Raising Awareness of Menstruation and Sustainability in India

During a visit to Auroville, India a couple of days ago I was happy to have the opportunity to chat briefly with Eco Femme co-founder Kathy Walkling in between customers at their busy stall at the market. I had already heard about Eco Femme before I came to India and I was exited to meet the people behind it in real life. I wanted to get to know more about their important work on raising awareness of menstrual hygiene and sustainability among rural women in the state of Tamil Nadu.

Eco Femme was founded in 2010 and in collaboration with the Auroville Village Action Group – an NGO working for womens’ empowerment in rural Tamil Nadu – they started to design and produce eco-friendly, washable cloth pads for sale worldwide. The cloth pads are stitched by women in self-help groups who have been trained in advanced tailoring. The women run their own collective tailoring unit and Eco Femme, whose monthly production order alone provides a full time livelihood to 7 women, is just one of their customers.

The cloth pads are not only helping women to make a living for themselves, but they also contribute to a more sustainable planet. The pads can often be used for more than three years, which is a real investment for the environment and especially so in India, where waste management is really poor.

Cloth pads are nothing new to the Indian women who have been using them for centuries. However, due to lack of information about hygenic practicies, many women and girls in rural Tamil Nadu still have unanswered questions about their bodies and menstruation. Therefore Eco Femme initiated the “Pad for Pad” education programme which sets out to inform and educate adolescent girls on menstruation and hygiene so that they can make informed choices about their own bodies. For every pad sold outside of India a donation is made to the programme which enables Eco Femme to offer menstural health education and washable cloth pads to adolescent girls in India.

During my conversation with Kathy we were interrupted several times by women and girls who were curious about the pads, and at one point, two men approached the stall. This is, unfortunately, a rare sight, Kathy told me. She, (like most of us, I guess) wishes there were more men engaging in women’s rights. However, a lot of effort is needed to make changes just among women. The pads are generally positively received although there are women who initially are sceptical, especially on whether the pads are hygenic and if they are safe to use without any leakage. Furthermore, Eco Femme has to compete with the high volume of commercials on disposable menstural products which claim to be hygenic and safe to use. However, Kathy stresses, a lot of women experience discomfort, such as allergic reactions to synthetic ingredients, while using disposible menstrual products and would actually benefit from switching to reusable ones.

Another obstacle which has to be overcome is the lack of basic facilities for women to be able to change and wash the pads properly. Therefore, the pads are always distributed to NGOs, who are advised to carry out basic studies on access to water and proper toilets before starting any projects. This reminded me of the importance of a holistic perspective when working with development projects.

Overall, Kathy told me, we all have to really recognize the importance of working with girls because they are our future. Certainly, here in India girls are very marginalized and face many obstacles. It is also important not only to educate girls but to educate all levels of society in order for things to change. We need to acknowledge the importance of organization and solidarity throughout the world.

So, if you would like to act in solidarity with women and girls in India and at the same time contribute to a more eco-friendly planet, go ahead and visit the Eco Femme website to learn more about how to engage!

Cover photo credit: Eco Femme 

The Gender Boundaries Imposed on Children in India

Many children worldwide have grown up playing with Barbie dolls and Transformers. You can perhaps guess which children played with which toys. From the time of our birth we are taught the ways in which males and females should conduct themselves.

Why does society enforce such restrictions from the moment a child is born? Too often, our society sees men as the working hand of the family and women as the caretakers of homes. Both put in equal effort and time but the work done by women is not really considered “work”. It is a common fact that working women are paid less than their male counterparts.

Many parents invariably end up buying toys and clothes – pink for the girls and blue for the boys – based on prevalent and enforced gender notions. Mine did too. Why is that only girls can have pink and only boys can have blue things? Both are equally beautiful colors! So why is it that society laughs at a boy wearing a pink shirt?

