After 20 hours of travel across seven districts of Uttarakhand, the gargantuan hills of the Himalayan foothills seem as if an ancient race of giants lie asleep under a blanket of verdant bushes and trees. A meandering teal-blue river cuts the verdant hills as if to guide the lucid dreams of these sleeping giants towards the blanche peaks of the mountains and onwards to vast blue above. In this spectacular endroit, I encountered a motley crew consisting of a 25-year-old mother of two, an elderly man, a successful business woman, and a wife of the Panchayat leader among many other characters who colored my experiences in the Kumoani region of Pithoragarh district.
Faced with the looming challenge of surveying 220 adolescent girls in two different areas –Berinag Block and Didihat Block– and ten villages total within a short time frame of 3 weeks in rural Pithoragarh, I was apprehensive about the looming challenge ahead like the peaks of Nanda Devi and her peers in the distance. The first day into the field in Pithoragarh revealed that I couldn’t possibly survey single-handedly as I had done in Uttarkashi; the sheer vastness and distance between homes in a Kumoani village meant that it would take at least three days to complete a survey of one village; here, a village spanned an entire hill from bottom to top with homes spread out from each other unlike the clustered homes of Gharwali villages in Uttarkashi.
Pressed for time in an unfamiliar location, the diverse MANSI Pithoragarh field team joined me in surveying the villages while adding joy, humor, and companionship to each of the experience. A little disheartened during Christmas, our exceptional field team went above and beyond by unexpectedly surprising me with gifts of chocolates, wild flowers, jokes, and plant instruments. Despite the diversity in age, gender, experience, and socio-economic status of the MANSI field team, I was humbled by the entire team’s willingness to listen respectfully to the instructions of a 24-year-old in conducting survey research; they allowed me to lead where proper and supported where they could. The field team helped contact the ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist), a community health worker, of each village we were to survey ahead of time and glean information about the number of adolescent girls, the scheduled date for a survey, and the availability of the ASHA to help.
Unlike the absence of my interactions with ASHAs — except off record– in Uttarkashi district, the ASHAs in Pithoragarh were not involved in the political strike and were an invaluable resource in expediting the survey in this otherwise challenging environment. On the scheduled days, our team greeted the village ASHA who became our guides into the community and created an enabling environment to survey the village girls; some ASHAs even opened their homes to host our survey. The ASHAs helped us identity and led us to the minority of adolescent girls who were school dropouts or married in each village; thereafter, she helped us compile a list of the particular village’s girls—happened to be the majority of the girls– in school by name and age.
After our rounds in the village, we made our way to the local school and approached the school principal about surveying the girls of our target village. However, surveying a community is not without challenges; due to misunderstandings about my role as MANSI’s public health researcher and the miscommunication of the field team to the schools, I found myself in awkward unprecedented situations where the schools expected me to give lectures to the adolescent girls about reproductive health. Despite my insistence that I am not qualified nor prepared to give an impromptu lecture on reproductive health and menstrual hygiene to assemblies of girls, I was compelled by principals to try anyways.
The school administration that I’ve encountered were passionate about ensuring that their girls received information on menstrual hygiene; one school principal almost refused our request for survey and demanded my authority in entering and surveying his school when I initially declined to give a lecture on reproductive health because I felt so unqualified. Finding a middle ground, I agreed to give brief talks about menstrual hygiene practices to schoolgirls after completing the survey of our target village girls—an approach that I have since used to engage with the rest of the schools in our survey.
The new position where I am now charged with instructing children about menstrual hygiene in schools is a difficult one for me. I find myself in a developmental debacle where the more talks I give on reproductive health, the more I struggle with self-censorship and external censorship in discussing sexual education in the rural communities and schools I visit. Within the Indian context, allusions to sexual education via indirect mechanisms such as marriage and motherhood have been helpful tools to communicate reproductive health to adolescent girls without ruffling feathers, but more and more, I find myself at odds with my own beliefs about perpetuating the conventional narrative of sex within the context of virginity and marriage to the young girls I meet. These interactions leave me wondering about development work in the broader sense; how can I, as an outsider or Western educated, strive to work for social progress without disrespecting or altering the indigenous culture of communities that I work in? How do you strike a balance between fostering change and maintaining the traditional culture when working with developing communities? How can I be sure that I am not perpetuating a neocolonialist mentality?
Although I haven’t discovered my answers, Pithoragarh has been crucial in a journey of self-growth in international development work. Each encounter and interaction in the Kumaoni communities from the MANSI field team to ASHAs to adolescent girls to school principals have served as a lesson in ‘give and take.’ I am becoming consciously aware that when I am surveying girls, I am ultimately taking what they have to offer – their knowledge—without giving anything in return. Although I initially saw the impromptu talks of reproductive health as daunting and burdensome, I find myself trying to reconcile that conflict by speaking about the sensitive and taboo topic of menstrual hygiene to the adolescent girls and opening the floor to any and all questions that the girls might have on the topic or me – the least I could do was make questions about myself fair game to the girls. It is also my hope that open talks can help normalize the discourse on menstruation and empower the girls to speak up.
As I leave the giant Himalayan foothills of Kumaon behind me while retracing the 20-hour drive across 7 districts of Uttarakhand back to Dehradun, I can’t help but be grateful and feel blessed for the opportunity to interact with and learn from the Kumaoni girls, the homely and affable MANSI field workers, the spectacular hospitality of the Rural Development Society —a partner NGO of MANSI, and the ASHAs. As the scarlet sun fades into the darkness behind the mountains, I bid farewell to the people who’ve been my teachers in this brief stay in Pithoragarh and hope that our paths cross one day as the charcoal sky ushers in the new year.