Today (Sep 7, 2011) we spent time trying to assess the level of awareness on Menstrual Hygiene practises that adolescent girls and women in Gulbarga town have. This is one topic where you can’t distribute a survey form and get data. You need to interact with them and make them come out of their shell and only then will they start talking. So we did 3 awareness sessions today – one with college going girls, another with high school girls and finally, with married women from a slum. Some things that happened:
- The college going girls were amazingly enthusiastic and full of questions. Though we were supposed to take the
session for a class of 150 students, students kept peeping in and joining the session. By the end, at least 200 girls were sitting, standing, kneeling and absorbing all that I was telling them. And participating. Their doubts and questions were at the same level as those of girls in Bangalore’s govt. colleges.
- High school girls were also inquisitive and bold enough to ask questions and seek information though it was a
much smaller group of about 20 students and a couple of teachers. Here too, the students can be compared to have knowledge levels same as Bangalore’s govt. schools.
- The women from slums in comparison were a surprise. Out of the 30 odd women present, at least 25 were married and none of them knew even basics. One lady, around 40 years of age asked “Is there any relation between menstruation and child birth?” And so we asked them “How do you think children are born?” Nobody knew. We asked a grandmother there who had 5 kids “Ajji, how do you think children are born?” She said “Gottilla amma” (I do not know). Then they showed us a lady who is aged around 30 years and married for the last 10 years and ask me to advise her on what to do since she has no children. We asked her “Do you know how children are born?” And she said, Gottilla.
Those who do have children, have around 5-6 of them, often in an attempt to produce at least one boy. Ask them why and they say “Because women get married and go away, so at least boys would stay with us and look after us when we grow old. Plus, dowry is unaffordable”. While the young students we interacted with knew that having a boy or girl child is something that a male is responsible for (given that only men have the Y chromosome required to have a male child), the older married women were of the thinking that it is the women who has to be held responsible if the child born is not a boy. It is unfortunate that nobody has made the effort to inform women of such important basics – neither the education system, nor the doctors.
We also interacted with someone from a women’s activist group and they told me that child marriage is very common in these areas for many reasons, such as:
- If the girl is married as a child, it is often to a family member (uncle, cousin, etc) and therefore no dowry to be paid
- If the girl is educated, a higher dowry has to be paid to “get rid of her”
- Once the girl attains puberty, it is dangerous to leave her unattended as she may talk to boys and get pregnant
- Women are born so that they can be married and sent away, and the sooner we do that (in the form of child marriage), the faster our responsibility ends
For majority of the girls and women we interacted with today, we were the first person (including their mothers & teachers) who told them about what happens to their body during menstruation and what they need to do to be healthy & hygienic. Such a basic and natural process; yet nobody talks about it.