A Girl With No Fears
I was born in a middle class family and raised in the ‘City of Dreams’ Bombay. I was fortunate to grow up in a supportive family environment, where I saw my working parents sharing all chores and responsibilities with each other.
When I was in college we had a ‘Ganesh Sthapna’ in our house as all Maharashtrians have. Incidentally , my menstrual cycle happened to coincide with the days of Ganesh Pooja. When I told my girlfriends in college, they told me that I will have to shift my periods because it was sin and gave me a pill.
When I popped the pill, it reacted adversely and I started vomiting. My mother realised that my condition was a result of some illogical fears that society had filled in my head.
She and my whole family stood with me and made me understand that it was no sin. The fear of my sins getting punished was deep rooted inside me.It was only a couple of years later I completely realised the truth and had belief in it.
My family sowed the seeds of fearlessness in me. After college I went for an MBA. Back then it was very rare to see a girl doing an MBA. I was fortunate that my parents made me fearless and self-believing. I feel that this is the way every girl should be raised.
Science : The Art of Experimentation
I was married shortly after my MBA. I moved to Navsari after my marriage which is a very small city if you compare it to Bombay.
I wanted to work so I knocked on the doors of businesses with innovative ideas for their growth. They would always say “These ideas are brilliant but who will execute them ?.” I used to be like “Hello!! I am here. I am the one who brought these ideas, so I would be the one to execute them.” They would just give a refusing smile in the answer.
There was no one who wanted to employ a lady MBA. Then I thought what work can I do that is acceptable to society. Becoming a teacher seemed to be the only way forward so I started teaching science in a school.
The first chapter in a science textbook was ‘Agricultural Practices in India’. Being a girl from Bombay, I didn’t know much about agricultural practices. So I told my class and my principal, that we will go to the Agricultural University of Navsari and learn about the agricultural tool and practices hands on.
The children loved this way of teaching. They experienced science rather than mugging it up from the textbooks. I also got inspired by that. Then I started making small toys and little experiments that we did in the class and children would learn the fundamentals of science through that.
This made me believe that Science could not be limited to the textbooks, it must be brought out and children must experience it rather than just mugging it up.
After that we moved to Thailand, because my husband who is a chemist, got work there. In the 1990’s,finding a person who can speak English in Thailand was like finding a unicorn in the forest. I am someone who can never sit idle.So I thought let’s find out “Why Thai children are not taught English?”.
So I went to a school and asked them about it. They replied who would teach English ?. I realised that there was a dire shortage of English teachers there. So I gathered a group of wives who knew English and started teaching in some Thai schools.
I came up with a very effective curriculum. In 1996, the 50th anniversary of the accession of Thai King was being celebrated. In that festival, children from our schools did English plays.It was very impressive to the Royal family and I was awarded with an ‘Appreciation Medal’ by them.
We had to move back to India because the level of education in Thailand was not very good for my children. When I came back, Science beckoned me once more.I started making educational toys for children which was really an offbeat idea back then.
Some other teachers then and we started ‘Abhinav Vigyan Sikshan Karyakram ’ in 2002. Gradually we grew and eventually made a curriculum that involved experiments which could be done in the classroom.
After struggling for 5-6 years on our own, we sought help from GCERT (Gujarat Council of Educational Research and Training) from where we went up to the MHRD ( Ministry of Human Resource and Development) who eventually funded us.
In association with GCERT, we built laboratories where children can do more than a 500 experiments with just simple apparatus. We also made science parks and science centres in different places.
All in all it was a start towards hands-on teaching. It became a firm step towards pulling science out of the pages of textbooks and making it something that surrounds our lives.
Waging War against ‘The Taboo’
In 2009, we formed the Vatsalya Foundation. We were assigned a project to improve the overall educational levels in about 500 odd government schools, particularly in science and math modules. I never realised that this project was going to change the whole direction and purpose of my life.
The situation I found in the schools was appalling. Whereas there were 30 girls in the 5th class, the 6th standard had only 10 girls and there were none in the 7th standard. These statistics intrigued me. “Why were these girls leaving school?” was the question that troubled me . To find out the answer we had to dig deep into the customs of rural areas.
I went and interacted with people living in these areas and the answers that I found were just beyond belief. I found out that puberty was the evil behind this. The girls dropped out of school because they would be humiliated in school because they had periods.
These girls would sit at home at the age of 13-14 and soon be married off and by the age of 20-21 they would have a couple of children. At the average age where the career of a person starts, these girls thought that they had served their purpose in life.
I was shaken to the core at this travesty . The plight of the women and the way these people looked at menstruation was shocking. When I interacted with women from these areas, I got answers like “Yeh , to hota hai”, “Hame bhagwan ne hi ye shrap diya hai”.
These lines started haunting me. In 2010, I travelled to different parts of India. I interacted with thousands of people who held such false beliefs. I listened to their views carefully, so that I can counter them with logical answers.
Soon I started counselling women in the villages with workshops. I used to talk about ‘Why women menstruate? ’ but only counselling brought no tangible results. I saw that these girls
were using old clothes, rags and even went for a teak leave with sand on it and bound it to their waist for protection. These things were causing serious health problems to them.
I even met a woman, who told me “Madam ji mai to vaise bhi do mahine mai marne vali hun. Mujhe cancer hua hai to aap batao ki mai kya kaam kar sakti hun.” A person telling you that they were going to die soon was hard to digest and the carefree way she said it, made it even harder.
