Featured Storyteller

INDIA: Men, Motorcycles, and Menstruation

Urmila Chanam
Posted May 28, 2019 from India
Saurav Kumar_Men Take Lead Ride
Saurav Kumar

Changemaker Urmila Chanam rallies men to take to their motorbikes to end the isolation of menstruating girls and women across India.

“We ride because together we can change the way women experience menstruation stigma and shame. 

I am Urmila Chanam, menstrual health and women’s rights and founder of Breaking the Silence Worldwide Foundation. It is my passion and life’s mission to end the myths, taboos, and stigma around menstrual periods so that 336 million menstruating girls and women in India can live a healthy and dignified life.

In my work, I travel from one corner of India to another. I walk through the remotest of villages to deliver the message that menstruation is a life-giving phenomenon; menstrual blood is not impure, and that hygiene is key to keeping disease away and to living an empowered life based on accurate information about our bodies, sexuality, and reproductive health.

In a 2010 study by A.C. Nielson it was found that only 12% of menstruating women in India use sanitary napkins while 88% use unhygienic materials like old fabric, rags, or sand due to affordability issues and deep-rooted myths and taboos that create an illusion that menstruation is shameful, polluting, and dirty. Twenty-three percent of girls were reported to be leaving school at the onset of puberty and menstruation, and millions live in the dark about what menstruation is; what sanitary material to use; the importance of hygiene and self-care; and the necessity of educating our daughters.

Over the years, with global activism and grassroots intervention led by development agencies, the data is gradually changing. The percentage of menstruating girls and women who use sanitary napkins has risen from 12% to 36% (National Family Health Survey-4, 2015-2016: India Fact Sheet). But a new problem is emerging: Over 1 billion non-compostable sanitary pads are making their way to urban sewage systems, landfills, rural fields, and water bodies in India every month posing a hazard to humans, animals, and the environment.

There is an aspect that remains unchanged and that is the isolation of menstruating girls and women observed in varying degrees as per region, religion or community. Out of every 100 girls, 77 cannot enter places of worship or pray, 50 cannot touch other people or special food items, and 26 are forced to sleep separately during their periods (van Eijk et all (2016).

In November 2018, in Tamil Nadu, a 14-year old girl died in a cyclone after being forced to sleep separately in a hut isolated from the house because she was menstruating.

I know that we can undo the damage done so far by being agents of change. I know that statistics and stories like these can be created anew—but we first must break the silence and speak out publicly about taboos.

Involving Men

In my work at the grassroots level, I have come to believe that it is vanity to discuss women’s empowerment just amongst ourselves, as women, without also educating men. It is ineffective to approach menstrual hygiene without garnering support from our partners in life and those who control the family resources in a patriarchal society like India.

I have found that menstrual hygiene initiatives led by NGOs and the government are focused on raising awareness amongst mothers, daughters, and girls. But, I ask, what is the benefit of only raising awareness amongst females when the decisions related to what happens at home, schools, hospitals, and office places are actually made by men folk?

For instance, 130 million of India’s households lack toilets, leaving women and girls with many challenges to manage their menstruation hygienically and in privacy. Involvement of men is absolutely necessary to ensure that women can have the infrastructure and facilities needed to manage menstruation, things like functional toilets; clean water to wash; soap, and disposal systems that are safe, environmentally friendly, and private.

That’s why the idea for the Men Take Lead Ride came to me three years back. 

Menstrual Hygiene Day & The Bull Riders

On 26 May, to commemorate International Menstrual Hygiene Day, Breaking the Silence, in partnership with India Bull Riders and Radio Active 90.4 MHz, led a bike rally in Bengaluru to call for an end to isolation of menstruating girls and women.

We had close to 120 bikers who rode a distance of 40kms in the heart of the city, signifiying the 40 years a woman menstruates in her lifetime. The ride ended with pledge-taking led by men. Men took oaths to never isolate girls and women during their periods and, in the incidence of its occurrence, to intervene and sensitize others.

This is the second time I have organized the Men Take Lead Ride, the first being in the 2017. The event was recognized as one the leading events in the world happening on International Menstrual Hygiene Day by MH Day Secretariat and WASH United.

The Men Take Lead Ride is not just a bike ride on Menstrual Hygiene Day; it’s a movement involving many, especially men, to make menstrual hygiene a reality. What began as a deep conversation between me and Nujo John, my friend, one evening three years ago has given shape to a bike ride and a social movement that is changing the way menstruation is discussed and experienced in India.

We will ride again on 2 June 2019 in Kolkata, and we will ride in 2020 in different cities across India.

We ride because during periods, girls and women are pushed out of the kitchen and away from food items.

