After 20 hours of travel across seven districts of Uttarakhand, the gargantuan hills of the Himalayan foothills seem like an ancient race of giants lie asleep under a blanket of verdant bushes and trees.
It was in this spectacular vista that I encountered many characters who coloured my experiences in the Kumoani region of Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand – where I had come for a rural survey.
I was initially apprehensive about the looming challenge of surveying 220 adolescent girls in ten villages in two different areas (Berinag and Didihat Block) within three weeks in rural Pithoragarh. And the first day into the field in Pithoragarh seemed to confirm my fears since it revealed that I couldn’t possibly survey single-handedly. The sheer vastness and distance between homes meant that it would take at least three days to complete a survey of one village.
Some villages spanned an entire hill from bottom to top with homes spread out from each other.
Pressed for time in an unfamiliar location, the MANSI Pithoragarh field team joined me in surveying the villages while adding joy, humour, and companionship to each of the experience. Despite the diversity in age, gender, experience, and socio-economic status of the MANSI field team, I was humbled by the entire team’s willingness to listen respectfully to the instructions of a 24-year-old in conducting survey research.
The field team helped contact the ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist), a community health worker, of each village ahead of time and gleaned information about the number of adolescent girls, the scheduled date for a survey, and the availability of the ASHA to help.
The village ASHAs became our guides into the community and created an enabling environment to survey the village girls. Some ASHAs even opened their homes to host our survey.
However, surveying a community is not without challenges. Due to misunderstandings about my role as a Maternal and Newborn Survival Initiative (MANSI) public health researcher and miscommunication by the field team to the schools, I found that the schools expected me to give lectures to adolescent girls about reproductive health.
Despite my insistence that I was not qualified nor prepared to give impromptu lectures to assemblies of girls, I was compelled by principals to try anyway.
The school administrations that I encountered were very passionate about ensuring that their girls received information on menstrual hygiene. One school principal almost refused our request for a survey when I initially declined to give a lecture on reproductive health.
Finding a middle ground, I agreed to give brief talks about menstrual hygiene practices to schoolgirls after completing the survey of our target village girls — an approach that I continued to use to engage with the rest of the schools in our survey.
The new position of instructing children was a difficult one for me.
I found myself in a developmental debacle where the more talks I gave on reproductive health, the more I struggled with self and external censorship in discussing sexual education in the rural communities and schools I visited.
Allusions to sexual education via indirect mechanisms such as marriage and motherhood have been helpful tools to communicate reproductive health to adolescent girls without ruffling feathers.
But more and more, I find myself at odds about perpetuating the conventional narrative of sex within the context of virginity and marriage to the young girls I met. These interactions left me wondering about development work in the broader sense –
How can I, as an outsider and western-educated, strive to work for social progress without disrespecting or altering the indigenous culture of communities?
How do you strike a balance between fostering change and maintaining the traditional culture when working with developing communities?
How can I be sure that I am not perpetuating a neo-colonialist mentality?
Although I haven’t discovered my answers, Pithoragarh has been crucial in a journey of self-growth in international development work. Each encounter and interaction in the Kumaoni communities served as a lesson in ‘give and take.’
I became consciously aware that when I was surveying girls, I was ultimately taking their knowledge—without giving anything in return. But that changed. Although I initially saw the impromptu talks about reproductive health as daunting and burdensome, after the talks, I began opening the floor to any and all questions that the girls might have on the topic or me.
It was my hope that open talks could help normalize the discourse on menstruation and empower the girls to speak up.
As I left the giant Himalayan foothills of Kumaon behind me, I couldn’t help but be grateful and feel blessed for the opportunity to interact with and learn from the Kumaoni girls, the homely and affable MANSI field workers, the spectacular hospitality of the Rural Development Society — a partner NGO of MANSI, and the ASHAs.
I bid farewell to the people who’ve been my teachers in this brief stay in Pithoragarh and hoped that our paths cross once again someday.
(Written by Tsering Lhamo)
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About the author:Tsering Lhamo was born in Tibet and raised in a Tibetan Refugee school in India before immigrating to the United States. She studied international relations, focusing on environmental sustainability and global health, and minored in biology from American University.
Originally intending to pursue a medical education, her volunteer experiences abroad in the hospitals of the Philippines and India inspired her passion for global health and the political ecology of disease. Tsering Lhamo’s Fellowship is made possible by The Hans Foundation.