When we pass the regional border to Bihar in East India it seems we have done a travel to the past. The NGO driver, a project manager and myself are on the way to Buxar to visit a sanitation project, steered by Healing Fields.
This is one of the Indian parts I have not visited before. Indians from other parts of India told me that here is the highest illiteracy level, a poor infrastructure with bad street conditions, even very basic facilities are missing. Indeed, when we are in town I ask about the distance to go to the next hospital. It is about 100 km away… 100 km means by car ca. 3 hours of travel. Besides the distance the big issue for most of the people is how to finance it. Most of them simply can’t. Tourists? It seems I’m the only European in town.
In the afternoon we visit some women who run a small business unit by producing sanitary napkins. They are sitting in a small hall and prepare the cotton, fill it into a machine that makes is soft and fluffy, put it into wooden templates, press it, combine it with some other layers of material (a plastic layer and absorbing inlay), pack it, cut the ends, sterilize it. They have learned a lot. About health and sanitation, and they are educated in business: understanding market laws, order and sales processes, production cycle etc.
This activity is important as it is the way to a better future. “The income generation is still small, but the napkins we produce cost nearly the half of branded ones and we need to get local people to buy it. There is a lot of superstition and missing sales exerience… But things change: These women normally don’t find any job and stay most of their life at home. They can learn more now, also about health, and bring the knowledge back to their families,” the project manager explains. “It is essential to give them the opportunity to gain more self-confidence,” he adds. Here, in this town, the NGO activity has been started just 1,5 years ago. Not an easy start, but the women in the room are busy and engaged. There is still a lot to do. Latest at 5 pm they will leave – after 7 hours of work. Most of them need more than an hour to reach home by walk. They need to arrive before it gets dark. Two, three hours with the family they will spend their families. Then they will go to bed. Around 3.30 am the new day will start for them.
When I ask some questions, most of them just hide their faces. They observe, and follow us when we have a closer look at the single production steps, but do not reply. They are not used to be asked. This is an unusual situation. But a courageous woman, one of the first who joined this project, replies: “It has changed a lot. We have gained some money and respect. And we all want to learn much more. In a few months we want to run all by our own. At the beginning many neighbors and even family members thought this project a ridiculous idea and that we women cannot make it. Today they come and ask if there is an employment opportunity… “
More info on Bihar: It is bounded by Uttar Pradesh to its west, Nepal to the north, the northern part of West Bengal to the east, and by Jharkhand to the south. The Bihar plain is divided into two parts by the Ganges which flows from west to east. Close to 85% of the population lives in villages. Almost 58% of Biharis are below the age of 25, which is the highest proportion in India.
Almost 80% of women in India do not use sanitary napkins, mainly due to non-availability, lack of awareness and poverty.
Find out more on the NGO Healing-fields