Pravin Nikam has been working to spread menstrual awareness through his organisation, ROSHNI. After dropping out from engineering, Pravin has dedicated his time to social causes, and is now studying law.
1. What inspired you to learn, teach, and edify societies with menstrual awareness campaigns?
I had nothing to do with menstruation until 2011, when I visited a village in Assam, at the behest of my friend Tapan to look closely at the work he was doing as a school teacher for the economically disadvantaged.
Coming from Pune, it was quite an eye-opener to see that superstitions surrounding menstruation were corroding health in females. Tapan knew of my leaning towards social causes and wanted me to take a look at the gritty picture of things in this territory. One incident though, stood out; and it proved to be the proverbial turning point in my life. At a local community I met a young girl, named Roshni. She was sitting in front of a wooden machine weaving a silk sari.
She had just given up school. When I asked why she wasn’t at school, she replied, “because I am punished by God, so I don’t go to school”. Confused, I directed this question to her father. He said that she had been cursed by the Gods with menstrual periods, and hence, he barred her from school. Aghast at the reasoning and the centuries old approach, I decided such an attitude was an emergency that needed to be dealt with immediately. And thus was born ‘ROSHNI’ – as I gave up my engineering studies, with my parents’ support to do what I really wanted.
2. As your work has taken you to many parts of Maharashtra where Roshni works, what superstitions did you find the strangest in all your interactions?
Before setting up ROSHNI, I took time out of my degree to visit slums and find out what it means to have periods. I got myself trained in menstrual hygiene and started conducting activity-based workshops using theatre and science, to help these young people to “revalue menstruation as a clean and natural biological process”.
Statistics say a shocking 70% of women in India still use old rags to soak menstrual flow. And some, do not use even that. In many parts, women just sit in one place during menstruation, while using nothing to soak the flow, because many people believe they will be cursed if they use anything to stop the flow. An alarming number of women in rural areas suffer from menstrual hygiene issues. Most of these women use old rags to absorb the blood. They wash & reuse the cloth. They dry it up indoors, so as to not expose it to outer world because of the stigma and the awkwardness around this subject. A lot of times, these rags don’t even dry properly and cause infection in the urinary tract when reused. Thus, hygiene becomes a major issue in villages. Strangely enough, in some cultures, celebrations are held on the commencement of menstruation. And in the same cultures, the already menstruating women are looked down upon as impure and filthy. Ignorance and poverty are also the reason why most women resort to using sand, sawdust, leaves, and even ash to stem their periods!
Isolation is all they experience. In some families, she is treated as an untouchable during periods. And this is not just for rural India, or India for that matter! Women all around the world face stigma. In North Korea, periods are considered to be a curse by the virtue of being a woman. In Afghanistan, women are reinforced with the misconception that if they use anything to stop menstrual flow, they will become infertile. In Nepal, a woman needs to spend her menstrual period in a cow shed, in isolation. In Japan, you can’t cook certain kinds of food. Talking about menstruation makes many people uncomfortable. And that taboo has consequences: in India, three out of every 10 girls do not even know what menstruation is at the time of their first period, and restrictive customs related to periods inflict psychological damage on young girls.
3. Has being a man ever hindered your acceptability to teach at more conservative societies?
It was not easy. People made fun of me, some of my friends stopped talking to me, some people thought I mentally unstable. But this all couldn’t discourage me, as my parents always supported me.
The real problem is the kind of education we all have in our system in India where talking about sex education is really hard, and sometimes prohibited as well. Only when it is included in all educational syllabi, and spoken of openly in the public would we be able to overcome the taboo and abolish the accompanied discrimination. We will then become capable of providing sanitation requirements to all. And when we will do that, then no one will question the cycle of my birth, or your birth. Or the cycle of existence of the human race.
4. What role do you play as the Commonwealth Asia Regional Representative? Where do you believe India lies on this front?
Since engineering I was instrumental on Youth Policy and to find innovative ways to raise peoples’ voice and activism. I created meaningful livelihoods and worked to protect communities, thus I was elected for the Commonwealth Youth Council in 2015. (it is a joint council and collation of 1.2 billion young people aged 29 or under in Commonwealth member countries)
The council is endorsed by Commonwealth Heads of Government. The nine-person executive is responsible for advocating on behalf of young people on issues such as employment, equality and climate change, and encouraging youth-led action on development challenges throughout the Commonwealth. With majority support I was elected as Commonwealth Asia Regional Representative also become the first Indian to be elected as Asia Regional Representative to this Council.
