Road to Jharkhand – Menstruation and more

For a while now, we have been feeling the urge to step outside Karnataka and understand what the menstrual practices and women’s issues are in other parts of India. Do children in North India have the same questions around menstruation as we in Karnataka do? From the little we had read, it seemed like the issue was more severe with menstrual stories in North India being centered around superstition, black-magic and an overall suppression of women. Not willing to rely entirely on second-hand information, it became necessary to step on the ground and experience it ourselves. This is why we landed in Jharkhand.

“Why Jharkhand?”

“Do you know what you are trying to take on?”

“Why don’t you pick a safer place to begin with?”

These were the questions thrown at us by friends and well-wishers, out of genuine concern and perhaps, not without valid reason. Jharkhand’s crime statistics show an increase of 211% of crimes against women from 2001 to 2013. Among the crimes registered in 2013, 324 were dowry death, 45 murders due to witchcraft and in 2010, 42000 girls were trafficked from Jharkhand. The state of Jharkhand is also known for its many tribal communities and backwardness and to top it all, the dense forests make the State a naxalite den. These are valid enough reasons for most people to stay away from Jharkhand; but for us, it became the very reason why we picked Jharkhand to begin our work in North India.

Although, we began our journey with the work on menstruation and women’s issues, there are other issues that drew our attention. This write-up is meant to share our overall experience of Jharkhand, in addition to the observations on menstruation.

The backdrop

The reality of a place like Jharkhand is often warped. It becomes a little tricky for outsiders like us to see the situation in perspective and without bias, thanks to the numerous negative stories about the people and the place. So we were prepared to see under-development, to experience the poverty, superstition, naxal movements, semi-nude dancing tribals and extreme suppression of women – all of which would make very juicy study material. The reality, however, was less juicy, but more meaningful and full of future possibilities.

Nobody prepared us to be awestruck by the stunning natural beauty of the vast grasslands, hills and dense forests of Jharkhand. Nobody prepared us for the sight of young girls in school uniforms cycling around, even at late evenings with little sense of fear. No one told us that the tribal communities here, 32 of them, are given special consideration and inclusion in development plans. We were not prepared for the newly laid connecting roads between districts and we were pleasantly surprised by the increased focus on higher education, evident through the many IIT training institutes all over Ranchi, the state capital.

A newly laid road in Khunti district
A newly laid road in Khunti district
Girls cycling to school
Girls cycling to school

However, in spite of the unexpected positives, we cannot ignore the immediate and urgent need for basics. Agriculture is the main occupation, but people usually grow only one crop – paddy. Alternatively, they grow pulses and vegetables. Agriculture is not very productive here due to the water scarcity. And even if bores and pumps were provided, the availability of electricity is a serious problem with only 31.1% of the villages being electrified! On a Monday morning, people are found lazing around at home with nothing to do – there are hardly any jobs, industries or opportunities here for youth. Simple things which we take for granted are a luxury here – clean drinking water, hot water for a bath, milk for tea, butter, oil and of course electricity. When getting mobile phone signals are difficult, internet is like science-fiction!

We spent time in 3 districts, apart from the city of Ranchi, namely Lohardaga, Gumla and Khunti. And all along, we kept thinking of so called backward districts of Karnataka like Gulbarga and Chamrajanagar and how different they are from the districts in Jharkhand. The things we are so used to seeing everywhere in Karnataka, such as tea-stalls, small eateries, general stores, bus stops or even buses are simply not there!

Unfinished buildings and houses in a busy area
Unfinished buildings and houses in a busy area

What makes this such an irony is that Jharkhand is one of the richest places in terms of natural resources, with 40% of the country’s minerals coming from Jharkhand. As someone told us “Jharkhand ke garbh mein ameeri hain, aur godh mein garibi (Jharkhand has riches in its womb and poverty in its lap)

It is a common sight to find local police carrying automatic rifles
It is a common sight to find local police carrying automatic rifles

According to 2012 data, the incidents of violence due to naxalites in Jharkhand was 480 and the number of deaths was 163, highest in the country and even exceeding naxal crimes in Chattisgarh and Bihar. The presence of naxalities, though often stated as a major reason for under-development and lack of industries, was not something that seemed to affect the day-to-day lives of people. The general impression was that naxals do not harm common man and only direct their anger and violence towards the government. While we were in Khunti, we experienced the effect of naxals with schools being closed due to a naxal driven bandh. If the naxals declare a bandh, no one dares to disobey.

