Pooja Puri – Jalna

Busting Myths, Advocating for Health and Hygiene

Pooja Ganesh Puri is 19 years (Bubalgaon Village, Bhokardan, Jalna). Since she was in the 8th standard, Pooja has managed to bust myths around periods and menstruation in her village and amongst her classmates.

Pooja is currently pursuing her Bachelor of Arts in Moreshwar Vidyalaya, Jalna. She studied up to Class 10th in the Zilla Parishad School in Bhubalgaon. At home, she lives with her father, Ganesh Puri, mother Chandrakala and Mangesh, her younger brother who is studying in Standard 9th. She comes from a joint family where her grandparents, uncles and their families also live with her. The family practices agriculture. The village is about 6 kilometers away from the Bhokardan town and most of the fields here are dry and arid. Drinking water is a primary concern and cause for hardship.

An Inspiring Teacher :
Around Pooja, and not unlike most of rural Maharashtra, the silence around menstruation and women’s health is deafening. Cultural prohibition from a place of worship, from touching other family members, from entering the kitchen still pervades. When young children curiously ask why a member of the family who is normally allowed to do something, and suddenly isn’t, elders give mystical answers like, “She’s been touched by a crow/ lizard/ pig” for temporarily allaying their curiosities. The woman who is menstruating is also not given any information to understand why her body is undergoing such drastic changes. Not even family members like the mother, aunt or grandmother are either willing or equipped to share the information. When Pooja was in the 8th standard Swati Chitte used to teach her English. The teacher took it upon herself to host meetings for pubescent girls. The meetings were meant for educating girls about their periods and how to maintain bodily hygiene. The broad message was about how to not get scared of sudden bodily changes and adapt to them. She also mentioned about how it was important to face emotional hurdles along with physical ones.

Advocating for Healthy periods :
When asked, ‘How did you make your family and friends aware about menstrual hygiene?’, Pooja responds, “There’s a deep foreboding silence around periods in rural India and the first thing I talked about was maintaining hygiene during my period. For example, avoiding heavy and unclean cloth and opting for sanitary pads, which actually reduces a lot of our work and doesn’t cause any hindrance. Because the pad is so smooth, we avoid rashes and injuries. How does one dispose cloth or sanitary napkins; were things I discussed with them. Slowly, girls started opting for pads.”

From fear to self-respect :
How did you address the obstacles while raising your voice? Pooja responded, “Since there have been awareness and sensitization sessions in school, girls feel confident. Not only did Swati Chitte ma’am impart knowledge, she bought pads for us with her own money and explained how to use them. Along with this, she also made provisions for a ‘Changing Room’. That’s why I felt informed. I also felt like passing on this information. So those other girls feel empowered too.”

Busting myths at home :
Girls like Pooja are still very much needed in every village, every house because myths around menstruation still start from home. When asked about whether and how she encountered resistance at home, she shared, “I realized that a lot of this blindfaith started from home. My mother and grandmother used to tell me not to touch the pickle bottle, or asked me to sit in a corner and not touch people. I discussed with my mother about how all these are just misguided beliefs. What’s important is to stay clean and not necessarily to stay ‘pure’. It took awhile for things to change at home, but they did.” Pooja relays her experiences with confidence and self-respect.

Addressing physical changes :
Taking Chitte ma’am’s message forward, Pooja today, talks not just about hygiene but about how one’s body reacts as a whole. She discusses about other physical difficulties that women go through; swelling on their feet, headaches, mood swings, pelvic pain, loss of appetite, loss of concentration are to be expected. Then girls realized that all these problems are not just theirs, but they’re fairly common. They felt confident to discuss what their bodies were undergoing at home.” Communicating about what they were going through at home, in an environment of silence, is the reason why Pooja’s experiment can be said to be successful.

The message goes on :
After a while, Pooja went on to study in standard 9th. She continued to discuss menstruation with girls in the 8th standard though. Talking about healthy food, nutrition and rest, she advised them to visit the doctor if the pain got too bad. The silence and beliefs about ‘impurity’ was naturally affecting the girls’ lives. Pooja shares, “Earlier, they used to miss about four days of school because it was almost impossible to communicate about their periods. But since Chitte ma’am broke the silence, and I felt empowered to break mine, the girls were encouraged too. Today, because of the
availability of sanitary napkins and the Changing Rooms in school, the rate of absenteeism amongst girls has reduced significantly.” Girls in the Bubhalgaon Zilla Parishad school are able to focus on studies, whilst not worrying about shame associated with periods.

The battle at home :
Once they heard that Pooja was affecting the lives of girls in her school positively, women in her house also extended their solidarity to her cause. They in fact, insisted that she talk about menstruation with her Aunts and cousins too. Slowly, the myths around ‘impurity’ and untouchability started dismantling. Interestingly, they were opposed to Pooja’s stance on the issue and today, they have her back. “I’m delighted to talk to my younger cousins and sisters about menstruation these days,” she says. She’s opened pathways for dialogues around a taboo.

Building new aspirations :
Upon being asked about her future plans, Pooja says that education excites. “Education allows us to broaden our perspectives and move away from being narrow-minded. I want to work in an organization that works for young girls’ health in the future.” Speaking about her work, Pooja’s parents share their excitement. “If little girls are not going to remain absent or fall ill because of our daughter’s work, we’re extremely proud of it. She always has our support in spreading this knowledge further. Today, we’re struggling for decent crops from our limited land due to water scarcity, so money will be an issue for education. But we’ll ensure that she studies,” they share determinedly. Starting from her class, to her school, her family and extending upto all girls in her village, Pooja continues to talk about menstruation and today periods are yet another day in adolescent girls’ lives in Bubhalgaon. Girls like Pooja, who take a lead in shattering difficult silences around women’s realities, need to be encouraged in pursuing the dreams of their choice!

Written by : Sushil Deshmukh
Translated by : Rucha Satoor

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