The diary of a village 'butterfly'

Krishna Devi at her kiosk in Uttar Pradesh WaterAid/Dhiraj Singh

Resplendent in a bright green sari, lots of silver rings, toe rings and pretty anklets, Krishna Devi sits in her small wooden kiosk outside her house in Lalpur village, (Mohanlalganj block in Lucknow). Jars of rusks and candies are neatly placed in clear view, while pouches of pan masala and tobacco hang overhead. A boy comes up to her to buy rusks, while a young girl shyly waits till he leaves before whispering for a packet of ‘pads’, sanitary napkins. “Don’t be shy!” Krishna Devi admonishes her gently. “Every woman gets periods – it’s time we stopped being embarrassed about them!”

Krishna Devi counsels girls and women in the village to use hygienic menstrual products.
WaterAid/Dhiraj Singh
Krishna Devi counsels girls and women in the village to use hygienic menstrual products.

Krishna Devi is a ‘Titli’ (butterfly), a designated distributor of information as well as sanitary pads to the women of her community. Even today, sanitary napkins aren’t easily available in the village and women often find it difficult to make the trek to the market on the main road to buy them. Having a member of their own community stock sanitary napkins is very convenient. “They also feel comfortable coming to me as I’m one of them and not an outsider,” she says.

She takes her duties very seriously. Much of her work involves going door-to-door talking to women in her community about safe practices during menstruation. “In our culture, periods are seen as `dirty’,” she says. “My job is to break not only that myth, but also the silence around them.” It is this silence, she says, that causes so many women to live in ignorance and embarrassment. “This silence is also the root cause of so many of women’s health problems like white discharge, fungal infections and worse…” she says. Often, Krishna Devi comes across women who tell her that they cannot afford to buy sanitary napkins. “I teach them how to effectively clean and disinfect cotton strips with Dettol before using them,” she says. “Also, I teach them that it is important for the strips to dry in the open sun, for that destroys bacteria and fungus.”

Menstrual hygiene booklets are given to women and girls in the village for greater awareness and reach.
WaterAid/Dhiraj Singh
Menstrual hygiene booklets are given to women and girls in the village for greater awareness and reach.

Additionally, Krishna Devi also instructs the local community to make simple sanitary waste incinerators at home. These incinerators are not the ideal way of disposing sanitary waste, but in rural areas people have adopted this practice to deal with the huge amount of waste. “All you need to do is make a clay pot with lots of holes for ventilation and a lid,” she says. “Used sanitary waste can be thrown into it along with some neem leaves and safely incinerated.” She still remembers the ignominy of skulking in the fields, waiting for an opportune moment to dispose of used pads. “Often, stray dogs would pick them up and bring them right back to our doorsteps,” she recalls. “I can never forget the shame of it…” The incinerators are a cleaner, more discreet option, and the best thing is that the clay needed to make them is freely available from the village pond.

Krishna Devi and other women from the community spread neem leaves in waste collection bins.
WaterAid/Dhiraj Singh
Krishna Devi and other women from the community spread neem leaves in waste collection bins.

Every couple of days, Krishna Devi receives her supply of sanitary napkins from a local chemist. “When I explained what I do to him, he was so impressed that he agreed to give me a discount of Rs two on every packet I buy,” she says. “So I keep that as my profit!” Recently, having saved much of what she has earned from her shop and from selling sanitary napkins, she treated herself to a pair of gorgeous anklets. “My husband, a farmer, likes to see me dressed nicely,” she says. They have only one daughter, who is married and lives in another village. “Ever since she has gone, we hardly have any expenses,” she says, proudly showing her ornaments. “I love to buy bangles, rings and toe rings whenever I have some extra cash…”

However, Krishna Devi avers that she doesn’t do all this for money. “Helping all these young women in the community makes me get through the times when I miss my daughter,” she says. Last year, she was one of the 15000 women Swachh Bharat champions who were invited to Lucknow on International Women’s Day. Here, she was one of the awardees of the Swachh Shakti 2018 prize. As she proudly pulls out the award and citation for everyone to see, she rues the fact that she had to drop out of school when she was in Class five. “Who knows? Perhaps I’d have achieved even more if I’d studied further…” she says. As of now, it’s the respect she receives in her community that compels her to keep going. “My work as the village `Titli’ has given me a certain standing in the community – something I couldn’t have dreamed of earlier,” she smiles. “And I won’t rest until every girl and woman in my village is able to have safe and healthy periods!”