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College of Medicine student works to improve hygiene of women and girls in Nepal

Aditi Sharma, a student in the doctor of public health program at Penn State College of Medicine, wants to enhance the quality of life for women and girls living in Nepal through a program that improves feminine hygiene.

A member of the Young Leaders Fellowship Program for the global advocacy group Women Deliver, Sharma was awarded a seed grant from Johnson & Johnson. Sharma developed an educational program for underserved populations living near Surkhet, Nepal, through a non-governmental organization that she co-founded called Kalyani. The program teaches women and girls the importance of feminine hygiene and aims to improve access to sanitary products and shed stigmas about menstruation.

“The aim of our project is not only to promote proper menstrual health and hygiene among women in Far- and Mid-west Nepal, but also to restore the dignity they have been denied for so long,” she said.

Funding for the project ended in February 2018, but Sharma is in the process of applying for additional grants from Penn State and hopes to resume the project this summer. She will continue to focus on dismantling Chhaupadi, a common practice in parts of Nepal that isolates women and girls who are menstruating and forces them to live in sheds or huts because they are considered “impure” during that time.

“Aditi’s advocacy project on feminine hygiene was especially intriguing to support, given the current political landscape in Nepal,” said Tamara Windau-Melmer, youth engagement senior manager for Women Deliver. “With the government restructure and a new criminal code that Nepal recently passed making Chhaupadi a punishable act, the timing was right to spur local action and hold local government accountable for policies around girls’ and women’s health and rights.”

Sharma reached out to numerous community members of Salkot, a village development committee in Mid-west Nepal, including women’s groups, religious leaders, health workers and adolescent girls and boys, to raise awareness of menstrual hygiene and enlist their support in banning Chhaupadi. She also led education workshops for more than 2,000 women and girls and taught more than 300 how to make reusable sanitary towels.

A group of 12 women and girls sit on blankets on the ground sewing small cloths. The tops of the heads are visible. Aditi Sharma, a student at Penn State College of Medicine, sits in the middle.

Aditi Sharma, center, in white top, teaches a group of Nepalese women and girls how to make reusable sanitary towels.

“Through this work, hopefully, we will be able to eradicate Chhaupadi — one village at a time,” Sharma explained.

“Sharma’s work continues to have far-reaching impacts on public health and gender equality,” said Betsy Aumiller, an assistant professor in the College of Medicine’s Division of Health Services Research.

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