Srisruthi Ramesh ’17 learned about her Indian heritage from her parents, who were born and raised there, and she adheres to a strong respect for its cultures and customs.
But some aspects of Indian society never made sense to her, like the cloak of shame that surrounds menstruation.
“It’s kind of like you’re an outcast,” says Ramesh of the stigma that persists—often among poor, less-educated populations of India–towards women during their periods.
Now, the Santa Clara grad and American Indian Foundation Clinton Fellow is headed to Southern India, where for the next 10 months she will tackle the taboo associated with this important stage of female adolescence, helping teen girls learn about puberty, menstruation, and reproductive health.
To do that, Ramesh will develop curriculum for the Pondicherry-based Satya Special School, which serves hundreds of children and youths, both male and female, who have physical and mental disabilities.
Stigma of Impurity
The SCU grad knows that the social stigma linked to the “impurity” of menstruation is not exclusive to India; similar beliefs exist across other major religions and cultures, according to experts.
Yet throughout India, women continue to be isolated from others during their periods, banned from attending religious services, playing sports, or having sex, among other restrictions. Some are excluded from handling food or clothing.
The impact of the taboo isn’t only psychological. A lack of knowledge about—or access to—affordable sanitary napkins leads many disadvantaged women in India to use cloth rags to stop their bleeding. But the rags, discreetly washed at night, are often re-used when still damp the next day. The bacteria that breeds in the moist rags can lead to infection and infertility.
“It’s a challenge to teach this kind of stuff,” admits Ramesh, who will receive intensive training and lessons on teaching methods, when she arrives on site. To meet the needs of her students, her lesson plans will require non-traditional learning materials, including tactile manuals for those students who may learn better through touch.
The SCU grad also knows that it’s not uncommon in India for mothers of children with mental or physical disabilities to be kicked out of their homes for carrying “bad karma.” Sometimes, the children are abandoned; others are often hidden away at home and neglected.
She hopes her curriculum will not only offer the female teens new insights about becoming adult women, but reinforce a sense of self-worth and autonomy over their bodies.
“I understand it’s part of the heritage,“ says Ramesh. “But I think I have the right in some ways to be critical of this space because I have a great amount of respect and personal sentiment towards it,” she says. “I feel you can be critical of things that belong to you.”
Leaning on Her Past Efforts
Ramesh, 24, who double-majored in economics and philosophy, is only the second SCU graduate to receive AIF’s William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India since the program was launched in 2001 to foster U.S.-India relations.
The volunteer service program matches young professionals with development organizations in India, and aligns with her hope to someday work in economic and social development in Southeast Asia. Her past volunteer work in the U.S. and abroad should help, she says, along with her experience growing up as an Indo-American in the Bay Area.
Ramesh and her older sister were raised in Cupertino, where their mother is a special-education teacher. Their father is a manager at the Deloitte accounting firm.
While her focus at SCU was economics, a freshman philosophy course led her to explore “concepts and values that were important to me,” she says, such as giving back to others.
To that end, she participated in a three-week summer immersion in Mumbai through the university’sIgnatian Center for Jesuit Education, where she explored issues of social and economic injustice in India. She spent a day at an orphanage for children with disabilities, run by Catholic nuns.
By her sophomore year, Ramesh had founded Net Impact SCU, the University’s chapter of the non-profit international organization of 100,000 students and professionals interested in using their careers in business for social good.
Prepared in Pune
In 2016, she received a Jean Donovan Summer Fellowship from the Ignatian Center that sent her to Pune, India. For five weeks that summer, she worked with a non-profit that teaches gender equity to youths living in urban slums and rural villages, where discrimination and domestic violence is common.
“Seeing how boys and men are an integral part of families,” she says of the program, “we needed them on the side of supporting the women in their lives.”
Part of her AIF Clinton Fellowship in Pondicherry, a city of 244,000 in Southern India, will include teaching those teen girls about gender equity, too.
Ramesh says she is comforted that her fellowship isn’t far from the area where her parents grew up, and that she can communicate in the local Tamil dialect.
More importantly, she believes her work there will help her decide her life’s direction.
Like other children of immigrant parents who sacrificed to give their children greater opportunities, Ramesh worries about how to repay their hard work. Until recently, for example, she was in a consulting job at Ernst & Young, analyzing risk exposure for the accounting firm’s clients. But it didn’t assuage her desire to help improve the lives of others in her parent’s native country, something she says they continue to support.
“It has been so important to me to return to India and do this kind of work,” says Ramesh, “because I really do have a personal connection with these girls.”