When first presented with the opportunity to go on a field visit as part of our internship at Project Baala from Mumbai to Solapur and Osmanabad, my colleague Navan and I were excited. One rarely gets the opportunity to go on a field visit, let alone conduct a focus group discussion on your own. We did not know what to expect. I for one was completely in the dark and in my head had jumped to all sorts of assumptions. How will we manage in this heat? Will we be able to talk to the women? Will they understand us? What about food? How will we travel from Solapur to Osmanabad? There were a lot of firsts for me on this trip…. The good and the bad.
We took a train from Mumbai to Solapur and reached around 8:30 pm, 28th May. Hungry and melting from the heat, we took an auto from the station and made our way to the nearest McDonalds. After a quick bite we headed to our hotel that fortunately for us, was only a 5 minute walk from the mall. Quick tip when traveling to a new place? Especially a small city in India? Don’t watch too many Savdhaan India episodes. The walk from mall to the hotel was a short one but a dark one. The long road leading to the hotel was deprived of street lights or people. Apart from a few cars occasionally zooming by, Navan and I were the only ones there. So we semi-ran with bags and food in our hands. Once at the hotel, we checked into our respective rooms and called it a night. Tomorrow, the real adventure would begin….
Promptly at 7:30am the next morning, without an alarm I was wide awake. Excited and Nervous. By 10am, Navan, Subhojit and I were ready, fed and on our way to the bus stand to catch a state transport bus to Osmanabad. Our colleague Subhojit had been there before and was able to seamlessly guide us to the bus. The journey to Osmanabad was an hour and a half long. The first half of our journey went in getting a better understanding of our objectives and how we were to go about conducting the workshop and FGD. Once we were done, I had the chance to finally take in my surroundings. We were as far away from the city as possible. The houses, people and cars were reducing with every passing minute and the wind was getting hotter. Lost in my own bubble, I was oblivious to the chaos that had ensued. The bus driver had driven past our drop point and now at full speed was headed towards the bus stop, a good 10kms away from where we had to go. So, in typical Indian style we flocked around the area the driver was seated at and made him stop the bus.
Once we got down, we started looking around for autos to take us to our location. In all honesty, I was expecting an open field, scorching heat and a handful of women who would be shy to talk about menstruation. Instead, we stopped in front of a large hall filled with at least 250 women. The programme was already well underway. We were escorted in by someone and asked to take a seat till it was our chance to conduct the workshop. By this time, all three of us had melted. Naturally we gravitated towards the large fan placed at the corner of the hall and sat directly in front of it. As we were awaiting our turn, we were informed that due to a miscommunication on the organizers behalf, our half an hour workshop slot had been cut down to 15 minutes. So we braced ourselves and got to work.
First, we distributed boxes each of our sustainable Baala pads to all the women.
Next, Subhojit expertly engaged in conversation with the women talking to them about all things periods and about our pads. These pads were sustainable, reusable and lasted up to 2 years! I had been given the task to act as a translator if needed while Subhojit conducted the workshop and to help engage the women to take part in the conversation.
To my surprise, apart from the initial hesitation, the women were very forthcoming about engaging in a conversation and knowing more about the pads and about menstruation. One of the organizers cut in, indicating the end of our 15 minute slot. As we made our way back to our large fan, a lot of the women approached us saying how happy and surprised they were to have a man speaking to them about something as tabooed as menstruation. They were genuinely curious about the pads and wanted to know how they could get more of them to sell to their known ones.
Next up was the focus group discussion surrounding post menopausal women and the various issues they face during and after menopause.
A group consisting of 14 block coordinators seated in a semi-circle formation faced me. To say that I was nervous was an understatement. But me and my “Mumbai-chi” Marathi skills were determined. I started out by giving them a brief of what the FGD is all about and asked for their consent to record their answers. I asked them very basic questions about the issues that most women face during their periods and if they faced any or knew anyone that faced any of these issues. I was not surprised when almost every woman there shared that they faced some issue or the other but what surprised me was the severe lack of medical help given to them. They went to the doctor, they got the recommended tests done. So where are we lacking? And why are so many of these women not getting the help they so desperately need? The 20 minutes I spent speaking to these women were one of the most profound moments of my life. The immense privilege that life in the city provides us with isn’t lost on me.
As we wrapped up and made our way to the bus stand, my colleagues felt a sense of contentment and overwhelming heat. So much so that we had to have ORS powder to prevent us from moving like pendulums. At the bus stand after one missed bus and all out war with locals for a seat in the next bus we were finally on our way back to Solapur to catch our train home. Back in Solapur, fed on pizzas and happily settled in our seats in the train, we finally had some time to reflect on our trip. We had come to bust myths but instead got our myths busted.
It is no longer about just spreading awareness around menstruation but also providing the right medical care and access to women.
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