Until a year ago, Rajkumari Nimbale was seated on this side of the classroom. She took down notes, raised pointed questions, fought her examination fears, and engaged in mischief as her professor turned his back on the class.
Cut to the present, and the tables have turned.
The blackboard has replaced the notebook; and chalk, her pen. She steers discussions and speaks eloquently as Class 7 and Class 8 students of Sewri Cross Road English Medium School located in central Mumbai listen to her with rapt attention. Rajkumari is a PUKAR alumnus, who has been affiliated with the organization since April 2012. She is currently facilitating discussions on sexual health, violence and menstruation in classrooms as a part of PUKAR’s ‘Journey Towards Dignity’ programme.
She began her journey as a Youth Fellow, undertaking research on a tribal community settled in the outskirts of Mumbai City. Her enthusiasm and passion for research and to social sciences drew her towards pursuing another study on the various facets and practices of masculinity. It was this study that enabled her to identify with PUKAR’s guiding principle, ‘research as a means of advocacy’.
“It was for the first time that I began understanding ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as a sociological concept, and not merely as biological species,” says 23-year-old Rajkumari, who holds a masters degree in endocrinology. She flaunts her self-assured smile when she mentions that she is only the fifth individual from her village in Solapur to have completed masters. “Among the women, I am the first generation learner,” she adds.
For Rajkumari, her study on masculinity opened new avenues and developed her understanding of gender beyond the binaries. Through interactions with the group of young women from Mumbra studying menstrual taboos and hygiene concerns, she became more invested in the various practices of gender. At the end of the year-long fellowship programme in 2014-15, Rajkumari began undergoing rigorous training at the PUKAR office in gender practices by focusing on sexual health, violence and menstruation.
“While addressing teenagers, one cannot speak about sexual health and hygiene in a fully serious manner. There has to be a mix of interactive games, discussions and audio-visual elements,” says Rajkumari, who was guided by another PUKAR alumnus Jayashri. “When it is interactive and fun, the girls begin to talk and share their everyday experiences of abuse, exclusion and habits,” she adds.
In Rajkumari’s case, this transformation from fellow to facilitator brings with it a new set of learning and understanding. “During our introductory class, we had asked the students from the Sewri School to draw any natural object or being, which best described their personality and identity,” recounts Rajkumari. “I was very surprised to see how children drew butterflies, mountains and trees, and shared their reasons.”
With a topic that is often perceived as “sensitive” and “controversial”, Rajkumari has been combating myriad hurdles to make young girls to start conversing about menstruation. “Menstrual taboos are an outcome of cultural and societal norms. There is no scientific rationale,” says Rajkumari. “It becomes all the more important to emphasize on the need to combat these long-accepted myths and practice hygiene during the period,” she adds.
The struggle to overcome myths and age-old customs is no stranger to Rajkumari. “My grandfather had insisted that I be married at the age of 12 years. There was a lot of pressure,” she rues.
Had it not been for the support from her parents, Rajkumari, in all likelihood, would have never made it to either side of the classroom.