Five La Trobe University Bendigo students are set to change the lives of 50 women living in a remote Indian village.
The students have just returned from a study tour with La Trobe and CERES Global, looking at social, educational, environmental and gender issues in rural tribal villages.
Social work students Lauren Drechsler and Jaryd Stobaus said in the rural town of Pal they found women face many barriers to menstrual management, which leads to poor health, shame, disruption to education and work, and even death.
“We were hearing about people using sand, straw and old rags to try and manage their period– rags you wouldn’t even clean with. There had been recent deaths in the area due to unsafe procedures,” Lauren said.
She said the deaths were caused by infections from dirty rags. “Should they be lucky enough to have rags to use they’re washed poorly and stored wet and out of sight. When they’re reused they’re infected with bacteria.”
Jaryd said the issue stemmed from systemic gendered inequities, perpetuated by stigma and economic hardships.
He said a group discussion on the issue among the 25 education, outdoor education and social work students on the trip resulted in a possible solution that’s now in full swing.
Outdoor Education students Natalie O’Brien and Riaz Vickers reflected on the effectiveness of menstrual management underwear, shared this concept with the entire group and with that the ‘I am Woman India Project’ was born.
The project aims to supply women in four self-help groups in rural villages around Pal with Australian-made period-proof underwear.
“Three months after they receive their underwear we will conduct qualitative research on the efficacy of the project and use this data to determine how to support young girls boarding in high schools in Pal,” Jaryd said.
“Always at the front of our mind is community empowerment and ownership. This enables communities to share, develop and analyse their own knowledge of life and in this case will help them make informed decisions regarding the next step of the project. In following the community’s lead we hope to send a second distribution of underwear and initiate an education campaign around menstrual hygiene.”
The group shared its vision with a village elder and academic, Snehlata, who had been searching her entire career for a practice that was environmentally sustainable, affordable and offered the freedom for women to continue at school or working in the fields.
“Within 24 hours we held our first meeting with members of women’s self-help groups from all over the local region,” Lauren said.
“They all gave us their names and sizes on the spot in the hope we would send them the products and we promised we would. We looked into these women’s faces and we promised them.”
The project has begun with a Go Fund Me campaign to raise $4,500 by the end of January, which will supply 50 women with underwear. Lauren, Jaryd and their fellow students Natalie Dillon, Natalie O’Brien and Riaz Vickers, under the guidance of Bendigo social worker Annie Townsend, hope it will be the beginning of something much bigger.
“Our idea is next year’s students who take this study tour can develop it,” Jaryd said. “While we’re pioneering the project, we hope it will continue to evolve with the ongoing funding by the New Columbo Plan NCP and sponsorship from CERES Global.
“The most exciting thing for us is that we’re doing social work, it’s not just abstract theory anymore.”
Go to the Go Fund Me page to donate.