“Don’t lift that, it’s too heavy.” Most girls have heard something like this at least once in their lifetime. What does it imply? That girls are weak? That they can’t do things alone, without a male helping them? Society has divided up tasks and decided which suits which gender. When parents are asked to describe their children, girls tend to be identified as delicate, weak, beautiful and cute while boys are seen as strong, alert, and well-coordinated.

“Don’t even try, cooking is not for you.” Boys will probably have heard something like this. But tell me, why can boys not learn like the girls? No girl is born a chef, they learn. So why are boys often not allowed to enter the kitchen by their mothers? And even if they have permission, boys themselves often think that cooking is below them. It’s a “girly” thing to do – an idea which is taught right from childhood.

Sociologist have shown that parents are likely to encourage their sons to engage in competitive play and discourage their daughters from doing so. Instead, parents tend to encourage girls to engage in cooperative, role-playing games. These different play patterns lead to the heightened development of verbal and emotional skills among girls and to increased concern with winning and the establishment of hierarchy among boys. Boys are more likely than girls are to be praised for assertiveness, and girls are more likely than boys are to be rewarded for compliance. This is again a way of enforcing gender stereotypes right from the start of a child’s life.

Society has built a wall between genders. Parents, teachers and other figures in authority typically try to impose their ideas of appropriate gender behavior on children, which in later life leads to gender discrimination. It is common to find that in classrooms, teachers constantly pit boys against the girls in spelling and math contests. These contests are marked by cross-gender antagonism and expression of within-gender solidarity.

This is detrimental for society in multiple ways in the long run. From birth, it is important to break down the gender boundaries by teaching our children that everyone is equal and deserves to be treated with the same humility and respect. The world will truly be a better place.

Cover photo credit: Azad India Foundation 

Encouraging Girls to Take on the World through Education Centres in India

Offering girls basic education is one sure way of giving them much greater power – of enabling them to make genuine choices over the kinds of lives they wish to lead.

This is not a luxury. The Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women establish it as a basic human right. So why is it that despite proving to be a blessing to society the girl child is – in the worst case scenario – killed in the womb, or otherwise allowed to breathe but only the air of negligence, discrimination and deprivation?

Today, we’re not only proud of great women of science like Sunita Williams, or women who’ve acted as agents of change like Sarojini Naidu, or  women who’ve taught us what it means to be human like Mother Teresa, but we also encourage such people to come forward and reform our world. Why is it that even though we claim to be the biggest democracy in the world we simply cannot destroy the deep-rooted stereotypes against women, and particularly women’s education?

Azad India Foundation was formed by an idea and the will to make lives of underprivileged girls better. We have set up our organisation in one of the least literate districts in Bihar -with a literacy rate of only 46% – to provide the people of this area with equal opportunities as the rest of the country. Through our work we’ve tried to touch the lives of as many girls as we can and to enable them to take on the world by themselves. We want them to be independent, able to break the constraints of society, and be themselves.

Through Azad India Foundation we spread a message of love, equality and empowerment. We realise that even today, little girls are denied an education, potential members of the female workforce are denied a job and employed women are denied recognition.

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Photo Credit: Azad India Foundation 

We seek to bring about change through our Girl Child Learning Centres. This program was started in 2010 with the support of IIMPACT Gurgaon under the guidance of Mrs Yuman Hussain. The focus of the program is to bring back non-schoolgoing girls and dropouts aged between 6-14 from the most remote villages in the district to the folds of education and it’s aim is to act as a bridge between nonformal educaton and government schooling.

We are currently working in over 35 villages in Kishanganj district with about 1050 girls. We provide primary education and health and hygiene classes to these girls and then we mainstream them to the formal schools. Our teaching is done through play-way methods and teachers use visual aids and teaching learning materials including bamboo sticks, small pebbles, cards, chart papers and pictures. The students also contribute to making the teaching learning materials and other crafts in the classroom.

We conduct regular competency level tests at our Learning Centers where the knowledge levels of the students are assessed through written and oral tests. This helps in assessing the weak students and giving them remedial classes.

