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Blog from Emily Deschaine, Acting Head, Partnerships
It’s 10 am in Allahabad and the Kumbh Mela, the largest religious festival in the world, is bathed in sunlight. We’re sitting outside in a roundtable discussion on WASH and women’s empowerment, which has brought together faith leaders (male and female), development partners, civil society and even politicians. The session is faced towards the Ganges river and the sangam, the holy confluence of several rivers where pilgrims have been bathing for centuries.
This sangam, this confluence, is used as the metaphor of the day during the session. The coming together of these different sectors, perspectives, faiths and approaches to achieve the same goal: a world where women and girls have access to the information and the facilities they need to reach their full potential, without myths, restrictions or stigma.
The sangam metaphor isn’t just words. It’s quite visible in the session: a former President of Bosnia sitting next to the guru H.H. Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, draped in his orange robes. The female Sikh leader sitting next to a Muslim leader, who is across from a communications manager from UNICEF, who is next to a Serbian woman who left her life to become a Yogi. We’re sitting two seats away from the Education Minister, and next to a woman who runs a women’s NGO.
Everyone is talking openly about progress, about changing norms, about the importance of education beyond just traditional curriculum. They’re talking about toilets, the Swacch Bharat (Clean India) campaign and menstruation. They’re sharing the work they’re already doing, either focusing on training, awareness-raising, networking or advocacy…collectively reaching thousands of girls and women across the country with messages and solutions for safe hygiene and health. Confluence indeed.
“Unless a girl or woman has a toilet at their home, their school or their workplace, her rights are being violated, said Ms. Sue Coates, Deputy Executive Director at WSSCC. “Menstruation is a doorway to womanhood and should be celebrated, but it also provides an opportunity to reflect on our beliefs and norms”.
WSSCC and the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance (GIWA) have partnered to amplify this collective movement during the Summit of Grace, a women-focused conference within the Kumbh. The theme, “She is the solution”, is driving further programmes and commitments: the ashram Parmarth Niketan has pledged to run a Girls on Wheels programme dedicated to sanitation and hygiene messaging reaching thousands, and even the famous yoga guru Ramdev has called for shift in perspectives by speaking openly about these issues: “Our culture respects and reveres women. Why do you feel shy when someone calls menstruation dirty? It’s a fact of life! The excretion by both sexes is impure, then why such a bias? There can be no creation without the menstruation cycle.”
The sentiment throughout the sessions is palpable: this is only the beginning.