Preeti Bhandari and Tara Leanne Hall are ICS (International Citizen Service) volunteers with Restless Development in Nepal. Here they share their experiences volunteering on the programme, and how they supported local women with their sexual health.
As ICS volunteers we – Preeti Bhandari from Nepal and Tara Leanne Hall from the UK – live in the rural community of Khurkot in the Sindhuli district of Nepal. Working through the UK Aid and DFID funded program, we aim to tackle some of the issues the country is facing. Working as international and national counterparts has been a brilliant opportunity to break down barriers between cultures and learn how to solve issues from different perspectives.
We volunteer with an organization called Restless Development, a youth led project which, in Sindhuli district Central Nepal, is aiming to strengthen the livelihoods of the local young people. Whilst in the district Restless Development also work in collaboration with YSP Nepal, a local NGO.
Living in the rural community of Khurkot has allowed us to interact with local people and engage with some of the problems they face. An issue we found was not only the lack of female health knowledge the women of the villages had, but also the amount of undiagnosed or untreated illnesses they suffered from.
Our first step to tackle this was to fully understand their needs. A survey was conducted over a number of local villages, seeking to learn more about the health issues women face as well as their knowledge on some basic areas of female health. The results were not surprising. Many women lacked basic information on subjects such as reproductive health and menstrual hygiene. Many women had also been suffering from illnesses for long periods of time.
Action needed to be taken. As Team Leaders at Restless Development we were given the opportunity to conduct our own project. We wanted to help the women in these communities as much as possible, so we set up a meeting with Dr Rajan of Shubha Jeewan Hospital in Khurkot. As he is a female health specialist, we were hoping to gather more information on the topics the women were most worried about.
By the end of the meeting, a Women’s Health Day over three local villages had been confirmed. These health days would include a free check-up, a seminar on women’s health and the sanitary product MoonCup, as well as referrals to the final health day in Khurkot, where ultrasounds would be free of charge and many other services discounted. We were overjoyed and eager to start planning.
One of Restless Development’s goals is personal development, and we believed this project was a great platform for many of our volunteers to develop various skills. As medical students back in the UK, Sebastian Stedman and Adelaide Price showed great interest in being involved any way they could. Their role was to perform basic check-ups and collect medical history from the patients. Their efforts helped Dr Rajan tremendously throughout the days and allowed even more women the opportunity for a free check-up.
“The day was very good practice for us to think on our feet and also work through a translator,” says Adelaide Price. These translators were fellow Nepali volunteers, the project’s aim was to help local women of the communities whilst also creating new challenges for Restless Development’s Volunteers.
Over the three days, firstly at Gwaltar, followed by Ghumaune Chainpur and finishing at Khurkot, we provided a check-up service to 184 women, the youngest being 17 years old and the oldest 90.
“Some had been suffering for years.We saw a lot of women who would not have come if the service wasn’t free,” says Adelaide Price. “It shows that there needs to be more awareness of how illnesses can worsen if not treated. I feel women are too focused on folklore remedies to seek proper medical advice. Although, I understand this is embedded in tradition, it is impacting the wellbeing and livelihoods of these women.”
The three days were a great success and the seminars which were conducted were attended by many women, who now have much needed information on UTI’s, breast cancer and reproductive health.
“The information given during the seminar was very helpful. Although, many of the local women suffer from joint pain and it would have been good to get some advice on how to treat it,” suggests Bhagbati Karki. “Seeing as mainly women labour in the fields, this is a big problem. However, we were shown how to check our breasts for symptoms of breast cancer, something I will be doing regularly from now on.”
Another subject we wanted to tackle was menstrual hygiene. Many health problems can be linked to simply having poor hygiene and are therefore avoidable. During this talk we decided to introduce the MoonCup.
Mainly available in western countries, the MoonCup is a reusable, washable, easy to use sanitary cup made out of silicone. Their popularity in the UK and other countries is rapidly increasing due to their simplicity. Not only will these cups improve hygiene, they are very comfortable, making labor heavy work easier and are a financially friendly alternative to buying sanitary towels.
Access to alternative sanitary products is difficult in these rural Nepali villages. Sanitary towels can be an expensive method, and in an environment where field work is in the daily routine, it is not a very comfortable one, as changing the sanitary towel needs to happen regularly.
The traditional cloth is also used here. It may be a cheaper option, however, not only does it bring with it the same drawbacks as the towels, the women’s reluctance to drying outside means the cloth can still harbour harmful bacteria. This can lead to further avoidable health issues such as UTIs and infections.
To offer the women another option of sanitary product, a project off the back of the Women’s Health Days is a collaborative Action At Home between the UK and Nepal. The project aims to create links with MoonCup providers and also fundraise to provide the sanitary cups to the women of the villages that sign up to the programme. During the seminars over 50 women gave their names, a figure which will rise as we reach out to more communities.
“This is the first collaborative health camp we have done, and we are very happy that it was with Restless Development and YSP Nepal, as together we have similar goals to help the community through education and practical help,” Dr Rajan states. “Working with medical students was a pleasure. They collected much needed medical background, which made the check-ups very efficient. I believe the days had a positive impact on the whole community, not only creating a safe space to talk about female health issues, but also identifying diseases which would have gone undetected.”
We are very happy with what we have achieved as a team and appreciate the efforts of all who took part in making the Women’s Health Days a success. However, there are still many issues to be tackled revolving around female health in these communities. The strongly embedded taboos, lack of health education and understanding of health procedures and financial struggles contribute to challenges these women face. There needs to be a nationwide movement in how female health and issues are spoken about, only then can women take full control over their health.
Preeti and Tara have set up a fundraising project called Wisecup, which aims to provide the women who attended the health days with sanitary cups. You can find out more and support their project here.