The teachers are women from the same communities as the girls themselves. We decided to hire these women because only they can understand the hardships many of the girls they teach are going through. The teachers are given regular training sessions and are made to attend workshops at regular intervals for their own development. We now have a team of excellent teachers who are determined to provide quality education to these girls. After seeing the determination of the girls to learn we decided to open around 20 libraries with age appropriate books to provide them with more reading material. We want nothing to hold them back and have done everything in our capacity to bring a smile to their faces.

The force which drives us to make efforts to improve the lives of these girls? It is the happiness we see on their faces. Their success make us feel proud of being associated with them.

My Attempts at Facilitating Change in Rural India

In my final year of medical school, as I was reading a chapter on Maternal and Child Health, I came across a table of mortality rates elaborating the health status of mothers and children of my country. They were dismal and though I could see that progress had been made, to my 20 year old brain, it seemed insufficient and too slow to be accepted. After all, these were lives and not just numbers! The rural-urban difference made the figures look worse. I was restless. How could I bridge this gap? I reasoned – a woman was the base of the society’s pyramid and if I could do something to strengthen her I could attempt to address this gap.

I was also convinced that since most of India’s population lived in rural areas, in order to make a significant impact, I should focus on rural areas. Though I had been reared in a city and had never seen what a village looked like, I was ready to learn along the way. Itching to materialise this dream, the month I passed my MD in Obstetrics and Gynecology, I moved to Bihar; a state with one of the worst reproductive and child health indicators.

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My first project there was to strengthen the quality of maternity services in the government hospitals through hands-on training of doctors and nurses. I knew things were in a bad shape, but nothing had prepared me for what I witnessed there.
I saw up close all the things that affected service delivery to mothers coming there from far-flung villages. They ranged from attitudinal apathy to infrastructural gaps to skill deficiencies, often leading to serious health consequences for women and their babies. Working on them was overwhelming and frustrating to start with, but we eventually succeeded in transforming the hospital dynamics. Significant gains were achieved in infrastructure, hygiene and skills. Our District Hospital later received the Prime Minister’s recognition for its radical transformation. It convinced my young heart that no matter how flawed, every system was capable of change.

My next project involved setting up a health center for women and children in a village which housed some of the poorest communities, was hard to reach and had poor means of transport. It is here that I witnessed firsthand the fate of women who never reached a government facility.

It was immensely humbling for me as a woman and as a doctor to see what happened to their childbirths, to their family planning needs and to their children battling with malnutrition and pneumonia. Maternal and Childhood malnutrition was rampant and with the nearby government health centre non-functional, most deliveries were aided at home by unskilled birth attendants. Women of the village had no access to contraception and one could easily find women with up to ten deliveries. Prenatal checkups were not considered important as pregnancy was seen as a natural event, not a ‘disease’ that needed a doctor.

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I saw how quackery quickly proliferated in such places to fill the void created by a struggling government health system and how unscientific beliefs and taboos easily gripped such rural societies, vulnerable by poverty and ignorance. I also saw how the deep seated caste and gender divisions led to disempowerment of women and their children. A range of psychological issues and non-specific aches and pains in these women revealed to me their deeper emotional turmoil, isolation and loneliness, as a result of living most of their lives alone. The child bearing and the child rearing shared just with other women, while their husbands were away at better paying jobs in cities. I had to pinch myself when I saw young women being restricted to the confines of their homes due to fear of being seen by other men. With such ground realities, I had to reorient myself to move beyond providing safe childbirth and contraception to using healthcare as a tool, as a medium towards initiating deeper discussions with women, urging them to find their individuality.

I am glad I followed up on my dreams of medical school early enough. I feel happy that I am spending the most productive years of my life doing something that I find meaningful and worthwhile. Working for rural areas, its women and children, has given me my most precious moments as a doctor and as a woman.

The Maverick Collective: Bringing Cancer Screening to Uttar Pradesh

At Women Deliver 2016, Girls’ Globe attended the launch of The Maverick Collective, an initiative by Population Services International (PSI) and the brainchild of HRH Crown Princess Mette-Marit of Norway, Melinda Gates and Kate Roberts. Borne of frustration about a lack of follow-through on ideas for change, the collective aims to bring philanthropy to a new generation of donors, those who are actively engaged with their projects on the ground.

