Written by: Leah Sherrod
I walked into the small classroom at Aquatic Public School, alongside my team, Rosemary Sherrod and Stephanie Bartlett. I found my seat at a bench in the back corner. As the girls walked in for class, I took in the energy of the moment. These girls weren’t just coming to any class - they were eager to arrive. Notebooks out and pencils ready, all adoring attention was now on Sneha Purti Paul, our cooperative and instructor of “Girls’ Class” (officially recognized as Moral Science) at APS. Each student was so ready to learn, and Sneha so prepared to teach, it felt as though if there was a door of the classroom to shut, we would have done so and flipped over the “No Boys Allowed” sign - this time was totally devoted to these girls, their education, and their growth.
Understanding the cultural lack of value paid to girls in India, I couldn’t help but get excited for this moment: a small step to begin reversing all of that. The topics that compile include navigating the emotions of girlhood, self-esteem, female worth, learning their bodies, good and bad touch, anatomy of reproductive health and all things “period.” Each of them carry practical information but also far-reaching implications.
When I talked about the class with Sneha, she shared that as a young girl, she never learned about her own body. If a developmental change were to occur for her, she would think “What is happening?” But receive no answer. She remembered that when her menstrual cycle first began, it was early morning and she had stained her nightdress and the bed sheet. Her mother took her to the washroom and handed her a sanitary napkin, and that was it. She did not know what had happened, and without understanding, she resolved that she had been cursed. Sneha wondered if someday the doctors could fix her so that she could go and play again, like normal. As time went on, she wondered thoughts like, “Why does this come to me every month?” “Why do I stain my dress every time that I play?” “Why does this not happen to my friends that are boys?” And, “why do I have to go home from school when this comes to me?”
Sneha reflected that myth informed much of what girls understood about their periods. Girls would warn each other that they shouldn’t wash their hair with shampoo during the time of their monthly cycle lest their menstrual cramps be worsened. They believed that they shouldn’t have pickles when they were on their period, or if they touched anything inside the temples/churches or even their own homes that it would make that thing unholy. Growing up, Sneha did not know which of these beliefs were true or not, but she abided by all of them because she did not want to make it worse for herself.
When I asked her when she found a more accurate understanding of the female body and women’s issues, she said that it was the childbirth education class taught by Tara Garner and Heather Munoz that helped her overcome longstanding fears in her own life. “Previously, I had been so scared of pregnancy and childbirth, but after receiving that education, I felt the need to empower girls to know their own bodies, because when I was young I had been terrified of my own body. It came all the way up until I was married, and was even still scared, because you do not just automatically learn these things. It shouldn’t be like that. I want these girls to know and love their own bodies, to know the facts, and to know that they are created by Someone who loves them. Many of these young girls will be getting married soon, and I want them to be prepared and know the right information. I believe that God has prepared me for this role in their lives and this work.”
Sneha’s hope is that the girls she’s instructing now will not have to wonder about their periods, and that they would have an appropriate venue to openly discuss all of the issues that they face. She wants them to feel the confidence of having no bad questions, but rather a listening and informed ear to help them process their concerns. Because of this class, “These girls know why they are having their periods, and they know that they do not have to be scared of all of the changes that they are going through in adolescence. All of the changes are natural, both physical and emotional, and I want to support them in that. They should not be scared of it.”
Sneha’s hopes are coming to fruition. With each class period that she invests into the girls, friendships are being formed and their confidence as young women is growing. Sneha has felt a change in the level of trust that the girls have with both her and one another, as they’re coming to her with new questions, admissions, and realizations about themselves. One of the older girls in her class approached her at a school carnival and let her know that she had just started her period for the first time ever, but she had already taken care of it in the washroom with the help of a friend, and she was not scared or embarrassed about it. She was able to stay at school for the remainder of the day instead of going home early, and when the menstrual cramps came, she remembered how Sneha had taught her to relieve the pain by drinking some comforting hot tea, not skipping any meals, and applying a water bottle filled with warm water to her abdomen.
When this girl talked to her mother about getting her period, her mom affirmed that it was good that she was in Girls’ Class at APS, as no one else would have taught her these things. For Sneha, this story was everything. This young girl’s experience had been positively impacted by what Sneha was able to invest into her, she wasn’t afraid, and even her relationship with her own mother had benefitted from the freedom that she was able to experience in discussing her period. It’s this topic and others like it that Sneha hopes to bring to the surface of discussion for these girls, with more stories of similar freedom on the other side of it.
The change isn’t just happening for the girls inside Sneha’s classroom, but also for their mothers, friends, sisters, aunties, and even future sons and daughters. Bringing otherwise taboo female issues into conversation in India is no small thing, and the echoes will be generational as more girls and women are able to dispel the fears associated with their bodies and experiences as females. I loved the mornings that I spent sitting at the bench in the back of Sneha’s classroom. The atmosphere was vibrant, with all of the chatter bearing evidence of the mouths being opened by such an empowering education. Likewise, the smiles on the girls’ faces attested to the friendships being formed among them in the process. I’m convinced that a piece of my heart will always remain on that back bench of the APS classroom, watching girls being taught to see themselves as worthy of understanding.