In our efforts to build and strengthen the emerging youth movement for global education, and as my work is focused on providing education to the children in the slums and improving health conditions of women – including taboo subjects like menstruation and women’s right to pee, through the construction of adequate, clean toilets.
5. Can you share your experience of dropping out of engineering? How did you choose to take that step?
Six years ago, I packed my entire life into two suitcases and went to Assam. For the first time, ever in my academic career I had failed. A few weeks in, I found myself alone and depressed in my dorm room, far away from my comfort zone struggling to answer the question, “Why did this happen?” The truth is I was miserable all along. That’s when I began a journey to not only find and live my passion, but help others do the same.
I have spent the past years researching and building, interviewing and learning from people who are doing work they love and in turn, developing a method to help more of us succeed at living more meaningful lives. Five themes keep coming up to support my passion, which I follow when meeting and travelling in rural India. To encourage them to take road less travelled I am doing the following:
1) Start Small
2) Practice Your Fears
3) Make Your own Vision Board
5) Be Patient
Don’t wait till your deathbed to live the life that you want and do work you love. Start small and start now. The decisive moment came when I got the chance to go on a study tour to Assam, where, I was infinitely moved by the plight of a girl made to drop out of school by her father because she was menstruating! Four women in that family used the same cloth during their menses. All this fuelled by poverty, and a lack of awareness about health.
On my return, I dropped out of engineering and took admission in the S. P. College Pune, where I did my BA in Political Science and then went to do law at DES Navalmal Firodia Law College in Fergusson College. My parents always wanted me to study Humanities. Thus, exploring my interests and baring myself to my fears helped me comprehend the sense in dropping out, and starting a new journey in social activism.
6. What did your early days in social work teach you? and how has that changed you?
Social work has taught me a to develop a deeper practice of self-reflection, and has required me to become a life-long learner, dedicated to understanding the complexities and dynamics of interconnected world.
Also it taught that social justice and sustainability can be pillars of my everyday life. By bringing this awareness into how I live, I became a more active, engaged and passionate community member. I now have a deeper understanding of the links that hold us together and the factors that drive us apart. It made me realise that theories and practices that deal with individuals and social change. I have learned new ways of working with groups, how to navigate social systems, and a broader understanding of how power structures impact society, groups and individuals.
7. What according to you is the greatest resource?
According to me human creativity is a greatest resource.
Along with that 6 things I see as a resource the most are-
4) Inner Harmony, Peace of Mind
Every person has a good and not so good side. But you can choose what things to focus on. And if you want improvement then focusing on the good in people is a useful choice. It also makes life easier for you as your world and relationships become more pleasant and positive. And when you see the good in people it becomes easier to motivate yourself to be of service to them. By being of service to other people, by giving them value you not only make their lives better. Over time you tend to get what you give. And the people you help may feel more inclined to help other people as well. And so you, together, create an upward spiral of positive change that grows and becomes stronger.
8. What do you believe is the purpose of life?
When it comes to our search for happiness and fulfilment, we can go down many different paths. One thing that makes life more fulfilling and worth living is really connecting with the world around us.
If you consider your most precious memories they are probably with other people, when you were doing something beyond your personal satisfaction. It is those remarkable and significant moments in life, the ones that fill us with inspiration and liveliness that are truly meaningful.
One thing which makes me come ALIVE the most is the inner voice and spirituality. We are all here for a purpose and have a greater calling. This awareness can come from connecting to a deeper meaning or reality beyond yourself. When you do this it helps you become more compassionate and caring, and really connects you to others through empathy and understanding.
I think passion and purpose go hand in hand. When you discover your purpose, you will normally find it is something you’re tremendously passionate about. True passion is a wellspring of energy that drives our life, and aligns it with our ultimate purpose. For me the purpose of life is to serve the people, community and to continually grow and develop as a human being, to cultivate kindness and have gratitude to help others reach their full potential.
Watch his TEDx talk below: