Aishwarya Rani Singh recently got her moment of fame when she got enlisted in Forbes 30 under 30 for her work with Putali Nepal. “My phone was buzzing with notifications. But, it settled in late for me, as I was not expecting it. Somebody else had nominated me so it was pretty unexpected. The credit goes to the whole team.”
But, as someone who achieved great success, Singh says it is just the tip of the iceberg. “Success is surely a stepping stone, but no one sees the journey of the struggles behind it. Any academic or other accolades are my way to grow. It keeps me grounded and more humble. Yet there is more to do.”
She says, rather than being more goal-oriented, she is dedicated to her cause and creating an impact. And, that is exactly what she is attempting with Putali Nepal by educating children and adults about the menstrual hygiene management issues.
Putali Nepal is an initiative started in 2015 by Linda Kühne and Anne Kukuczka after they saw the need for menstrual hygiene management efforts. But, Aishwarya Rani Singh only got involved when the duo approached her to be a local leader for the project. Singh, at that time, was the board president for Women Lead Nepal.
Her first involvement was very short.
In 2019, the duo again wanted to hand over the entity to someone local. For that, Singh was reached out again, and then Singh finally registered Putali Nepal as a social enterprise. “Our objective is to create dialogues about inclusive sexual reproductive health. It is not just about women, or vagina or menstrual time, we need to come out, be blunt and talk about this realistically and include men in it too.”
Talking further, she says, the initiative was important because it is only through education that the society’s wrong practices can be corrected. But, outsiders intercepting and going to society to tell them what is wrong or right would not have worked.
“For example, in Nagarkot, there was a menstruating girl who wanted to step into the temple, which according to our society is wrong. But, we know it is okay for that girl to enter the temple. However, for us being an outsider and advocating that it is alright for her to enter the temple is not easy for us due to deeply rooted customs related to menstruation. It is rather sensitive and hard to intercept. For the society to accept it, we need to educate the locals to bring change in the age-old customs that discriminate against some people.”
She further shares her observation that many mothers are still rather unaware of their children nearing menstruation age. And, not just outside Kathmandu, but the city was equally in a dire state when it comes to sanitation, and access to public toilets, which were neither women- nor menstrual hygiene-friendly.
Also, in Kathmandu, there are modern chhaupadi practices going on where women are still isolated. There are many organisations working with handsome donations, but it is not used where necessary.
It requires a team-based effort and a lot of research to make a difference. Putali Nepal focuses on research for the same.
Changes have been seen in the last three to four generations, and chhaupadi huts have been destroyed. But, the impact on women’s lives is not focused on or even discussed. Singh says, “The change is not there in terms of mindset and giving women access to safety, access to menstrual hygiene products and education on nutritious foods.”
So, Putali Nepal has created a “butterfly model”, in which it would go into the community with children as a priority. In the process, it focuses on educating children of all sexes as well as their parents. With various programmes, the model makes them curious and educates them with interactive tools that are scientifically appropriate.
“In the name of patriarchy, so many injustices have been practised and excuses are being made. The men in power are not aware or concerned about it,” Singh says, “When it comes to menstrual hygiene, life-threatening issues are not highlighted whereas menstrual leave is being glorified.
But, the leave is not a new practice as keeping women separate is to give them rest and it should not be used for corporate hype, she adds.
In 2014, menstrupedia was introduced in India. The informational comic also made its way to Nepal with the help of Putali Nepal and has been a guide for many young girls and boys along with their family and friends to hold healthy discussions around puberty, menstruation, hormones and coping strategies to deal with changes in emotions.
When you hit puberty, your body starts to change. There are many questions you want to ask, but either you cannot muster up the courage or you are asked to shut up. So, where can the curious and confused adolescent girls and boys, who are dealing with all new information and emotions, get their answers?
Addressing the queries too, Putali Nepal is going to different schools, to reach out to the children with the comic book in hand. It is currently working in Chitwan, Bhaktapur and Sindhupalchok as well as a part of Kathmandu.
Menstrual cups today are the talk of the town with many young girls choosing to make the sustainable choice. Putali Nepal was probably the first to introduce menstrual cups in Nepal. “Many are today working in the field, but it is about creating synergy and adding value within the network.”
But, with menstrual cups and comic books as its USPs, Putali Nepal started creating impacts. And, one of the biggest achievements, Singh says, is seeing grandmothers getting involved with their grandchildren.
What next for Putali Nepal?
Singh says Putali Nepal does not have a specific plan for the future, but as a social enterprise, it is still struggling to get out of the guidelines and bureaucratic hassles.
Regardless though, she is busy producing the local curriculum for students and is at its last stage. Meanwhile, the organisation aims to do more workshops with schools in Kathmandu. “To bring about change in the community, translating the terms in Nepali will not be enough nor will the bulky reports.”
Singh, as a student of development studies, is not satisfied with just the one-time pad distribution. “That is why I am still working on building an ecosystem for the distribution.”
But, with her eye still on her cause, Singh says she will hand over the leadership if need be or if the time demands and continue to create impact with a different project.
Meanwhile, she adds, “To all the mothers, I would like to say, please bleed without shame and ask your daughters to do the same. At the same time, educate your sons; be there for them. As a society, we need to go beyond the sex, caste and social system and all the pseudo discriminations we have created, and treat people with respect regardless of the class and gender.”