Talking about issues like menstruation, female hygiene, and other “taboo” topics can be particularly difficult in ultra-traditional and conservative settings in villages. Bhawna Khattar talks about a unique experience where the introduction of ‘safe spaces’ helped women in a small village in Rajasthan open up about these subjects.
One night, while we sat on a small chatayi (mat) under the solar light in a narrow lane of the Dalit basti in Nosal, a village in Ajmer, Rajasthan, Tara said to me, “I don’t come here just to learn writing a few words, I come here because I feel safe to share my views and opinions without being judged. I have not had this space before!”
These words made me happy, and also provided an insight into the value of creating ‘safe spaces’ in the process of learning and development—personal, social, economic, or any other kind of development, for that matter. There are multiple perspectives on how development/progress of a country should be viewed, and one of the popular arguments has been that solutions to the problems of a community must emerge from the community itself for more sustainability. The question is—how?
The process of development through this lens has its own challenges. The first one for those of us who study development formally in colleges is to break our own stereotypes and listen – really listen – to what the community has to say. What I may identify as a problem may not be the real issue for a rural community, like the one I stayed in for the last three months. The second challenge, for me personally, was related to the first one: identifying one’s stereotypes, but being able to draw a line to prevent myself from normalising a real problem. This is where the role of these ‘safe spaces’ comes in.
They help to see beyond the tip of the iceberg to the root causes of issues through conversations and building trust in each other.
This takes me back to one of the discussions we had in a girls’ school in the village. The workshop was on menstruation, which still remains a taboo issue in our society, generally associated with shame when it is spoken about. There were three of us—two of my team-mates from the UK and I. We had together taken up the project to talk about health and hygiene issues through a series of workshops in the girls’ school.
The girls who attended the workshops were in the age group of 11-15 years, and menstruation and sexual health had been tricky topics to touch upon. In the first workshop, we tried to initiate a conversation about the differences between a male and female body. Awkward silences amongst the girls and fear remained in the classroom, but the girls did open up a little bit when we had some fun activities going on. We asked the girls by the end of the workshop how many of them felt shameful or fearful talking about their bodies, and all 26 raised their hands!
However, we held on to what worked—fun activities, and sharing our personal accounts related to the topics. By the fourth workshop, the girls had started sharing their feelings with us. They in fact asked us to create workshops around topics like child marriage, dowry, and laws concerning such issues. These topics came out of their own experiences and needs. The first step though was to build trust, and that can only happen if there is openness to share and receive on both ends.
This space helped me to gain so much knowledge, and expand my outlook through anecdotes I would not have known otherwise.
We had a similar experience in the night classes. The women in the village actually demanded these; we did not have them in mind. It all started with a meeting where Bhawri, a local, mentioned, “Yes, we can talk about health issues. But we have problems reading what is on the forms when we go to a hospital. We want to learn reading and writing first. Start with our names!” So we did—we started with their names.
Slowly, the women and girls started teaching each other—daughters teaching mothers, sisters teaching sisters, friends teaching each other. It was an incredible example of peer-to-peer learning. One of my favourite moments was when I was trying to explain poornaviraam (full-stop in Hindi, written like: “|”). Neetu, one of the girls, said, “Didi, inhe poornaviraam nahi samjhega. danda bolo danda!” (“They will not understand full stop. Explain to them saying it looks like a stick!”). They developed their own vocabulary over time to learn.
Every other night, Bhawri would come with a huge smile, already reciting what she remembered, “My name is Bhawri, yours?”
The women had their own jokes going on all the time. Eventually the classes became not only about writing their names, but about sharing their lives. It became a place where they could laugh out loud and support each other simply through conversations. Topics like government schemes and vocational training came up organically. We started this night class in a narrow lane under a solar light. Now, it is on its way to becoming a Sustainable School for Development, and grassroots organisation Manthan is supporting it. The most beautiful part still remains the peer-to-peer learning. Manthan is training two girls from the village to run the school. The school committee consists of five women from the Dalit hamlet. The organisation is designing the syllabus with the lives of those who will study there in mind, with their suggestions.
I started my volunteering journey with Pravah ICS with many questions. I may not have come back with as many answers, but I have come back with powerful experiences around trust. They have encouraged me to delve deeper, to say, “I don’t know, but let’s try to look!” One of the ways I have found for looking have been these ‘safe spaces’.
(The author firmly believes in freedom of thought and action for each individual. She envisions a learning community for rural young women and children, where they can think openly and explore their interests.)