I thought sanitary napkins must reach these girls because if they don’t these girls will never be able to live their lives the way they should live. Also the way these sanitary napkins reached them must create livelihood for the women themselves. We wanted these women to learn that they are individuals too who have the right to a good and healthy lifestyle.
My husband took inspiration from Arunachalam Murugunantham’s machine and we also started to manufacture. We did find some quality issues in those napkins. My husband spent days researching for the best raw materials and made several improvements in the technique to make it suitable for the village women. We named the napkins ‘Sakhi’.
The production cost was Rs 1.50 per napkin and they were to be sold at 2.50 per napkin. After 10 years of starting the production, even today the production cost has risen only by 50 paise. The reason being the complete transparency of our system.
Now we had the machine but we needed those who could operate them. To bring out women from the village households for work was like starting an unholy revolution in the rural areas.
When we went to villages,we were humiliated and even had to face police cases. We faced it all because I had only one thing in my mind that,
Everyone has a right to live their lives with dignity, and if menstruation is the villain that is denying these little girls a life of their choice then I am going to fight against it.
After we established a few units with hard fought struggles against the locals, a completely new problem popped up. The girls who started using sanitary napkins were now in a dilemma of where to dispose of them.
My husband was once again ready to take up the challenge. He made a terracotta incinerator which burnt pads to dust, with a simple procedure as simple and similar to lighting a chulha. This way, rural women will not have to worry about disposal. We named it ‘Ashudhi Nashak’. Problem after problem, we went through it all.
Eventually we were invited to present this idea to the government. The President of India, Dr. Pranab Mukherji appreciated the idea and even helped us reach even more remote places.
We went through disheartening lows but with every breath we took we dedicated our efforts to improving the lives of these girls.
Today 150 units have been established, across the nation. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari no place is left. Every unit has given the local women an identity. We have been able to create livelihood for thousands of such women. Each one of them has been enabled to lead a life of dignity.
When I look back today and see the smiling faces of these women who today have an identity of their own. I feel that every struggle we fought through was worth it.
Done Some, Left with much more
Till date we have taken some steps but a lot more are still left to be taken. We have tried to solve a lot of problems in the lives of little village girls but still there are a lot more left.
I believe that “If boys are not made to feel ashamed when their beard and moustache start growing in their adolescent years, why should girls be made to feel ashamed of their bodies and feel ashamed of themselves when they menstruate?”
We will continue to make efforts from our side but the real change will only come when we all hold hands. We should all learn to stand with our women in every problem they face. Only then our girls will be able to say ‘My life, My choice’.
A word from my side
I always saw a lot of people who keep thinking of helping others but they never do. They always end up only thinking. I just want to say that
“Be the change , you want to see in the world ” (Quote by Mahatma Gandhi )
Don’t wait for someone else to do something, just dare to dream and change. If we all try to take steps towards the welfare of people around us, our world will completely change for good.
So guys this was the tale of the PadWoman: Swati Bedkar. Her will to give a better life to women who have suffered at the hands of patriarchy, has become a revolution today.
Change makers have to suffer but in the end they make our world a more beautiful place. We should draw inspiration from the way Swati has changed the lives of thousands of women and try to bring a change in other’s lives.
We should always remember that “A man is not what he has done for himself, a man is what he does for others”
On that note we will be taking your leave. We will be back soon with another tale that will give you goosebumps and will inspire you to take on every challenge that life puts in your path. Till then
Stay Passionate, Stay Stubborn
Providing Employment to Rural Women by Establishing Provision of Hygienic Cost-Effective Sanitary Napkins
In rural are as though the environment is thought to be comparatively clean than city areas, now-a-days in rural areas also the living atmosphere is gradually deteriorating and due to the lack of awareness/adequate knowledge among the people their living standards are not at all hygienic. It is often found that the people living specially in very backward areas are suffering from different diseases due to their ignorance on self cleanliness. Another important factor is that the rural women and girls generally do not maintain cleanliness during menstruation period. As a result they become the host of many infectious diseases. This is due to lack of awareness among them and also due to the economic inability for adopting better precautions like use of good sanitary napkins during menstruation period. Usually different varieties of sanitary napkins are found available in the market. But the reason is that these napkins are not affordable for rural under privileged women and girls. Thus, if the use of hygienic sanitary napkins could be initiated among the rural women and girls at low cost, then growth of different diseases could be arrested or minimized to a large extent among them.
In India, particularly in the rural areas most women traditionally use cloth during their menstruation days. This is because price of sanitary pads is the biggest entry barrier. A pack of 10 sanitary napkins costs Rs 24 – 40. Therefore, average spending during the menstruation days would be around Rs 35, which is expensive by Indian standards. Anecdotal studies reveal that prevalence of STI/RTI to be very high in some of the states with large population like Maharashtra and Karnataka, particularly in the rural areas. Poor menstrual hygiene reported to be one of the reasons for the high prevalence of STIs and RTIs in the country. Towards addressing this problem and to ensure the menstrual hygiene of the rural Women, we feel the need for introducing a quality sanitary napkin at an affordable Price.
Generally in very backward regions where the women and girls are mostly found suffering from different diseases related to sexual health. Reason being unhygienic sanitary practices mostly! So, Vatsalya Foundation desires to work on arresting the growth of different diseases caused from unhygienic practices during menstruation period among girls and women.