I grew up in a remote village in a rural area, and all the girls there go through hell I would say, says Maya Vishwakarma while recounting her incredible journey from Narsinghpur, Madhya Pradesh to California, USA via the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). Popularly known to all as the Padwoman of India, Vishwakarma opened up to Her Circle about how her quest to spread menstrual awareness across rural India while battling regressive taboos started, and the direction her Sukarma Foundation is taking now.Vishwakarma explains how when she went to AIIMS for her Masters programme, she got a recurring infection that first brought menstrual hygiene (and its lack in large parts of India) to her attention. If girls like me, who had all kinds of access could end up with such a bad experience, think about what all those girls and women are going through, she says, adding that the lack of sanitary pads during her visits to her village also brought the period poverty of the region to her attention. This was the reason why in 2016, she founded the Sukarma Foundation, travelled to rural and tribal belts to spread awareness and started manufacturing the Foundations brand of low-cost sanitary napkins, No Tension.Supporting Women Beyond Menstrual AwarenessBut while most people know all about Vishwakarmas menstrual awareness campaigns, they are unaware of the rural support system she has created not only for girls and women but also for entire communities there, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. The first thing she did in this aspect was to hire local women at her sanitary napkin factory. The reason why we chose them is because they are the ones who need to learn the hygiene part, she explains. They cant afford sanitary pads, so we employ them and they learn how to make the pads themselves. They can also get one months supply for their household for free. This not only ensures that these women understand the hygiene part but also have a livelihood.Vishwakarma also realised that overall healthcare is a big issue in her village, especially since the nearest hospital was at least 100kms away. Knowing that telemedicine is a new concept, all she was waiting for was a good internet connectionand Jio provided her with that. Using Jios internet connection, and partnering with a Bengaluru-based medical company, Vishwakarma set up the first telemedicine clinic in her village. Further, she recruited three women to run the clinic. Two of them were from my village. They were educated, but they couldnt find a job, she explains. So, she trained them as health workers and hired a registered nurse to supervise all medical procedures and dispensing of medications.This clinic turned out to be a success, and a real lifesaver for the village, because a year later, the COVID-19 pandemic struck hard. From supporting the local community with COVID-19 awareness campaigns to providing aid to migrant labourers. We said that were not going to close at any timethe clinic will always remain open, she says. Her team further observed that women breadwinners who were laid off could be taught some skills that can help them work from home. Hence, a stitching centre was set up. An investment of four-five thousand can help these women gain their dignity and livelihoods back, and Vishwakarma made it possible. Her upcoming project for the area also includes opening a school, and continuing digital literacy programmes to empower the local populations, no matter what their age or gender.Exploring The Menstrual Hygiene Cancer ConnectionBut Vishwakarma herself acknowledges that menstrual awareness still remains at the very centre of her work, especially since there is so much more to explore about it. While period poverty is one of the biggest issues in rural India, there are other emerging patterns she has observed. Recurring reproductive infections, if they remain untreated, can lead to a higher risk of cervical and other cancers. Excessive antibiotic use to treat recurring infections can also affect the flora of the reproductive system and cause cancerous cells to grow. These are definitely issues Vishwakarma has seen across her own region of origin, but there is a graver problem emerging due to the way these issues are handled in some states.Go to any remote village in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and even Maharashtra, and take a sample of 100 women above 30 years of age, she says. Youll find that around 40 of these women have no uteruses. These women go for hysterectomies because the moment they get an infection, doctors dont teach them better hygiene, medication, therapy or nutrition. Instead, the moment a woman goes to complain about these issues, they recommend hysterectomies. She notes that this is a huge growing area, and one thats unnecessary because better menstrual habits and hygiene can eliminate these issues completely.Another problem she notes with Indian women, in general, is that we dont go in for regular screenings, usually because the cost is too high. Women simply dont go for an annual health check-up, she says. A big side effect of this oversight is that the early symptoms of most diseases wont get caught. Most women dont go in for screenings for breast cancer, cervical cancer or any diseases. And by the time we find out, its too late. Similarly, there is a mental health and menstrual health connection that women and Indian society in general overlook. This is not only because of stigma and taboos but also because girls arent prepared for their first period through proper menstrual or reproductive health education.These issues, she said, must be highlighted furtherand women themselves must stand up to discuss them because its not just activists like her who can bring about change. A thousand women like me would fall short because India is a huge country and at the same time, its very diverse, she quips, signing off with the comment that women now have equal rights and equal energy, and they must choose to use it all wisely.