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Maya Vishwakarma is also called Pad-Jiji by the tribal and village girls and women she educates on the nuances of taking care during menstruation.
There are a large number of extraordinary, committed women who do stellar work to make a difference, despite the hardships involved. Among them are countless unsung heroes who do not make headlines, but quietly go about their work, bringing about the necessary transformation, one day at a time. Tomorrow, #InternationalWomensDay is a day to take stock of the progress in women’s lives.
The theme for this year is #PressforProgress. On the occasion of International Women’s Day 2018, we showcase 4 such remarkable women, one every day, doing work that has got them on-ground results.
“Thank you Pad-Jiji (Pad Sister), I don’t face that ‘severe-constant itching I used to’ after monthly periods,” says a 14-year-old from Pipariya in Madhya Pradesh who at times even had high fever post menstrual-cycle.
“My daughter would have continued to bleed due to infection, if you had not arrived in time. We never imagined someone will talk about this shamed subject,” says a 40-year-old tribal who and her daughter used to use husk to absorb menstrual blood flow.
I shudder at the second detail, since I wasn’t aware that women/girls in remote hinterlands use husk and sand (and not cloth pads as assumed), to absorb menstrual flow!
“Yes, only 24% women in Madhya Pradesh use cloth pads. Others don’t even know its meaning,” says Maya Vishwakarma who has made it her life’s mission to change these very “other lives” for better.
“Till the age of 26, I knew nothing about menstrual hygiene. My mother was too averse to talking about it. My maternal aunt taught me how to use a cloth pad but never about how to keep it hygienic. As a result, I suffered a grave infection. I didn’t want girls back in my village to suffer the same. Someone needed to be bold enough to share the knowledge; so I took this challenge,” smiles a very determined Maya Vishwakarma, who is the daughter of a blacksmith from Mehragaon Village in Madhya Pradesh’s Narsinghpur District.
As the only sister of two brothers, her education wasn’t neglected. So she studied in a village school till class 12. Later, Maya’s graduation in Biology and post graduation in Biochemistry happened at Jabalpur. In 2011, on scholarship, she moved to California USA for a cancer-research project. But, dropped out midway in 2011 since her in-laws decided not to support her education abroad. She returned to join AIIMS, New Delhi as a junior research fellow in nuclear medicine.
Maya smiles, “No regrets of leaving USA, I found my mission of life here. So it turned out to be a blessing.”
She adds,“Amid fall-in-fall-out of studies, I met Padman Arunachalam Muruganatham in early 2016 through a friend after getting to know about him through his TED talk. I saw his machines, which manufacture cotton pads only. Not many are aware that he no longer manufactures pads; rather he produces machines which can be modified for making pads. His inspiring work and words fueled my urge to change village girls’ lives. But, I wanted to make something better, so I bought a different machine and began manufacturing pads with the latest technology.”
And her effort gave birth to Sukarma Foundation in late 2016, which she established with her entire life’s savings!. Today, some 20-25 village women help her manufacture sanitary pads which she distributes for free in villages, especially tribal areas.
“Most of the population in India lives in rural area, they can’t afford even a regular meal. How will they afford a pad, even if the cost of which comes to me for Rs 20-25 per pack (against the taxable brands which cost for Rs. 60-80 per pack)? So I distribute them for free, against donation coming from some noble people. I am for a change, not profit,” asserts Maya.
You will be surprised to know that Maya’s free-of-cost sanitary napkins are made of the same SAP polymer technology (that converts liquid to gel) which is used in napkins by top brands.
So my obvious question was doesn’t she feel that PAD-WOMAN’s story deserves a film’s script too?
“I took some village women and girls to watch the movie. I don’t need publicity, the message needs farther reach. Thus, I even wrote a letter to superstar Akshay Kumar, requesting him to take his film to the remote areas, to the villages, to the grassroot level. They should have made it a compulsive view, especially for rural men who aren’t compassionate about their spouse, their daughters at all. Let alone understand, they don’t want to talk about ‘this taboo topic.’ Most of them find me a strange, shameless woman who is talking nonsense.
Women here know nothing, I have to teach them from scratch. These are the people who need to be sensitised. Any film on the topic, must reach the masses and not just the classes,” asserts Maya who is constantly on the move to reach another village while we are talking on the phone.
Her daily routine involves packing her car with films and projector, books, leaflets, calendars, etc and driving it to remote villages, schools, colleges and hostels to educate girls/women on menstrual hygiene. Her work consumes 15-18 hours of her day. But not a hint of fatigue in her voice. What keeps you going Maya?
“The smile, the satisfaction, the positive feedback of my girls. The blessings of women who have spent half their lives in pain and misery,” says a smiling Maya who suddenly starts humming “Itni Shakti Humein Dena Data, Mann Ka Vishwas Kamzor Ho Na….” meaning “O God, give me such strength that I never lose hope in life.”
“Mahima, what’s the purpose of living a life for just myself? I find my inspiration in the philanthropic works of former President of India, late Dr APJ Abdul Kalam,” says the 36-year-old and I can feel my goosebumps!
While Maya is shaking me with the ground reality, I am surfing the images at her social media timeline. One which catches the attention is this one.
Image details: A woman’s figurine painted in red on a sanitary pad
“I shared this certain picture on social media so that people shun shame about menstruation. Why should advertisements have blue instead of red liquid? Why are we ashamed of the same RED that we boast off as the colour of love on Valentine’s Day? Why are we ashamed of the very fluid, the very science, that is behind our existence? Thus, I shared the image, which I had seen somewhere. Its message is in tune with my mission,” informs Maya.
She adds that being Maya Vishwakarma or being a member of her team isn’t possible unless one “aims like warrior Arjun in the Mahabharat, whose only focus was at his target.”
Setting a landmark at such a young age, toiling long hours everyday. How do you unwind Maya, I am sure this non-stop work really drains you out?
“This isn’t work, it is a mission. But yes, whenever I get a little time, I go to relax in the jungle,” she chuckles.
‘Pad-woman’, ‘Pad-Jiji’ (Pad-sister as the village girls fondly call her), woman-on-a-mission, an icon….but who is real Maya?
She laughs,” A FREE BIRD in one word, who loves Rainbow colours.”
No wonder, even I believe that Maya is a woman with her own Rainbow, since she is adding colours of love, compassion, care, empathy and even courage to so many lives.
Another village awaits her next day; her team is calling out for dinner since it is already 10PM so she bids adieu to me, leaving behind a strong message:
“Be yourself, explore yourself. You have amazing energy – a fire within you, which simply needs ignition to brighten up others’ lives.”
And I am sure you are smiling with pride while reading this. So why not share the story of Maya Vishwakarma? Your one share might encourage so many to join Maya in her mission to make many lives better.
Images source: Maya Vishwakarma