The Amba Foundation, in its own words, focuses on education, skill-training, health and community-development of underprivileged women and children. It is an organisation hidden in the markets near a village called Mandawali. I say “hidden” because we got lost twice. It was in one of those infamous locations where Google Maps would allege that there was, in fact, a path through a wall and following said path would lead us to our destination. We fell in the same traps as the last time we had come here, so experience had not taught us much.
Their field office is on the second floor of a dusty building. However, this time, we were escorted to another building, further down the street. In typical Delhi fashion, it was adorned wires, uneven sidewalks, and red spots in odd spaces. However, we passed a mosque that appeared discordant in the busy market. Newly white-washed, the Masjid Fazle Ilahi’s deep green tiles glittered in the sun. While the passers-by were used to seeing it, it certainly turned our heads.
We arrived at a double-storied building, the first floor of which was occupied by young women herding the twenty odd girls who we were to talk to. We were soon welcomed into the room to find them seated on their desks and waiting patiently. Due to the lack of space, we were not able to sit in the circle setup we are comfortable with. We had a whiteboard behind us and we appeared as teachers to them. When we were greeted with a “ma’am”, we quickly denied the title.
Through our previous talks, we had learned the importance of “small talk” or establishing rapport with the girls. This time, it was especially necessary, given how much they looked at us as teachers. We also realised that we weren’t the only “teachers” in the room – a few young women from our earlier encounter flanked the walls at the back of the room.
While introducing the concept of puberty, we noticed these girls were generally more responsive compared to earlier groups we have spoken to. A few spoke about periods without hesitation – perhaps, they had learnt about it as a part of their school’s curriculum. However, many were reluctant to speak. When Ritika showed them a pad, some began to whisper and giggle. With each member holding the pad, we tried to explain to them that pads were. Even after these efforts, we could tell there remained some hostility towards the pad.
After pointing at our diagram of the female reproductive system, we looked up at our now silent audience. Ritika is infamous in our team for her untimely jokes with obscure references, and so her attempt to lighten the mood was met with slight confusion. I remember seeing Ritika peering expectedly at the girls, waiting for a laugh. She returned our gaze with mild embarrassment. Looking back, I realise it was so characteristic of Ritika’s interactions with people in general. At the time, of course, it caught us unawares. Flustered, we brought the conversation back to biology and segued into talking about taboos.
The taboos’ section is often approached with precaution because it can be odd having strangers dispute your cultural knowledge and address the silence around topics you didn’t know existed. To our surprise, it was much easier this time. This was because Pranavi suddenly realised using a role model would help them overcome their discomfort with menstruation. She reminded the group that our beloved Bollywood actresses like Alia Bhatt and Priyanka Chopra also advocated the need for conversation about periods. They were shameless and proud, qualities that allow people to be heard. Hearing the familiar names did eventually lighten the mood. They know these women, they’ve seen them on television and newspaper adverts. The game of ‘Chinese Whispers’ that we play to demonstrate how a story changes through generations was met with more excitement than usual. Perhaps having a large crowd for one session has its advantages.
Having concluded our talk, the teachers gave us feedback (for the first time, as far as I recall). They recommended that we shorten our biology section putting a greater focus taboos. We greatly appreciated their suggestions and even discussed future collaborations with them. If you have some suggestions too, we’d love to hear from you!
Jhanvi from the REDefine Team