Photo courtesy: Rudrani Ghosh Photography

What’s been brewing.

Tea is a predominant source of the Assamese economy, and women are to thank for it. Tea picking is a meticulous task, conducted over long hours in various weather conditions, with heavy baskets slung over the back. As this job rests mainly in the hands of women, hundreds of working women may be found in a tea garden per day. The barriers faced at their working conditions often exacerbate the state of these women’s health and hygiene. In some gardens, the women are reliant on the estate management for water supply. When the availability of water is shaky, they cut corners with washing hands and fulfilling the prerequisite hygienic practices during menstruation.
While their hard work is responsible for making the caffeinated world go round, the women are negligent of their own health and hygiene, and are concerningly ignorant about matters related to menstruation. At a pilot survey conducted by Sikun Relief Foundation, some women reported thinking that menstrual bleeding occurred from the anus. Even when they have some working knowledge of the monthly phenomenon, they are constrained by the stigmas of Assamese and Indian society. In addition, women of the tea gardens are known to have unhealthy consumption habits. They drink tea with high amounts of salt in order to kill their appetites, and continue working. Hence, they are often dehydrated and malnourished. Most are unaware of the susceptibility to anaemia, and the importance of iron-rich foods to supplement iron deficiency during menstruation. The very notion of iron, of nutrition, of practicing beyond immediate utility is a foreign concept in this region.

Straining away the misconceptions.

At our workshops, we begin by asking women to list the local phrases for “menstruation”. In Assamese, they reply with variances of “monthly’s”, “monthly illness”, “untouchable thing”, “sickness”, “the dirty thing”, “bad blood”, and the like. We ask them to discuss a few of the things they are asked to do or not do when they are on their period, and routinely, the women report being told to sleep in a separate place, to be sequestered for the week, and to not touch or cook food for the family. Sometimes, they are asked not to look at or come in contact with men, lest they be responsible for the men’s inability to grow a beard or a moustache. On the basis of this preliminary discourse of social norms, we waste no time unraveling the anatomical mystery. Through a candid diagram of the female reproductive system, we discuss the process of menstruation, iterating that the blood leaving the system is not bad or dirty. Often, these workshops begin with baffled expressions, embarrassed smiles, and a refusal to vocalize. Slowly, we begin a discourse on why it is that women are told that they are weak or dirty when they menstruate, and knowing the science behind it, how that isn’t the case at all.
Having established a cursory biological understanding, we broach the subject of products. Some women still roll up scraps of cloth, while others have transitioned to pads. As environmental friendliness is a major part of our work focus, we attempt to provoke some thought about the nature of the products used by these women, and their subsequent impact on the world around them. Showcasing newly released biodegradable pads, sturdier, quick drying cloth pads, and the menstrual cup, we are met with bashfulness, but an uncanny openness to the idea of something new. When asked, the pad users in their midst say that they either dispose pads directly into the toilet or in the garbage. For cloth users, the stigma of publicizing their periods prevents them from openly drying their cloth pieces, where they might come under scrutiny from men. While the former can majorly clog the toilet, reeking havoc amongst all genders, the latter can be a source of infections if women dry their cloth pieces inside, where they may still be damp during the next use. By openly broaching the subject of menstruation and hygiene, we aim to disperse some of the stigma surrounding the topic amongst rural women so that they can better their hygiene practices.

Steep in the right direction.

In the last few months, Sikun Relief Foundation has conducted workshops for over 500 women in tea gardens. From discourse on how language disproportionately reinforces gender based stigmas, to the science behind periods, and the best practices for menstrual hygiene, our workshops attempt to address it all. Using the data and feedback from our pilot survey of 150 women respondents in tea gardens, we attempt to first understand the menstrual health problems particular to the target population and the areas of knowledge needing further development. Then, we carefully cultivate a workshop that is best suited to strengthen the awareness of these women, to positively impact their sense of self and self-worth, and to address period related taboos and best practices. After all, the right amount of steeping is essential for any good brew.