A Far Way From Shame and Discomfort in Barnesbeg
Young girls in jeans and sweatshirts chatter happily as they walk down the road to the Barnesbeg Senior secondary school in Darjeeling, West Bengal. “It’s great to see how free women and girls have become in Barnesbeg,” comments Kesang Lama, 29, a part-time school teacher and peer educator with the Twinings and WaterAid India project to provide access to safe drinking water, improved sanitation and hygiene. Much of this, she believes, is because regular meetings and workshops here have normalised conversations about menstruation. “As a peer educator, my job is to inform girls and women about sustainable sanitary products and safe menstrual hygiene practices,” she says.
It is a far cry from how things were when her mother Basant Lama was young. Sitting on her flower-filled terrace in Daralong village in Barnesbeg, overlooking the Kanchenjunga, she describes how things were when she was a young girl. “The silence used to be the hardest part of menstruation,” she says. “Women used to use cloth but were not allowed to wash it at the main water source.” Instead, they would go to a designated spot, a spring about half an hour away, to wash their pads. Basant recalls the indignity and inconvenience of that daily walk down the steep slope while suffering the discomfort of a period. Unsurprisingly, girls used to delay changing their pads, which would lead to skin conditions and other ailments. Water scarcity exacerbated their woes. “We used to walk about half an hour away to fetch two buckets of water,” she recounts. “Skin diseases used to be very prevalent because people didn’t bathe as often as they should have, neither did they wash their clothes.”
Kesang, also an outreach worker for the Family Planning Association of India, says that menstrual health awareness workshops and the improvement of Barnesbeg’s water supply under the Twinings and WaterAid India project, have generally improved Barnesbeg’s public health outlook. “I tell girls why cloth napkins are better for the environment and how to use them hygienically,” she says. “Those who work in the tea gardens find it more convenient to use conventional napkins during the day but all of them use cloth at home now.” Also, the strengthening of Barnesbeg’s principal water source, a nearby spring, has ensured that girls can wash their pads comfortably in their own homes instead of having to walk long distances to do so. Better access to water today has also brought down the incidence of diseases. Basant says that life today is much better than it was when she was younger. “It will only get better as more women shrug off their shyness and speak up about their problems,” she says. Kesang, who dreams of a permanent job as a teacher in a government school, agrees. “When I look around me, I see girls feeling freer than they used to feel before,” she says. “Things are changing around here and that’s a good thing.”