Celebrating Boundary-Breaking, Norm-Changing Grandmothers Around the World

My grandmother decided to end an abusive marriage in 1961, at a time when divorce was not even considered an option. She went against everyone and raised my mother single-handedly to be an independent woman. Her examples of courage and her values enabled my mother and me to fight for our rights and have a voice in our family and society.

This Mother’s Day, I’m thinking of my own grandmother—and grandmothers like her who are a powerful path to changing culture around reproductive health and the role of women.

I’m thinking of Cecil*.

(Coy Ferrel / Creative Commons)

I met Cecil during a workshop and sharing session on women’s health that I led in rural India; at the end of the workshop, armed with new knowledge, she decided to try to stop the blaming and shaming of the women in her communities for giving birth to girls. For most of Cecil’s life, she was made to believe that a woman is at fault for determining the sex of the child. Now a grandmother, she was determined to change the narrative and shift culture.

When my colleagues and I started working with illiterate and semi-literate grandmothers, it raised obvious questions. These women are way past their reproductive years; my peers wondered how they would benefit from learning about menstrual and reproductive health. But I was sure of two things: that it is never too late to learn about your body and that grandmothers in rural communities have one of the strongest influence on girls, women and how they understand their health.

I was right.

Once we explained the biology of menstruation and reproduction using storytelling and compelling visual medium, the floodgates would open. The grandmothers would rush questions forward about pregnancy, infertility, birth control and even the male reproductive system.

One grandmother came to me with tears in her eyes and told me about her four sons—confessing that she never understood how this all worked. She wondered why such important and crucial information that has a huge impact on our health is cloaked into secrecy.

I was confident that this knowledge would spread—from grandmothers to millions of girls and women—because studies have shown that those women ands girls get information and advice on menstruation, reproduction, nutrition and child care from their mothers, mothers-in-law and grandmothers.

According to a report by Dasra, 70 percent of mothers in India consider menstruation “dirty and polluting.” Their beliefs reinforced a culture of silence for the next generation. Mothers and mothers-in-law, who lack  accurate information, perpetuated taboos and restrictions by passing them on to their own daughters and daughters-in-law.

Many existing programs on menstrual and reproductive health work exclusively with adolescent girls or young women, but many of these women lack the ability to make decisions, and they don’t get an opportunity to amplify their new knowledge. They are left to follow unsafe practices. They don’t gather courage to question age old myths. We must prepare girls to be future change agents for the communities, and to do that we must reach those with influence now.

Grandmothers shape cultural beliefs. It makes sense that we reach out to them to initiate meaningful change—because they can reach not only their daughters and granddaughters, but their sons and grandsons, too.

In Zimbabwe, mental health issues were addressed by training grandmothers in the communities “through the friendship bench initiative,” which uses grandmothers to help provide basic support for people suffering from depression. With a rise in educational content being delivered through entertainment (or “edutainment”),  a famous edutainment series in India, “Kyunki Ammaji Kehti Hain,” uses a grandmother as the protagonist to advise on good health practices. 

In the U.S., grandmothers formed a group called Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights to protect reproductive rights and to ensure all forms of reproductive services are available to every daughter and granddaughter of the country. They have lobbied against the bills that seek to restrict against abortion and contraception, organized health discussion sessions and advocated for comprehensive sex education.

Organizations and individuals working to improve health outcomes for women worldwide should not ignore the power of grandmothers as gatekeepers and decision-makers. When we design programs for rural communities, we must make sure they are inclusive and developed for the illiterate and semi-literate matriarchs. That is how we can address deeply-entrenched social taboos. There is no doubt that shifting attitudes of the older generation takes time—but once the shift happens, the community will move towards a long-lasting change.

The grandmothers we meet are often the first ones in their families to step out of the four walls of their homes. They broke the shackles of patriarchy at a time when women were not allowed to leave the house—even for water. In the face of myriad obstacles, their determination to create a better society for themselves and the women around them kept them going.

With this fighting spirit, and empowered with right information, they can act as change agents and improve health outcomes in their communities. Those of us working in the field would do well to capitalize on their roles as powerful partners in our work.

This Mother’s Day, as each of us pauses to recognize our mothers, let’s also be sure to look to the women behind them. It’s time for us to hold up grandmothers and celebrate their wisdom and potential to make an impact in their families and across their communities.


Monalisa Padhee, PhD, is a medical researcher and the head of Women Wellness Initiative and Enriche health at the Barefoot College working with women and girls in rural India. She is a 2019 Aspen New Voices Fellow.