Ah, you really can’t beat sharing stories to make you feel like you’re not alone in a situation – we can all identify with a bit of true-talk after all. Not only that, being open and honest about real things that happen to real women is the fastest way to smash taboos and get us all talking about tricky topics. There’s no such thing as an over-share.
Here, Roisin 27, tells us how volunteer work in India saw her attending a period ceremony...
“To be completely honest, before I went to India or had conversations with a charity about their work on women’s health out there, I didn’t really consider myself a feminist or align myself to that term. That changed when I was there though. I had open discussions with some of the other volunteers about women’s rights in the UK in comparison to India and realised that actually I’m proud to consider myself a feminist.
“I decided to spend three months in India because I wanted to do some travelling but was put off by the usual Thailand route where you just party and spend loads of money. I wanted to do something that would contribute to a community by helping or working with local people. The volunteer programme with the charity Restless Development stuck out for me because they were doing education programmes on sexual health and life skills – that really interested me and the work they were doing with women made me choose to go with them specifically. One of the main objectives of the volunteer work was to encourage social action in communities. Giving the local people knowledge so that they could spread it further and make changes themselves within their own community.
“I really didn’t know what to expect before I went as I’d never been to that part of the world before. I imagined I wouldn’t be able to relate to the women out there because our societies are so different. I tried to go with as much as an open mind as possible.
“Us UK volunteers worked very closely with volunteers from the local communities. Our initial ‘getting to know each other’ conversations were difficult because we were trying to find common ground, so we’d end up talking about random things such as football. Even that had limitations though because women aren’t even encouraged to be interested in sport. They were keen to learn about our lifestyles back home and for them to hear about me drinking alcohol was such a big deal as it’s so taboo for them. I had some really interesting conversations with the Indian volunteers about marriage and the concept of marriage. One of the UK female volunteers said that she probably wouldn’t get married and the women we were chatting to struggled with the idea that in western society you don’t have marry to have a successful life or career. For women in the communities that we visited, it’s paramount. Marriage is very much seen as the next stage of adulthood.
Making a change
“We had guidelines from the charity on sessions we could hold in local schools and we decided to run an ‘End Child Marriage’ campaign in the community. It is still an issue there. Only a small percentage of the community would actively engage or force a family member into marriage really young, but as a society, child marriage is still accepted because when it does happen, not many people try to stop it.
“When girls get married at a young age, they lose their right to education and become isolated from their friends. Giving birth when their bodies are not mature can also have serious complications and health issues. Due to a lack of education when marrying young, the girls are unlikely to work so this impacts financially on her family. She is not able to contribute her potential skills and attributes to society. The headteacher of one school told us there were a number of girls who wouldn’t finish their education because they’d already been matched up to be married. And these girls were no older than 14-15. That made me so sad, but we were motivated that the school teachers didn’t want that this to happen either. They considered education for the girls very important.
“So we did our campaign in local schools and online and reached out to over 1000 young people with the message that child marriage has to end. We even did mixed sessions with young boys and it was heartwarming to see them responding to the sessions and realising that they can play a part in making a change.
“However, once a girl is over the age of 18, arranged marriages are very much the standard thing. Apart from unique two stories that I heard of, every marriage in the area is arranged by the parents. There, the women accept this.
“The thing that shocked me the most during my trip though was learning of a ceremony that’s held when a young girl gets her first period – I wasn’t aware that it was still practised in the community. This happened to one of our neighbours while I was there. I got to know everyone on the street very well and one day I asked where one particular girl was, because I hadn’t seen her going to school as usual. We were told she was staying at home that week and were then invited to attend the Ritu Kala Samskara Ceremony – a celebration of her starting her period.
“The ceremony symbolises that the young girl is ready to marry. She wears a lovely Indian outfit, with henna and bindis – the works. She receives offerings of gifts, flowers and blessed fruit and they make it a really big occasion. As a young woman it’s difficult when you first get your period, so for everyone to know and suddenly be looking at you, I figured this must be really nerve-wracking. The idea that this girl was considered by society ‘ready for marriage’, just because she had started her period really jarred with me.
“Only very close family and friends attend this ceremony so we were told it was an honour that we were invited. Even though I didn’t 100% agree with it, or properly understand it, I was curious and also felt like I should go to support her. This girl was 15 and did have some awareness of periods, but obviously that could easily have been an 11 year old, if she’d started then. I can only imagine how daunting that must be, being celebrated for marriage and motherhood at such a young age.
“Us girls took sanitary products out to India with us because we were told that we wouldn’t be able to buy much out there. When we looked in local shops we couldn’t see any on display and in the few shops that did stock them, they definitely didn’t have any tampons, just pads. We didn’t haven’t any open conversations with the women in our group about tampons or pads, because they were sensitive about it, but I knew they probably all used non-disposable pads that they would just wash each time. At the end of my stay I had lots of pads left over and I wanted to give them to the women I’d been working with. They came into my room and got really excited about it and took everything. That made realise what a luxury item they were. It would cost them up to 100-200 rupees to buy, which is a lot of money considering a bus ticket costs five rupees.
“The women volunteers we were working with had to ask their parent’s permission to come on the programme and they don’t have much freedom in their daily lives. It made me appreciate how much freedom I have as a woman in the UK, out there a woman doesn’t walk by herself outside. Ever. While I was there I was never alone and I would have someone with me even if I was just going to the shop – that wasn’t the case for the male UK volunteers.
“I think the women are happy because they a set structure to their lives that we don’t necessarily have. They’re born, they go through childhood and then they get married – marriage is arranged and they go forward from that. It’s clear that all the women do have their own thoughts, emotions and opinions but the way their society and culture is, they’re not encouraged to speak up and share their opinions. They were very taken aback when us girls from the UK were opinionated. The women are used to being guided by their parents and their family, so it’s a big thing for them to open up to anyone outside the family about a delicate subject.
“The way they interact with their family and the community as a whole though is something we could definitely learn from the women, I barely know anyone on my street at home, but there, everybody knows, helps and supports each other with everything from childcare to cooking.
“Spending time in India also made me appreciate how accessible our tampons and pads are and that we’re privileged to have access to constant clean water. I did have my period while I was out there and would bucket wash so I could keep clean and didn’t feel dirty at anytime during my period – I felt ok. The women are able to stay sanitary and clean, it’s just obviously not in the comfortable way that we have it with showers and a supply of sanitary products. We’re very lucky here.”
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