GUEST POST BY BIDHYA SHRESTHA – What does ‘women empowerment’ mean to you? Is it about giving women a voice? Does it mean informing women about their rights? In my opinion, no.
That is not empowering women. Women do have a voice. They are only silenced by a patriarchal society that deem women unworthy of listening to.
When we attempt to help marginalised women from developing countries, we make the mistake of assuming that they are uneducated, unaware and helpless. This very prejudice that we have of them reflects our unchecked sense of superiority and privilege that create the social distance between us and them – the “others” from a “third-world” country. It is important that we put ourselves on the same plane as them without the assumption that they need a voice. No, they do not need a voice because they have one; it is time that we come to listen to them and not only speak of their rights. It is time that we implement strategies that work for women long-term.
This is what Project Untouchable Goddesses aims to achieve.
Project Untouchable Goddesses was organised by a non-profit organisation, Aama Ko Koseli Hong Kong, that was accomplished in Tatapani village of Surkhet district in the far-west Nepal last month. In this project, we focused on providing women access to reusable pads, break the taboo of menstruation and lastly, focus on the issue of ‘Chhaupadi’. The tradition of “chhaupadi” bans menstruating women into cowsheds and huts inspite of the death cases stemming from the practice. The tradition deems menstruating women and girls “impure” and “untouchables” but our project aims to honor them as Goddesses blessed with the gift of womanhood – Menstruation.
I was one of the participants who joined the project in June and during the workshop of distributing reusable pads, I remember one lady. She said, “NGOs used to come here to tell us to keep clean and not do chhaupadi. But they wouldn’t give us pads. Even if they did, it is not enough to be used for long.” That made me so grateful for the difference we were making. We did not go to the village, thinking that they only needed to be educated. They know what menstrual hygiene is; they just do not have easy access to the resources such as sanitary pads.
For us, it was crucial that we provide them a sustainable menstrual product that works for them long-term. This is why we chose to implement the use of reusable pads. Each set of pad that we distributed consisted of 2-3 reusable pads that would last for 2 years. It is environmentally-friendly and it is chemical-free unlike most disposable sanitary pads which consist of chemicals in them. These reusable pads enable women to move freely without the worry of leaking.
Another unique strategy of the project was that we included men. Menstruation is a men’s issue too. A lot of times men are excluded from the discussion of menstruation but why? There are men who impose the tradition of chhaupadi, and so do women. It is essential that we teach both boys and girls to speak about menstruation and normalise it from a young age. I don’t think I have ever felt so much joy in watching young girls and boys talk about menstruation openly and together in one room. This was something that I wish we could have done when we were younger at school. There is a salience of opening dialogues about menstruation between boys and girls in order to normalise something that was innately natural.
When I reminisce about my village experience and the conversations I had with the local community there, I realize that we succeeded in breaking the taboo of menstruation, distributing sustainable reusable pads but one thing was missing – tackling chhaupadi. As we spoke to women in the villages that practice chhaupadi, I realize, they fear God more than they fear the law that bans the tradition; they are compelled to practice chhaupadi because they genuinely believe that something bad will happen in the family. It is wrong for us to disregard and belittle their belief in chhaupadi while enforcing our beliefs. However, how do we compromise with a belief that is weaved into their culture? How do we “solve” chhaupadi without disrespecting their beliefs?
Having a different culture does not make it wrong. What we can do is compromise and improvise the hut to a safer space that does not risk their life while still enabling them to practice their tradition. It’s time we step down from our pedestal of privilege and help them by listening to their needs. Perhaps, chhaupadi isn’t something for us to “solve” and abolish but rather something for us to respect and understand.