Over the winter break, students from the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Students for Global Health (SGH) organization embarked on a 14-hour flight out of Boston Logan Airport that culminated in an 18-day stay in Nepal that was dedicated to learning about women empowerment and menstrual health.
Two things were immediately apparent when they got off the plane: the warmer weather — it was 70 degrees when they stopped for their layover in Qatar, though it was mostly in the 50’s and 60’s in Nepal — and the difference in culture.
“When we first got off the plane, it was just overwhelming,” senior occupational therapy major Sarah Lyon said. “There were people everywhere. Seeing how many people were around and in the streets and how close the buildings were was the first thing I noticed. I think, especially in Durham, New Hampshire, we tend to be spread out. Just the amount of people and the state of the roads — lots of dirt roads, a little bumpy. Telephone wires are going everywhere. There were buildings everywhere. There were stray dogs running around under foot. There were monkeys, those were not my favorite part. They were scary. It was definitely overwhelming. But it was nice, we got comfortable with it. ”
The trip was funded by a grant for organizations on campus to work on an outreach project aboard. Students for Global Health were given assistance from connections in the nursing program, which put them in touch with Geeta Pfau, a global health consultant and author who worked closely alongside the organization to arrange the itinerary.
The students were introduced to many different organizations around Nepal. One of the bigger organizations they met with was Days For Girls Nepal, an Australian-based organization that focuses on not just on menstrual health and providing reusable pads, but also women’s self-defense, while also educating men on how they can get involved in women’s health.
The Students for Global Health visited schools, watching students learn how to refer to menstruation in constructive ways by changing vocabulary, such as from ‘bad blood’ to ‘good blood.’ In the free time between trips, some students, such as Brianna McGrath and Laura Hohenstein, took to practicing making reusable pads.
One of the most memorable day trips the organization went on was a trip to a rural village that took six hours to get there. They were split into two Land Rovers, requiring a more sturdy vehicle than the van they would pile into back in the city, and driven through narrow muddy paths through the mountains.
“We had these awesome drivers that just wouldn’t say anything,” said Lyon. “They would get out of the car and look at the road and we’d be like no, we can’t do it. We can’t go on that road. He’d just nod his head, get back in the car and somehow do it. There’s no seatbelts in the car, there’s just grab-bars, so I held on for dear life. I was laughing out of fear and excitement the whole time.”
The rough nature of the terrain led to a delay in plans, but the organization adapted, forgoing what had been their final destination to a school at the top of the mountain.
“It was a more impactful day for a lot of us because it gave us perspective on how hard it is to access a lot of the rural areas of the country for health care and education,” McGrath, a senior nursing major, said.
The biggest thing the organization got out of the trip? Connections. It had been one of the Students for Global Health’s long-standing goals to create a relationship with a community aboard.
“One of the things that struck all of us, as an organization, when we first landed that people were so welcoming and willing to work alongside us,” McGrath said. “We didn’t want to feed into the volun-tourism model, where you go for a week and then you leave. We wanted to have a more sustainable connection.”
One of the factors for the connections was the proximity of their lodging. Instead of staying at a hotel, they were staying in a two apartment housing unit, just above Pfau in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital.
“It helped a lot to live in that local area,” Lyon said. “But everyone we met through those local organizations or just Geeta knew a lot of the neighbors in the area and we had a woman who lived on the property with two little kids. We taught them American games and we played cards with them. We taught them dances. They asked for an American tradition dance and we did the Cotton Eye Joe because we just didn’t know what else to do. They asked for an American song and we taught them Baby Shark at a school, because what else does every American know?”
This closeness also gave another memorable moment for a few members, allowing a deeper conversation than someone who wasn’t in the community could achieve.
“We were interviewing a woman who was a house manager,” Hohenstein, a senior nutrition major, said. “We were interviewing her about her experience with her menstrual rituals and her caste system and like previously, it’d be very difficult for a woman to move up and have different jobs. I asked her what her biggest goal for her daughter, who was five and she said it was for her to become an OBGYN. So, getting her more involved in menstruation health and hearing her say, it’s okay to want something different was really cool.”
SGH left Nepal on Jan. 16 with Instagram follows from some of their friends within the organizations they worked alongside and the hope of continued relationships within these organizations. Future plans include applying once more to grants to fund another trip to Nepal to work alongside the community for a different goal.
“This was like a dream for us to go, to be able to get a grant to go abroad and make these connections and now we have friends in Nepal,” Hohenstein said. “We have all these different organizations that have said they’d be willing to work with us in the future. We were very involved the entire time we were there. I think sometimes it’s nice to see a project like this through and see it happen.”