Bhaskar (left), Myself (centre) and Vyjayanti (right) just after we finished one session in Lohardaga
Bhaskar, Vyjayanti and I

So it was against this backdrop, that three of us, Bhaskar, Vyjayanthi and I spent 7 days in Jharkhand to conduct awareness sessions on menstruation, women’s safety and related issues. We took the help of the NGO Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (V.K.A) who has established 102 formal schools across Jharkhand and have their presence in around 1000 self-help groups across the state.

Menstrual Practices in Jharkhand

We interacted with 481 adolescent girls, 18 teachers, 8-10 women and 1 Sahiya (equivalent of ASHA worker) over 7 days. The children were from 8 schools (6 run by V.K.A and 2 government schools) spread across Lohardaga, Gumla and Khunti districts and Ranchi city. Our sessions began with menstruation, covered sexuality and gave emphasis to understanding and preventing sexual abuse. Often, at the request of the teacher or students, we gave information on pregnancy and child birth, safe sex, child trafficking, child marriage and dowry. Since we do not have any ready videos or material in Hindi, all the sessions were delivered orally, which facilitated better interaction.

A session in process at Toto School in Gumla district
A session in process at Toto School in Gumla district

For whatever reason, there seemed to be sufficient focus given to educating girls. In the schools we covered, around 40% of the girls were from tribal backgrounds. We expected that girls from private schools would be more comfortable to talk about menstruation when compared to girls from government schools, but were surprised to find the opposite. The children from the two government schools we covered in Khunti and Ranchi were smart, confident and eager to raise their hands and give answers. The children in the remote village of Saparu (Khunti District) were from tribal communities and were bold, unafraid and already aware of correct menstrual practices, thanks to someone who had already done an awareness talk before us. Whereas, the girls from private schools were extremely shy and spoke only at the very end after we helped them get comfortable. The girls and teachers from private schools told us that it was the very first time that anyone had spoken to them openly about menstruation, sexuality and related issues. Their eagerness to learn was evident from the number of questions they asked towards the end of the sessions. Here are our findings and a qualitative comparison between the children in rural Karnataka and rural Jharkhand from our experience.

Answering questions after a session
Answering questions after a session

Karnataka

Jharkhand

Menarche / The first period

Menarche is celebrated with festivities lasting 10-11 days, during which time family and friends are invited and a feast is thrown to inform people that their daughter has attained puberty.

No festivities around the first period. In fact, girls informed us that they do not even inform their mothers about attaining puberty. Their knowledge on the topic is usually from friends.

Usage of cloth or pad

Majority of the girls we interacted across government schools, found to be using Sanitary Napkins. However, in a few schools in Dandeli and Chamrajnagar, majority of the girls preferred cloth.

Surprisingly, more than 90% girls use Sanitary Napkins in the 8 schools we covered. In one government school in Khunti where the girls were from extremely poor backgrounds, cloth was used.

Superstitions around the use of cloth

If hung in the open for drying, and if men see it, men will loose their eye sight. However, this was not found to be taken very seriously.

If the menstrual cloth is burned, then you will become incapable of reproducing. The menstrual cloth is considered dangerous as it can be used for black-magic. These were strong beliefs held by women who wanted us to confirm if this is indeed true.

Disposal of Sanitary Napkins

Sanitary Napkins were being burnt or flushed down toilets. Some girls buried used pads after washing them, and a number of girls thought it was OK to flush it down the toilet.

Sanitary Napkins were largely being thrown into drains.

Beliefs about menstrual blood

90% girls believed that it is bad, impure blood due to the bad smell.

90% girls believed it is bad, impure blood due to the restrictions imposed on girls during menstruation.

Restrictions imposed during menstruation

Not visiting temples or conducting puja; not allowed to enter the kitchen; not allowed to touch the Tulsi plant; eating from separate plates in separate rooms; not touching others

Not visiting temples or conducting puja; not allowed to touch pickles; not allowed to touch mango and certain fruits. However, the restrictions seemed lesser due to absence of rituals around menstruation. Among tribal children, there were no restrictions, and the taboos were usually among upper castes.

