#endperiodmyths – The Uboontu Foundation Story
Rajendra and his son, Naresh, are drivers we have been using in Delhi for the last decade or so. About 5 years ago, when Naresh was putting our packages into the boot of his car, we noticed a large carton of sanitary napkins. This was surprising, not least because he is young, male and single. It transpired that he had been driving senior managers of a large private hospital in Delhi, the Max Hospital, which has, like all large corporations in India, a social outreach obligation. He had driven one of their social planners to a home for abandoned girls where she was teaching them about menstrual hygiene. Naresh hung around outside and then helped hand out sanitary napkins.
The background facts to this story are startling. Menstruation is a taboo topic in India. It is not talked about within families, even mother to daughter. In some parts of the country menstruating women are banished to an outhouse or into the fields for 5 days a month. Or they can’t participate in normal family life, can’t share the same table, sit on the same couch. Relegated to the outskirts of their own homes, they feel ashamed and dirty. Menstrual-shaming, or the fear of it, has even led young girls to suicide.
On top of the silence and humiliation, a majority of menstruating girls and women in India can’t afford commercial pads. So they improvise. Newspapers, old rags, even hay. There are myths such as believing they shouldn’t wash; or that burning a pad will make them infertile. Many women develop urinary and reproductive tract infections as a result of unsanitary practices. There were recent reports of a young girl who used hay that was infested with insects. Her womb became infected. She died.
There are also serious educational implications. There is a lack of toilets in schools, and often shared with the boys. The girls are already embarrassed, ashamed. The toilets become dirty early in the day. They don’t want to use them. They stay away from school for the duration. That’s 5 days a month of schooling missed, 55 days a year (assuming an 11-month year). They often miss important tests. They drop out of school. To make matters worse, many female teachers also stay away for 5 days a month!
Several charities are tackling these problems. There are efforts to get more toilets in schools. There are educational campaigns, with government and charities providing print materials, videos etc. Helping to bring the subject into the open, a documentary about the now-famous ‘Pad Man’ won an Oscar in 2018.
Back to Naresh. He has become passionate about helping with this problem. When I ask why he just says he has always had a yen to help people. And I know he had been collecting socks and shoes for the homeless in Delhi’s very cold winters. Now he is regularly working with the social planner Ambreen. I have been with them to information sessions in a Muslim girls school, at the girls’ orphanage and at several other government schools.
They have aligned with a company that makes biodegradable pads to hand out. But the girls still have to make do most of the time with other materials. And if every girl did use commercial pads every month over a menstrual lifetime, in a country with approx 400 million menstruating women, the disposal problem would be horrendous. It is estimated that commercial pads take centuries to break down. Incineration adds to air pollution. Menstrual cups are another possible solution but they require access to clean water. Solutions have to include re-usable and/or low-cost biodegradeable pads.
Several charities work on the ‘hardware’ of all this. But in the meantime, vital psycho-social ‘software’ efforts are needed: educational programs to teach girls not to be ashamed; that they can participate in all aspects of life and education; that they must wash themselves and wash and air their home-made ‘pads’ in the sun if possible. The attached report shows some of the myths Ambreen and Naresh work hard to overturn. In 2016 they launched their work as a charitable foundation, the Uboontu Foundation (uboontu = humanity to others). Charities in India are now highly regulated: a chartered accountant must audit their books regularly and they can’t receive donations directly from overseas until they’ve been operating for 3 years (to discourage fly-by-night operations).
Uboontu has rented a small space in the same urban slum area where Naresh himself grew up. Girls come in for computer lessons (they can work towards an IT certificate, donated by another large corporate, NIT), guitar lessons, immunisations (all equipment and services donated). A small library of donated books has been set up. They’ve arranged for the children in the next door primary school to get a nutritious lunch each day. And they continue their educational programs in schools, orphanages and via government local health workers (ashas). They include boys as well, recognising that everyone needs to be informed, to help lift the stigma, bust the myths. They have started a campaign called #endperiodmyths.
Ambreen has left her job to work on this full-time. Naresh continues to be a driver but doing most of his paid work at night. He works incredibly long hours. But is justifiably proud and satisfied with his life. We have watched all this, at first with some scepticism, but now with awe and admiration. We have been making annual contributions, taking cash with us when we visit every February.
Uboontu has just recently been asked to extend its education program to 600 Delhi government schools. This will train teachers to cover menstrual hygiene awareness, as part of the curriculum, potentially reaching 100,000 girls.
But of course they need more money. They tell me their operating costs for a year will now be about $20,000. Neither of them takes a salary. But they pay other women – trained in social work – to help spread the message in the schools. They test the outcomes properly, sometimes administering pre- and post questionnaires to check progress. There are printing costs, website costs. And rent for their small ‘community hub’ where disadvantaged girls can come and use a computer, learn to read, strum a guitar. They’ve taught them to make candles that can be sold at festivals to raise some cash for the centre. Lives for girls in poor communities are often very circumscribed, so this provides a rare safe haven in which to relax.
Click here to view one of the Uboontu monthly reports. It is engaging and interesting – please have a look. The pictures tell the story better than anything!
We are all off to India in mid-February. We are asking for your help in supporting this wonderful work!
If you would like to donate, the bank details are as follows:
BSB: 033 364
Account no: 842 728
Account name: Valerie Wilson & Sue McFall
Payment ref: (insert your own name)