Girls’ Globe was able to talk to some of the inaugural members of the Maverick Collective, which has projects spanning across the globe. The following is an interview with Kathryn Vizas, who tackled the issue of cervical cancer in one of the poorest and most populous regions of India. 

GG: How did you hear about The Maverick Collective?

KathrynVizasKV: It was 3 and a half years ago, I was at  a women’s conference in New York which I sort of decided to attend on a whim because some of the topics seemed interesting. My husband and I had recently relocated at that point, so I hadn’t gone back to work, and I was taking a gap year, or so I thought. So as I said, on a whim, I thought it would be fun to go to this conference. And Kate and Her Royal Highness were there talking about this ‘Maverick’ concept.

It was an idea then. It had some funding from the Gates Foundation but they had no members. An email went around the conference attendees saying if you’re interested in a novel philanthropic initiative, we’ll be meeting with people one on one, and you can sign up, so I did. And after I talked with them, I left the meeting room sort of scratching my head thinking – what can I bring to a global health organization?

I thought the work was fascinating but I sort of didn’t get the concept so I spent the next 6 months in conversation with Population Services International trying to understand the idea, and I was invited to go to Myanmar on a learning journey. So we were in the slums, schlepping around, dying in the heat together. And that was where I got an insight into how PSI works on the ground, it was quite impressive.

GG: Can you tell me what your project is about?

KV: My project is a cervical cancer screening project. I chose that because my father was an oncologist. He had always been a strongly against smoking, so I grew up having a father who was not only a physician but an advocate. So cancer is something that I felt strongly about joining the fight in, and I particularly resonated with the cervical cancer project.

“It seemed like a justice issue, really – that in the developed world we have screening that’s readily available and we’re educated about it and the women in these other countries don’t. And because of that, they’re dying, and they die in a really painful, awful way at an age where their children and their families still need them.”


Typically, a woman is still exposed when she’s a teenager to the HPV virus for the first time, and then it takes 20 years or so because it’s very slow-growing, but once it reaches a certain point, there isn’t a good treatment, so they’re dying in their 40s. It just seemed so unfair and so wrong that we had a solution but had not, as a global community, been able to scale it to reach the millions of women who need to be screened.

Our project is in a state called Uttar Pradesh, which is one the poorer states in India, and also the most populous. It’s over 200 million – and just for comparison, the US population is a little over 300 million. We work in the private sector, but because the government of Utter Pradesh is very interested in fighting non-communicable diseases, particularly for women’s health, they have partnered with us. We have trained their people and helped them launch a program to do cervical cancer screening. 

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GG: Did you imagine your project would be successful when you started? 

KV: When we started, to be honest, I was a little clueless. I didn’t know what we were up against, I didn’t know how difficult it was. I felt more like, “the solution’s so obvious, this will work.” But actually, training the physicians on how to screen was pretty easy for us to do with our expertise, but the communication piece – convincing women and their families why they needed to be screened when they’re perfectly healthy and don’t have any symptoms – was really hard.

GG: What’s next for your project?

KV: The thing I’m most excited about right now is I’ve built into the project design hiring an outside firm that specializes in scaling projects. And they’re going to analyze our project, which was just a pilot, and put together guidelines on how to scale this, so I want to take that to big donors and big foundations.

GG: If you could give any advice to someone wanting to get involved with TMC, what would you say?

KV: Not to be shy about lack of experience in global health, because all of us bring experience – particularly those of us who have had careers – that can help with project management, can help to be a voice that is slightly outside the process and thinking about things a little differently, and not to be shy about having a hand in helping design the project.

I know some of the newer Maverick members think, ‘well, these guys do this every day for a living, it’s sort of presumptuous for me to be like ‘well what about x and what about y?’” but each of us has a lot to offer to the project design.