Awareness about Anemia

Low to average

Very aware

Absenteeism owing to puberty

Girls remain absent for the first 10-11 days, owing to the festivities in celebration of menstruation. Otherwise, it is rare and only if discomfort during periods is high

There seemed to be no such thing, given that menstruation is usually a silent issue.

The fact that majority of girls, even from so called backward regions are sent to school and that usage of Sanitary Napkins is becoming very popular, even in remote rural areas, means that we need to revisit the statistics that are thrown around about only 12% women in India having access to Sanitary Napkins and the one about 23% girls dropping out of school owing to puberty.

Witchcraft, Superstition and its impact

A book called Dayan Gatha, written by Sanjay Basu Mallika
A book called Dayan Gatha, written by Sanjay Basu Mallika which gives a good account of these practices

Jharkhand, along with Bihar and Chattisgarh, has a State law for Prevention of Dayan Pratha (Witchcraft), introduced in 2001. In 2013, there were 45 cases of women reported to be murdered in the name of witch hunting. But it is likely, that the problem is more severe than that given that majority of the women and girls we interacted with were fully aware of the Dayan practices. According to them, in every village, one or more women are known to all as being Dayans or witches who are held responsible for bad things that happen. Girls are told to stay away from these women. We were told that usually, when someone in a family is unwell or if other problems like dying cattle or failing crops happen, people first approach an Ojha (witch-doctor). The Ojha usually helps the visitor accuse someone who he says is a Dayan, as a cause for all the bad things that have happened. In some cases, the victim only verbally blames the Dayan and takes the herbal medicines/other solutions offered by the Ojha. But in some cases, the victim murders the woman, suspected to be a Dayan. Although Dayans are largely women, in some cases, men are also considered to be Dayans. The people who believe in Dayans are not just tribals or uneducated people, but also teachers who asked us “Don’t you believe in it?” To which I gladly replied “Of course I do, I am also one. Didn’t you know?!” 🙂

One of the beliefs we witnessed first-hand was how people would rather rely on ancient practices in case of ill-health, than visiting a medical doctor. We woke up one morning to find a group of educated men we knew discussing where to find the person who can revive a boy who died of a snake bite. They call this process as“Jhaadna”, where using peacock feathers and chanting, the practitioner can bring back the dead person to life. Another belief is that in case of snake-bites, the practitioner will use hen chicks to peck the victim and remove the venomous blood out. The chicks keep dying as long as the venom exists. Once a chick survives, you know that the venom is out. Most people swear by this method and prefer this to seeking anti-venom from doctors.

Toilets – to do or not to do!

You will not find toilets in the villages. And in the few places in the town where toilets do exist, you would wish they didn’t! When it comes to sanitation and absence of toilets, there was always a thought playing at the back of my mind, which got confirmed in Jharkhand. The reason why people do not use toilets is not so much about lack of money or even scarcity of water. The reasons are more to do with the attitude of people – they can’t change the old habit of defecating in the open, and they cannot imagine having to clean the toilets, being so used to doing their job and walking away without a care!

Imagine if you had to defecate in the open. You’d be so nervous about it that you might not be able to do the “job”. It is the same with the villagers – if you put them in a closed room and asked them to do their job there, they’d feel so claustrophobic and unnatural, that they simply couldn’t relieve themselves. And a bigger issue is that even with toilets, the concept of maintaining it and keeping it clean simply doesn’t exist. People don’t want to think about it. The toilets we had to put up with were really unclean, and it had little to do with water scarcity.

Unless we come to terms with these reasons and keep it in mind while working on Sanitation, not much will change on ground.

Government and Police initiatives

The government's book on Menstrual Hygiene
The government’s book on Menstrual Hygiene

Most of us are used to criticizing the government and rarely make an attempt to step on the ground and see for our self what the reality is. When it comes to constructing schools in the remotest corners; ensuring every child gets mid-day meals and provision of iron tablets to beat Anemia, the government scores higher than any other organization. The awareness levels of girls from government schools regarding good menstrual practices and Anemia was a pleasant surprise.

We also received a copy of the government’s book on Menstruation for adolescent girls called “Anita Badi Ho Chali” (Anita has become a big girl) which used a story format to teach adolescents about menstruation. The important messages in the book included the fact that breaking of the hymen has nothing to do with virginity and that having sex even once can lead to pregnancy.

