THE FRONTLINES OF MY LIFE: THAT 'O MOMENT'

Urmila Chanam
Posted March 3, 2016 from India
Training front line health workers(the 'ASHA') in remote India on menstrual hygiene
ASHA workers learn the biology of menstruation, use of clean and hygienic sanitary material, environment friendly disposal and the need to have conversations to seek solutions. They will carry these messages when they go house -to-house for delivering other health related messages and services under the National Health Mission.
Taking messages of menstrual hygiene to isolated island of Karang, Manipur(India)
Taking messages of menstrual hygiene to isolated island of Karang, Manipur(India) : A canoe is the only means of transportation and communication between Karang and mainland. Menstrual hygiene and medical services is a challenge. (1/3)

Women in India have remained silent for way too long.A lot of water has passed under the bridge since we last opened our mouth and used our voices.Only 12 % of India's girls and women use sanitary pads (others use unhygienic material as ash, tissue, newspapers,hay, polythene bags or dirty old cloth), 23% girls are leaving school with the onset of puberty( and menstruation) and millions live in the dark about what menstruation is, the sanitary material to be used, the importance of hygiene and self care, and the necessity to educate daughters.

Each girl/woman can be a powerhouse of guidance, inspiration and support. If each one of us takes the responsibility of acquiring information on menstrual hygiene for ourselves and our daughters and bid goodbye to silence, new statistics would be created. We would find 'our voices' and together fight against the innumerable injustices against our gender- why just menstrual hygiene?

An age old silence and the 'O moment'

The settings are so varied and the regions so far placed- be it women huddled around a lone lamp flickering into the night while we assemble for a conversation together in a remote village in my country (India), or a hundred school going adolescent girls smiling shyly in a session conducted in their schools, a mixed group of male and female teachers of an education institute looking to understand at their possible role or media personnel in a press conference- yet there is one moment in time when jaws drop, faces look at you, unbelievingly that you actually spoke out the word and I call that moment, the 'O moment.'

With the utterence of the word 'vagina' or 'youni' in Hindi, the movements and sounds stop in the broken down village temple at night, in the government school, in the staff room or the press club. In a country where women keep their heads covered with their saree tail , the 'pallu', speak in low and gentle tones and are not meant to raise their eyes to meet that of a man or an elder, this silence is expected, demanded and delivered by our culture.

Bring pride where there is shame

This problem is one of the reasons I am passionate about women's menstrual support and education around the world.I travel from one corner of India to another, walk through the remotest of villages in trying to reach as many adolescent girls and women and deliver the message that menstruation is a life giving phenomenon; the menstrual blood is not impure and to keep hygiene is to stay away from disease and live an empowered life based on possessing accurate information about their bodies, sexuality and reproductive health.

In my meeting 6000 girls and women in the last two years in India alone, I have seen or heard about bizzare practices from the mouth of these very persons and from local sources around menstrual hygiene, the lack of it, the consequence in morbidity, mortality and quality of life.

In Karang island on Loktak Lake in Bishnupur district, Manipur(India) the community women shared how one of them had suffered from foul smelling white discharge for years alone without ever sharing it with a doctor at the Primary Health Centre located in the mainland till one day she died at middle age.

Karang is 50 km from the capital city Imphal and one can reach this place by getting on one of theregular passengerbus services from Imphal to Thanga(at Rs 40 per passenger) and then getting on the regular ferry service between Thanga andKarang (Rs 10 per person). It would cost a little under 1 US dollar.

The Pharmacist of the lone medical store in that island reveals that the woman consultated him with an unexplained pain in her back and a dark shade of red in her menstrual blood. The Pharmacist suspected some complication related to reproductive health and advised her to go seek medical intervention.

What barrier prevented this woman from seeking medical help for such discomfort, pain and life-threatening situation?

It is almost as if women feel guilty thinking about their welfare.

The invisible cultural barriers

Statistics show India is one of the leading countries in the world where women die every year from cervical cancer and one of the major contributing factors is poor menstrual hygiene. Are these deaths and lack of knowledge on menstrual hygiene management occuring because India does not have good hospitals or is it because there is no political will on access to health services and sanitation materials by the people and women?

I am saddened to say that health infrastructure is a much smaller problem than the deeper and not so visible issue of the low position girls and women have in our families, households, villages,community and society at large and the gender stereotyping that conditions us to put a lock on our mouth and stop from asking for information, reach out to another individual in crisis or seek medical help.

I suspect the large number of women who died could also most likely be women who had attributes of keeping silent, in silence their deaths enfulfed them and buried their truth with them for none to know.

Before we work on increasing the number of hospitals, enhancing access to health services by people in remote and rural villages and by people who are poor and marginalized, we first need to break these cultural barriers of subjugating girls and women and blocking their right to good health, education, livelihood, safety, dignity, empowerment but most of all, to communicate and express her situation without making her feel like a sinner or a wrong doer.

Women can undo the damage done so far by being the agents of change. New statistics can be created anew.

* * * * * *

( 'Breaking the Silence' is a UNFPA National Laadli Award winning campaign that raises awareness on menstruation and assign its identity as a life giving phenomenon and not a futile physiology. It aims to banish myths, taboos and stigma around menstruation and secure dignity, clean and hygienic sanitary material for girls and women.)

Comments 14

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GetRude
Mar 03, 2016
Mar 03, 2016

Hi there. I am bwginningbto realise that the issue of poor menstrual hygiene is definitely a huge challenge the world over. Kuja has a campaign that she is doing on the exact same thing. That coupled with yours show the magnitude of the challenge. Well done for speaking up and unpacking the very issues that most women are afraid to talk about, yet they have a bearing on their own health and well being.

