“It’s almost ten years since I moved from India to the US. I have seen the kind of privilege the girls and women have here in health care. It’s really amazing…. Whenever I used to go to India and my village, they used to ask, ‘You moved out there, but what will you do for your home?’ Then I used to think, ‘These people are right.’” – Maya Vishwakarma
After a decade in the United States studying chemical and biological engineering and later working as a cancer researcher, Maya Vishwakarma knew she wanted to find a way to give back to her community in India. “People have problems. Really, really hard problems,” says Vishwakarma. “With women’s issues, employment issues, health care, the education system—everything is a big issue in India, rural areas especially.” Thinking back on her own experiences and the obstacles she faced, Vishwakarma saw an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of women and girls.
Vishwakarma grew up in a rural village in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. “It was a tough childhood because you don’t have roads, you don’t have a toilet in your home, you don’t have a water supply in your home,” Vishwakarma remembers. It was also a place where women’s health issues were not readily discussed and sanitary products were unfamiliar or unavailable to most women. Most groceries wouldn’t even stock sanitary products, even if they sold other toiletries like razors or soap. For these reasons, Vishwakarma decided to focus her activist energies on menstrual health. “Menstrual hygiene is a very, very big taboo in India, especially in my area, because I came from a very remote village,” she explains. “Because preventive health is not there in India, especially clean water,” she continues, “clean toilets and those menstrual hygiene products, they are not there.”
Most women and girls in rural India use cloths during their periods, but because of persistent cultural stigmas surrounding menstruation and a lack of available information about menstrual health, it’s difficult to maintain hygienic practices with those materials. This can lead to persistent infections, including urinary tract infections and reproductive tract infections, for women in rural areas. “When they are not using pads, they have even more infections, because they are using those repetitive dirty cloths,” Vishwakarma explains. And those infections, if improperly treated, can increase the risk of more deadly diseases, like fibroids.
Not only did Vishwakarma want to help educate women and girls about preventive health care practices regarding menstruation, she also wanted to provide employment opportunities in the region where she grew up. Vishwakarma was able to pursue undergraduate and graduate education, but, she points out, “I’m the only girl from my village who came up that far.” As an alternative to seasonal agricultural work for women, Vishwakarma opened a small factory to produce sanitary pads in her home village. “If you have local manufacturing, you can involve so many girls and women,” Vishwakarma says. The advantages are trifold: women benefit from stable employment, the pads are affordable because they are locally produced rather than imported, and the pads are accessible to women in the area.
Plus, as Vishwakarma notes, “if those women are educated, aware, then they can spread this awareness to other villages.” This kind of word-of-mouth education is an important strategy for Vishwakarma in her mission. Not only has she tackled the manufacturing and distribution of sanitary products, she also orchestrated an tour of the country to teach women and girls about menstrual health, covering five thousand miles in forty-five days and speaking with upwards of twenty thousand young women across rural India. “The biggest change I’ve ever seen: there is no more taboo in those areas,” Vishwakarma says of her trip. “Women are going and talking in their neighborhoods, and they are educating other girls and their relatives…. They are more aware about their own health, and they are educating others.”
Asked about the future, Vishwakarma says she wants to continue to effect change and wouldn’t rule out a career in politics. “I believe good people, and especially the women, should be in politics,” she says. “That’s where you can change the entire system, you can make good health care, you can make a better school, you can make a better life.”
Droplet gives a huge thanks to Padwoman Maya for her advocacy and for helping so many women and girls. And for sharing her story with us!