The government also distributes Sanitary Napkins to rural adolsecent girls in Jharkhand through Sahiyas

Freedays, the Sanitary Napkins distributed by the government
Freedays, the Sanitary Napkins distributed by the government

(the equivalent of an ASHA worker). Sahiyas conduct awarness sessions on menstruation in the village every month and keep stocks of Sanitary Napkins for the girls to procure. The Sahiya we spoke to was very well aware and trained on good menstrual practices which she imparted to the girls in villages. She obtained a stock of 170 Sanitary Napkins each month and sold around 100 packs last month. Each packet comprises 6 pads and costs Rs. 6. Though the Sanitary Napkins are rather thin and last only for about 2-3 hours, they seemed to be quite happy about it.

Another problem, which seemed to be prevalent in the tribal communities was trafficking of young girls in the name of providing jobs in cities. The girls who are taken away this way sometimes never return. The police station in Khunti district has a special Child Friendly Police Unit with focus on Anti-Trafficking to keep an eye on this and women’s self-help groups are given awareness about the issue by the local NGOs.

Opportunities and Possibilities

Being formed just about 13 years ago in 2001, Jharkhand in many ways is a clean slate. There is much to be done; almost like starting from scratch. Even if we created a video in Hindi on menstruation, it cannot reach the girls and women, unless there is electricity. Similarly, in agriculture or any other area of work, having access to electricity is a must for any type of development to even begin.

The lessons we gained from interacting with the adolescent girls and women in Jharkhand will go into the content we prepare on menstruation and women’s issues. At the same time, we will seriously look into introducing off-grid energy solutions like Solar power in the villages. With most of the youth leaving Jharkhand for better job opportunities, there is a great need to start initiatives there and bring back some of the people who know better about Jharkhand than outsiders like us.

This is certainly not an end of our work in Jharkhand, but only a small beginning. Our future visits to Jharkhand will not be limited to work on menstruation or women’s issues and we will go beyond it to address other problems.

 

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6 comments

  1. Hey Sinu…this was an interesting read, as I have spent most of my growing years in Ranchi. I was slightly amused though when u mentioned the apparent growth on emphasis of education as implied by the plethora of IIT coaching classes in Ranchi. Jharkhand and Bihar are among the top 5 states supplying engineering students to the hundreds of colleges, including IITs and NITs- (a statistic I am fond of quoting is that an all india AIEEE rank of 27,000 has a state rank of 1500 in Jharkhand….while a similar All india rank in the nearby state of West Bengal has a state rank of 500) Competition for engineering is very high. And this this not new-from my school alone a whopping 45-50 kids would clear IITs(first round) every year……and at least 20 would make it to the coveted institutes finally.However, this is at best a “vanity metric” to judge education level of Jharkhand as a whole…..in village areas, conditions are pitiful as rightly pointed out by the various statistics as quoted.
    Also, from my personal experience teaching kids in YFS Bangalore, one major difference that is apparent in Karnataka is more “English-ized” , whereas in Jharkhand the local dialect of a mixture of Hindi and Bhojpuri is often the main mode of education. This kind of pulls the students back from exploring opportunities in main cities where English is the mode of communication. (Again, this might be a biased data sample as villages in Karnataka might again have a similar language problem)

    Another thing I have noticed is that , at least in Ranchi, girls are quite forward as far as dress is concerned. Jeans and long skirts are very common, even in poor families. (All my housemaid’s girls wear clothes similar to upper middle class families). Also, I really think Ranchi is not the correct city to get a pulse of Jharkhand, as it is quite forward in many small ways.

    Apologies if I dont make a lot of sense here, I just felt too many emotions surging through my head 😉

    • Hey UD, thanks for the reply. We spent more of our time outside Ranchi in Lohardaga, Gumla and Khunti and our observations are more from these districts. Since you are a lot more familiar with Jharkhand, perhaps, some time in future, you would like to join hands and work with us there? 🙂

  2. great initiative…such kind of initiatives are demand of hour specially to the rural adolescence girls. can you organised such kind of campaign to Bihar as well. since i do take such initiative while meeting withe the school going kids on various topics ie. carrier, behavior , character building, social responsibility etc. i have adopted three high schools where i keep organizing interactive sessions with these school going boys and girls but because of a support system could not able to impart the education on this topics..being a bit conservative socity…

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