Ki Bolche Bangla: From Pads to Paani, What Women of Purulia Want

In Purulia, a hub for SC/ST politics in Bengal, the voices that want to be heard the most are those of women.

West Bengal
7 min read

Till about a few decades ago, the district of Purulia, in West Bengal, was unknown, even to the people of the state. This changed, however, when in the late 90s and early 2000s, a Maoist insurgency and violence shook the district, which borders Jharkhand.

Since then, peace has been restored in Purulia. Maoists are no more a looming threat for the people. Over time Purulia has seen public representatives from parties across the spectrum - the Left, the Congress and the Trinamool Congress. In the 2011 West Bengal elections, the district voted with the Trinamool to oust the Left. But in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) saw leads in all nine assembly segments in the district.

With about 20 percent Scheduled Caste (SC) population, and about 19 percent Scheduled Tribe (ST) population, Purulia remains one of the most backward and under-represented districts in the state. In the upcoming Bengal elections of 2021, it has also become the laboratory for wooing SC/STs in the state. However, when The Quint visited the district, the voices that wanted to be heard the most, were those of the women.

In this episode of Ki Bolche Bangla, The Quint's special series this election, we speak to these women, who tell us about their fight for survival amidst the caste equations and the politics.

The Struggles Of a Female Chhau Artiste

Living in a kaccha house in the village of Jamban, about 20 kms from Purulia town, Aparna Mahato, leads an all-women Chhau dance troupe in the district.

Chhau is one of the many tribal dance forms popular in Purulia that lends from classical dance forms and the martial arts. The performers wear heavy costumes, the highlight of which are the elaborate masks. Due to how physically intensive the dance form is, and also due to social stigma, Chhau is still performed mostly by men. However, over the years, some women like Aparna, have broken the glass ceiling.

Aparna got married into a family where all the men were Chhau dancers. She says she had no interest in Chhau growing up but was always a sporty person. She took up dancing because in spite of her best efforts, she couldn't secure a government job.

“I saw my father-in-law, my husband and everyone else doing it. I tried it a few times and saw that I could do it too. Then I thought, if the men are doing it professionally, why couldn’t the women come forward as well?”, says Aparna.

Once Aparna started dancing, she ensured that all the women in the family, no matter what their age, join the troupe too. The Jambad Panchamukhi Female Chhau Dance Academy is now quite popular in the district. It is also where women interested in learning the craft are now trained. The troupe earns most of its keep from government shows, but small private shows also come by.

However, even though she shares the stage with men, Aparna says that every performance is way more difficult for a female artiste.

"When we go for shows, there are no changing rooms or green rooms. The men change in public, but what about us? We can't do that. There are no toilets either. We have to stay for hours without using the facilities", she says.

"Another problem is that most people who comes for our shows in the villages are drunkards. They misbehave with us, act unruly", she adds.

In the upcoming elections, therefore, Aparna has no preference for who forms government. She just wants political parties to be talking about specific problems of artistes like her.

"The masks are very heavy. It takes a lot of training and practice to dance in them, learn how to hold your breath. Not a lot of women come forward to do this. The few who are, are helping in preserving our culture", she says.

"I'm in support of whoever forms the government, but I want them to help women like us go ahead of the men", she says.


Sanitary Pads & Stigma

About 70 kilometres from Jamban, in the Manbazar block of the district, The Quint met Shatabdi Mukherjee. Shatabdi, a resident of Purulia town, has been working with young girls in the district's villages to encourage them to use sanitary napkins and also be more aware of their menstrual health.

Shatabdi and other female volunteers at their NGO, called Smile, are taking sanitary pads to villages that had never seen or heard of them before.

She introduces us to 21-year-old Sujata Tudu, who says that till the NGO came to her about a year ago, she didn't know what sanitary pads were.

"There were no shops in our village where it was sold. There still isn't. How will we use them if we don't even know about them?", said Sujata.

Shatabdi's team gives women like Sujata free sanitary pads for one month to get them into the habit of using them. Subsequently, they procure pads from the market and sell them to the women at a subsidised rate of 10 rupees per pack.

The subsidy, Shatabdi says, is important, because without it, families would be unwilling to part with the actual cost of these sanitary napkins. Her point is explained by Anita Mahato, 20, who also just started using pads.