“It really helps to feel engaged in it, because if you’re engaged, you’re a better advocate.”

And I think that’s something we can really do well, we can advocate for these initiatives, because we’ve actually been involved.

Girls’ Globe is present at the Women Deliver Conference, bringing you live content straight from the heart of the action. If you can’t be there in person, you can be a part of Women Deliver through the Virtual Conference, by hosting an event in your hometown, and by engaging online using #WDLive and #WD2016.

All photos courtesy of PSI / The Maverick Collective.

Building a movement around Khatna

This is part 2 in a two-part series on FGM in India. Read Part 1 here

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or “Khatna”, as it is referred to in India, is practised secretly among the Bohra community. Over the past year, several women from the community have spoken up about the practice while encouraging other women from the community to speak up as well.

I speak to Mariya Taher from Sahiyo, an organisation building a movement against Khatna on this issue and their work.

“More than a year ago, five women who felt strongly about the ritual of female genital cutting within the Bohra community came together to fight this practise. Each one of us had been working on the topic for many years,” Mariya said. Mariya is a social worker, activist and writer who lives in the United States.

The group includes a social worker, a researcher, two filmmakers and a journalist located in different parts of the world; and all of whom had already been speaking out against the practice of Khatna.

“As our collaboration grew, we realised the need for an organised, informed forum within the community that could help drive a movement to bring an end to Khatna. That is how Sahiyo, the organization, was born,” Mariya added.

Sahiyo is the Bohra Gujarati word for ‘saheliyo’, or friends. She said that the word reflected the organisation’s mission to engage in dialogue with the community to find a collective solution.

Working on collecting data

The silence around the practice in India among Bohra women and women of Indian origin who have experienced Khatna has led to very few details about the extent of Khatna. Sahiyo tackles this problem by first documenting the experiences and narratives of women, one story at a time.

“We realised that the way to end FGC was to build a movement from the ground up. This included first finding out how widespread it was amongst the community. There are no large scale studies at the moment. Only anecdotal evidence. This is all very important, but we knew to be able to really reach out to our community, we needed to carry out a type of needs assessment, this is why we carried out the first online survey on khatna in 2015,” Mariya notes.

However, there is growing evidence through the voices of women who have experienced Khatna that it is prevalent even among Bohra women who have migrated. “Hence, there was a need to ensure that we were focusing on how to stop the practice amongst Bohra regardless of where in the world they were. To carry out this work, we also understand the importance of community outreach and education,” she added.

Sahiyo through its work at the grassroots level is spreading awareness about the practice through dialogue, conversations, group discussions and seminars. They have also been providing peer counselling and informational support to families who are considering the practice, and have been able to provide women the needed psycho-social support by connecting them to appropriate social services such as counsellors or social workers.

“One of our core areas of work is building from the ground up. We have been working on community-driven awareness and advocacy initiatives aimed towards ending FGC, such as organising townhall discussions and dialogue with Dawoodi Bohra women, Dawoodi Bohra clergy, doctors and nurses, midwives and “traditional cutters”, media,” Mariya stated.

Backlash from the community

There is a fear of being excommunicated from the community for speaking up on the issue. However, Mariya feels positive about the progress the community is making. “We are increasingly receiving responses online from people who support the practice – people telling us that we are speaking out just to gain publicity or that we are interfering with religious traditions. Which in turn is actually a good thing, as earlier on in our work, people were silent in response to what we did. Now, the issue is known in the wider community, and the work around awareness raising that we are doing about FGC (Khatna) can’t be ignored. So, actually, their opposition is leading to further debates within the community about Khatna, which is a good thing.”

India Speaks Out on FGM and Sahiyo are running a campaign Each One, Reach One to break the silence against Khatna. You can support the work being done by Sahiyo by speaking up against Khatna or reaching out to someone you know who might have been subjected to the practice.

You can follow them on Twitter: @SpeakOutonFGM and @Sahiyo2016 and join the conversation.

Photos courtesy of Each One, Reach One.