Devi said, “When I was young, there was only one pond in our village. Everyone was supposed to bathe and wash from the same pond. Since it was a common territory, women during their period were barred from using it. Similarly, when I got my first period, my sister asked me to stay at home and not use the village pond, to which I asked numerous questions but was barely attended to.”
During the session, I got to know that one of our Digital Didis is undergoing this training on menstrual hygiene for the third time. She has earlier worked on this subject, for different organisations. Like mentioned before, I had a difficult time maintaining discipline, and making them speak and participate. Some of the Digital Didis were just so quiet and shy that even after regular pushing, they were not ready to speak, and few of them did not speak altogether. Maybe this was a failure on my part as a trainer, because I was unable to ensure everyone’s participation. It manifested my shortcoming as a communicator.
After all of these challenges, the training came to an end and bringing the participants on the same page made it seem successful. The training ended at 5 pm, and I left the centre by 5:30.
Coming back to the hotel, the day and the journey looked full, having patches of learning, challenges, anxiety, lack of company, newer insights on menstrual health and hygiene, different personalities to deal with and the need to work in an area which requires attention. In the morning while leaving for the training centre, I looked around for a cyber-café, because I needed a few printouts for the training session. But the area where the hotel was, despite being the main market, didn’t have any such centres. This lack of accessibility brought in the realisation that interventions from an organisation like ours, which specialises in the digital arena is vital to help the sustenance of the region.
Coming back from the training centre filled me with thoughts of relief and confidence. Belief that I can work positively and dedicatedly on the field, and confidence of surviving it alone. In the morning, it was finally time to check-out and leave for New Delhi. The train journey itself was a tedious one with a rush of co-passengers. But, if I am to summarise the experience, it was a satisfactory one and I would like to work for longer and more closely in a terrain which was culturally so similar, but practically contrasting.