“Firstly we didn’t have anywhere to buy pads from. Secondly, the packets start at 30 rupees a piece. Our parents were willing to give us that kind of money. Especially because just one pad packet will not suffice for one cycle. Getting them at a subsidised rate here, therefore, is vey beneficial for us”, says Anita.

Anita and the other girls The Quint met in the Domjuri village of Manbazar, used cloth during their menstrual cycle before Smile came along.

The cloth used to cause rashes and make them very uncomfortable, said the girls. Moreover, even washing the cloth and setting it out to dry in an open space, is a stigma in their villages.

Anita's friend, Sushama Mahato, points out another problem that impedes young girls in the villages from switching to pads.

"The pads are not biodegradeable. So our parents ask us where and how we'll dispose them in the village. They said people will see and that dogs will take the disposed pads here and there", says Sushama.

As per instructions from Smile, the girls now dig a hole in the ground and dispose their pads there. Shatabdi, and her team, however and looking for a permanent solution to this problem, which is one of the many she faces in her line of work.

“The easiest way to dispose the pads is to gather them and set them on fire. But the women in the village, due to the taboo around pads, feel that burning them will cause them to have stomach aches or will stop them from conceiving children”, says Shatabdi.

Fighting this and other stigma is the main pressure point in Shatabdi's work. As of now, her team has tied up with local schools where they can gather and speak to the girls as villagers don't allow them into their villages.

"They say we are spoiling the girls, doing dirty work", says Shatabdi.

"Initially we wouldn't even be allowed into schools. Women tell us that girls die if they use sanitary pads. Explaining this to the girls is a challenge. Even if we explain it to them, explaining it to their family is a challenge. After we speak to the family, other people in the village come and obstruct our work. They don’t want us to talk about it because of the taboo. This is a hidden thing. Talking about it openly is a crime", says Shatabdi.

She wants the next government to focus specifically on menstrual health and provide support to women like her who are in this line of work.

With the elections around the corner, her team has been asked by the district authorities to stop their work temporarily, lest it leads to political trouble.

"This is something that happens to women all the time - elections or no elections. So it should be something that should be talked about all the time. But I'm yet to see this in any party manifesto", says Shatabdi.


The Freedom To Step Out

Working as a volunteer with Shatabdi at Smile is 20-year-old Nibedita Mahato. Nibedita is from a village in Manbazar but is currently pursuing a diploma from a college in Purulia town.

As an upwardly mobile, young woman, who spends most of her time shuttling between the village and the town, Nibedita talks about her daily challenges.

"There are many villages here where there is no connectivity by bus. Sometimes people have to get off about 6-7 kms before their village and walk the rest. They do this even if they're carrying heavy luggage", says Nibedita.

Her freedom of movement also has other restrictions.

“There are no lamp-posts in my village. After sunset, it becomes completely dark. The elders in our family, therefore, ask us not to go out in the evening. I’m a working woman, I can’t stop working as soon as the sun sets. It’d be nice if we could get at least two lamp posts in our village”, she says.

The most acute problem in her village, however, is that of water. A problem that she says, different governments across different eras, have not been able to solve.

"We have a tap in our village now. But if we get water in the morning, we won't get water in the evening, and vice versa", says Nibedita.

"There is a tubewell, but there is again only one for the entire village. So many people are using it which is why it mostly lies defunct", she adds.


Walk For Water

As Nibedita talks about the water problems in her village, we meet some women in Domjuri who had come to fetch water there from a nearby village.

Armed with two buckets each, the women were initially hesitant to talk about their problems like most women in the village. However, they soon opened up.

"This is the only well where we can get water in the area", says Sarala Kumbhakar, pointing to a nearby well.

"It is 5 kilometres from our village. We make about 4-5 trips for water everyday", she adds. "That's about 30 kilometres of walking a day".

Ashalata Kumbhakar, who was with Sarala, says that this a problem they've been flagging to authorities for years. She also says that no one in her village has a functional toilet.

"They come during elections and tell us that they will give taps, toilets, everything. But once the vote gets over, they're nowhere to be seen", says Ashalata.

Purulia votes in the first phase of the West Bengal elections on 27 March.

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