Urmila Chanam
Mar 08, 2016
Mar 08, 2016

Dear GetRude,

Menstrual hygiene and woman's health is a big challenge in many countries where patriarchy and cultural barriers exist. While we fight to secure rights to information, material and services in health, women should begin to exercise this in other areas of their life too. An empowered woman is empowered in all spheres. Thanks a lot for your encouragement sister. I am excited to be united with you and other powerful women on the VOF 2016. Let us remain in touch.

Love and prayers from India,

Urmila Chanam

GetRude
Mar 08, 2016
Mar 08, 2016

Urmila Agreed and all the best. Will definitely stay in touch.

Tamarack Verrall
Mar 09, 2016
Mar 09, 2016

Dear Urmila,

You manage to rend my heart, educate me, fill me with happiness at all you have accomplished, and belly laugh, all at the same time. Thank you for showing so beautifully how to get right to the base of all that needs to be spoken together as women, and especially for the girls, who then live from their young years feeling the pride that you have inspired. You offer so creatively and completely, detailed information on how to address the shame women and girls are made to feel about our bodies. I love your title. By speaking the words least spoken in this culture - vagina, youni, words that hold such power, when spoken as easily and lovingly as you do, you transform not only those in the room, you transform us all.

With love in sisterhood,

Tam

Urmila Chanam
Mar 11, 2016
Mar 11, 2016

Sister Tamarack, we are one. One spirit, one mind and one direction- of wanting to collect together and be of meaningful support to each other so that what we could have achieved in years can be achieved faster. I am inspired by your warmth and love that emanates out of your conversations with me. Thanks my sister!

With a big hug and kisses,

Urmila Chanam

ARREY- ECHI
Mar 11, 2016
Mar 11, 2016

Dear Urmila, Reading your article is another eye opener for this problem. Kuja and Gladys have also spoken about this menstrual problem, making it easy to understand it is a global concern affecting women which needs to be redressed. Well done for all you have done and keep doing. Arrey

Urmila Chanam
Mar 11, 2016
Mar 11, 2016

Dear sister, 

Thank you for sharing that Kuja and Gladys are also working on similar areas. I would like to get in touch with them and discuss their experiences and challenges. Menstrual hygiene is a big concern and women's passiveness in addressing it.

Hugs and love

Urmila Chanam

Carolyn Seaman
Mar 18, 2016
Mar 18, 2016

Dear Urmila, 

This is a fantastic article from you. I cannot explain how many emotions I have experienced just reading this piece. And the imagery you have been able to help me create clearly helps me appreciate the issues you have raised and the call to action.

I am definitely moved to act on this issue and I would the little I can to drive the necessary change in my community. I will identify organizations that are working to provide girls health and hygiene education and produce a short documentary video to highlight the issues and challenge the traditional customs or practices that keep girls voices locked up on issues they should speak out to secure their health.

Once again, thank you for sharing your work experience with us. And thank you for inspiring me to action.

Urmila Chanam
Mar 19, 2016
Mar 19, 2016

Dear Carolyn,

I remember vividly sister Jade Frank mention your name when the leaders of VOF 2016 were announced and she was so happy for the two of us! Now I see, why she was so happy- you have such an inspiring voice and a strong mind. I Invite you to take action, use every resource, every platform, every space to challenge the norms that subjugate girls from a young age in the pretext of menstruation and many other aspects of life and result in a generation of women who are voiceless, powerless, helpless and mere spectators. Thank you for reading my post and such motivating words. Keep in touch my sister.

Love and hugs,

Urmila Chanam,

India

Carolyn Seaman
Mar 26, 2016
Mar 26, 2016

Hi Urmila,

Indeed, Jade is a sweet Sister - she linked me to World Pulse in 2013 and my world changed from the moment I wrote my first journal and started to connect with wonderful women around the world.

I am definitely committed to take action on this subject. And I will be sure to share my results with you. I am glad you are able to pull off a great video at short notice, so we could even explore a video reflecting common engagement with girls on the same subject and then we can share it to inspire other women to promote girls education of their menstrual cycle and traditional myths that may be associated with it which I would definitely want to uncover.

If you agree that this is a great idea, we can discuss it further and plan towards it. 

Love you loads,

Urmila Chanam
Mar 27, 2016
Mar 27, 2016

Dear sister Carolyn,

That will be a great tool for training and advocacy purposes. I am interested to develop one such short film or video that can be instrumental in changing perspectives and make women take action on this area. I will be heading out of my city for work in the villages soon and not available online for few weeks. When I return we can catch up and take this forward.

Love and wishes,

Urmila Chanam

Carolyn Seaman
Mar 27, 2016
Mar 27, 2016

Great Urmila,

We can catch up and take this forward once you return.

Best wishes,

Terry Shiundu
Mar 24, 2016
Mar 24, 2016

Hi Urmila,

Great article and i can sense the urgency and passion you have in regard to menstrual hygiene and woman's health, and not already that, but have taken lead in raising awareness and ensuring that women in your community have the information they need. It's amazing that you have already reached over 6000 women and girls in just 2 years and working towards increasing this numbers.

Thank you for sharing this experience and for challenging us as well to take action. With continued effort and support from all sides, the statistics will surely change and we will have nop more deaths because of fear or ignorance!

All the best in this journey!

Terry

Urmila Chanam
Mar 24, 2016
Mar 24, 2016

Dear Terry,

You are right- taking action alone can change the numbers that say around 200 million women and girls in India do not have knowledge about menstrual hygiene practices. Each little step, each little action will gather one drop in the ocean.Thank you so much sister for the love and encouragement.

Love and prayers,

Urmila Chanam,

India