Paying it forward: Reshma’s story of not limiting her gains to her home
It is difficult to miss the zeal in Reshma Devi. Quiet in her ways but yearning to learn new things, her face immediately lights up when the subject of menstrual hygiene management is broached. “Over the last few months I have learned a lot about menstrual hygiene,” she said with a smile, “Just like didi (elder sister in Hindi) trained us on this subject, I have been trying to impart the knowledge to others too. like, to my neighbour’s daughters and my relatives. It’s unfair to keep knowledge to oneself.”
Deep in her thoughts and words, 35-year-old Reshma of Unnao in Uttar Pradesh, India, has had a difficult past few years. Her husband abandoned her in 2015, leaving her alone to fend for herself and their now 14-year-old son. Without any professional degree—she studied only till class 5—she had limited options for a source of living. “Then, someone I knew asked me to apply for a job in the tanneries here,” she said. Women constitute a small percentage of the total workforce in the tanneries of Unnao. They are mostly employed in the finished leather products divisions—stitching bags and other goods—or in shops selling these products.
For Reshma, the first job came in such an outlet, where she oversaw the sale of leather products. Two years later, she joined Kings International, a tannery, as part of its first batch of women employees in their newly inaugurated bags division. This is where Reshma’s quest for learning began to be fulfilled.
In 2019, WaterAid, with the support of HSBC, initiated a programme to improve water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) conditions of tannery workers and their families in Unnao. Kings International, as part of this initiative, was aided with new and renovated WASH facilities for its workers, as well as training sessions on hygiene—including menstrual hygiene—that would sensitise them towards adopting good hygiene practices.
“When we attended the first meeting on menstrual hygiene, we were embarrassed because it is not a subject that is discussed publicly,” Reshma said. But Sangeeta Srivastava of WaterAid—the didi Reshma mentioned earlier—ensured that not only do the women shed their inhibitions in talking about the subject, but also share their problems so that they could find solutions and lead healthier lives. Little did she imagine that so soon would Reshma absorb the lessons and go one step ahead to inspire others in the community.
“When I was traveling home on the bus after one such session, I thought to myself, why should this knowledge remain limited to me? Others should know about it too,” she reminisced. And so, she went over to her neighbour’s house and broached the subject with her and her two adolescent daughters. “I told them about the importance of menstrual hygiene, how often should one change their pad or cloth, how should one dispose of the pad or cloth later,” Reshma elaborated. One of the girls, she said, was yet to attain menarche and Reshma felt it was important for her to be aware of this “natural process” so that she was better prepared when it happens.
As for herself, Reshma adopted several practices in her monthly menstrual routine. “For example, I no longer use dark fabric as an absorbent because it runs the risk of bleeding colour. Instead, I use light-coloured, cotton, and preferably used pieces of cloth. I wash it and dry it properly before use,” she said. The hygiene practices suggested—using clean material, washing the vaginal area with water, changing the pad or cloth every six hours—have led to a reduced incidence of irritation and itchiness in the vaginal area during menstruation.
Not just that. The training sessions on hygiene have also made Reshma more aware of simple ways to keep illnesses at bay. “No matter how hungry he is, I don’t let my son touch his food without washing his hands now, and there’s an extra pair of bathroom slippers near the toilet so that there is no contamination in the living area. As a result, his frequent bouts of cold and cough have reduced quite a lot. I am so relieved!” she smiled.