We’re headed to Panawara, near Baitu in the Barmer district of Rajasthan. That’s a lot of words to explain a location but in the desert, tribal land means everything.
“Shall we have another chai?,” Bhanwarji grins wide as he speaks. I nodded in acquiescence. One always agrees to more chai as a guest in India; if your bladder is tapped, you make room.
We sat down at a roadside tea-stall--big vats of frothing milk swirled by chaiwallas as we called our order. I took a moment to inhale the desert scenery along with the cardamom. India is renowned for its diversity. And having traveled to many different states in the country, I can attest to the fact that Rajasthan--its people, culture, livelihood--is truly unique.
This traditionally nomadic culture is known for its elaborate dress, hardworking business ethic, animal husbandry, and food drenched in ghee. It is common for young men to find jobs in construction and travel great lengths around the country to provide for their family. Women and children are often left in the villages to manage the land as per village-leader’s best judgement. Most families own livestock and farm--an almost entirely subsistence-based lifestyle. The Marwari are very business-oriented people who set-up successful companies and organizations all over the country, but never forget their desert roots.
Compared to other tribal cultures in India, the Marwari are quite orthodox with their customs, especially involving women. Child marriage is still quite common and huge dowries involving land and gold are paid upon the exchange. Independence is not a favorable trait for females in this culture. Gender dynamics are slowly shifting in some of the higher socio-economic castes--with daughters being sent to school and university--but these changes exist in a stratified matrix of patriarchal lineage.
I exhaled, glanced at Trupti who was grinning, and began my spiel. How I came to the desert on behalf of Education for Equality International, whose mission is to empower and education young women and girls in developing nations. This project ,which EEI founder, Fonda Sanchez and I dreamt up, was aimed at making comprehensive sexuality education accessible to young women of this region.
Before the trip, Fonda and I discussed in length about how true empowerment starts with the body-- with awareness of the body, the cultural influences controlling choices regarding our body, and by creating a safe space where our bodies’ health can be discussed free from judgment and stigma.
The plan was to hold a workshop involving the same group Fonda held her ‘Brave New Girl’ program with earlier that spring--to broaden the scope with which this cohort can understand and implement feminine empowerment in their lives.
India treats sex like Victorian-era Europe. It is very taboo to speak of sex, despite the fact that India is second most populated country on Earth*, with the third largest HIV/AIDS epidemic in the world** and sky-high rates of childhood sexual abuse***. It is clear that even with the hush-hush norm, people are still having sex without correct knowledge of the possible repercussions.
Back in the car, we surfed the sand from village to village, until arriving at Bhanwarji’s residence. We were greeted by his mother, wife, and daughter--three generations of Marwari feminine power. Only his daughter spoke English, but the language of a host transcends cultural confines.
Once stuffed with roti slathered in ghee and the spiciest curried vegetables I’ve ever eaten, we were shown to our cots. As I brushed my teeth with well-water I couldn’t help but notice the stars. It seemed like the entire universe was intricately embroidered into that night-sky. After feeling adequately emblazoned with the secrets of that desert vista, I shuffled to bed, falling asleep quickly with the taste of chili still in my mouth.
I was led to a room on the second floor where the girls were seated in a circle. They smiled and whispered to each other. Trupti and I greeted them in Hindi. Bhanwarji said a few words and left us to our devices.
We spent the day holding open-ended discussions and initiating fun activities surrounding the many topics of sexual health: puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, contraception, STI’s, gender roles, sexual relationships/abuse, etc. Trupti interpreted with unfounded cultural finesse, considering there aren’t literal translations for many of these words because sex simply isn’t discussed in this culture.
It was challenging to introduce such a sensitive topic in the short amount of time allotted, but while responses were minimal, interest was certainly stirred. I had little expectation as to the baseline knowledge these young women would have, with some of them already married and certainly sexually active. What we found was quite astounding.
Most girls had a basic understanding of how pregnancy works, they were familiar with puberty and menstruation by personal experience, but they reported never hearing about it in school. When it came to contraception, only one girl reported knowing what a condom was, let alone the other methods. No one had ever seen a condom or understood how it worked. You can only imagine how they buried their faces in embarrassment when I pulled one out for a demonstration. All of the participants reported never having heard of any STI, including HIV/AIDS. All this information was new to them and many questions ensued.
As a whole I know this project was impactful for the girls. Most of the information we presented was foreign and extremely valuable given the age group. There is always room for reflection after conducting projects in a different culture. How can we make this information more culturally accessible? What are the true needs of the community that we need to focus on for next time? These are the questions I bring home to brainstorm with Fonda and the other members of EEI.
I feel so honored to have been provided the opportunity to further Fonda’s vision of young women and girls’ empowerment and education. I am beyond thankful to our host Bhanwarlal Choudhary and to Trupti who took the time to travel to the desert with me and bolster this project in every imaginable way.
The network Fonda has created in this village is very special. LKS holds great sway in the community and this partnership has the potential to spur immense change on cultural, socioeconomic, and developmental levels. I am confident that Education for Equality International has some very exciting and progressive projects on the horizon and I personally can’t wait to get back to lay under that Rajasthani night-sky.