During periods, girls and women must sleep in different rooms, outside the house, in the barn where cattle are kept, in isolated huts away from the main household.

We ride because, during periods, girls and women are made to not interact with or touch others.

During periods, girls and women are not considered ‘pure’ enough to engage in any worship or spiritual activity.

We ride because the stigma and taboos attached to menstruation erode human rights and take away the dignity and self-respect of women and girls and affect our safety.

We ride to call for societal change. We ride because together we can change the way women experience menstruation stigma and shame. 


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Comments 20

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Marie Abanga
May 28
May 28

Simply awesome as a cause and initiative. Way to go sis

Urmila Chanam
May 29
May 29

Dear Marie,
Thought I will share one special thing about what happened during and after this ride with each comment I receive on this story. Do you know sister that these guys continued to discuss menstruation and related issues and developments that were happening in India and shared articles, videos, posts, news and pictures with me all throughout these 3 years? Many times I received them when I was about to begin a training, or about to work on developing a learning module or simply thinking. Then I realised, these men in my life had become my resource directories and I am so proud of who they have become now.
Much love and prayers,
Urmila Chanam,
India
urmila.chanam@gmail.com

Marie Abanga
May 30
May 30

Oh wow sis,
This is simply awesome. And when men get on board like this, I mean what can beat that?
There is always hope, it is so inspiring and motivating. Keep it on sis go go go

Lisbeth
May 28
May 28

Finally, the day has arrived. Happy menstrual hygiene day to you. The change must be imminent. I hope you are having a great day? And Congrats on your story award too.

Urmila Chanam
May 29
May 29

Dear Lisbeth,
Best wishes on International Menstrual Hygiene Management; I hope we all will work in our capacities to make this a reality. Thought I will share one special thing about what happened during and after this ride with each comment I receive on this story. Do you know sister that these guys are now more than capable to teach other men about issues around menstruation in India? Thanks for the warm wishes, take care.
Love and hugs,
Urmila Chanam,
India
urmila.chanam@gmail.com

ARREY- ECHI
May 28
May 28

Dear Sister Urmi,
Congratulations for the milestone achievement. It is truly not easy to break patriarchal walls and get men involved. Yet, you continue to prove that with a little more determination and support, it is doable. May this Men Take The Lead Movement continue to be the springboard to ending the taboos around menstruation and may the ripple effects spread around India and beyond!

Well done and congrats for the story award! A much deserved award!

Hugs and love as you continue to break barriers.

Urmila Chanam
May 29
May 29

Dear Arrey-Echi,
Indeed, change in our situation can be brought by taking one step at a time; men take lead ride was preceeded with Breaking the Silence ground work and the ride also took 3 years to accomplish this in this scale. The beautiful thing about growing organically is the perfect sync of intent and faith. Thought I will share one special thing about what happened during and after this ride with each comment I receive on this story. Do you know sister that these guys come from different professions- corporate, software and IT, designing, education, government? Though divrese in industry they have uniform attitude and perspective of wanting to contribute to improve the situation of girls and women in India. I am honored to know them.
Love and hugs to you too, Urmila Chanam, India

ARREY- ECHI
May 29
May 29

That is huge indeed. People from all walks of life getting involved. Thank you for sharing and keep on keeping on.

Much love and respect.

Congratulations for this story award, sister Urmila! I am so proud of you and the impact of your Breaking the Silence movement.

I surely won’t be surprised if you’ll be a recipient of so many more global awards and being featured on all international media platforms. We are rooting for you! Cheering you on!

Hugs!

Urmila Chanam
May 29
May 29

Dear precious Karen,
How much I love you sister for being such a supportive and loving sister. Thank you for your wishes. Awards have helped me a lot to approach government and authorities to push for menstrual hygiene management and other issues I am passionate about like farmer rights, agriculture and rural development. Do you know sister, we had a celebration party yesterday in the evening with all the members of the organizing team in Bangalore and I realized friendship, transparency and good will unites us/people and when there is understanding, we can sustain our vision. We hope we will do Men Take Lead Ride till as long as we are old and still not in wheelchairs, same place same time.
Love and prayers,
Urmila Chanam,
India

Aww. Thank you, dear sister Urmila. I think as someone who was once new on World Pulse, I looked up to you and was amazed (and still is) to how you transform yourself into an influencial woman leader. In short, I'm a fan! So imagine how honored I am that you reached out to me with encouragement and support. I appreciate you so much! You have been understanding on my struggle as a caretaker of my children. You didn't dismiss it as a less important work, but you share how you also took care of Bonbon when she was a little girl. It gave me peace that I may not be able to do what you and other World Pulse sisters are doing right now, but someday, when my youngest will turn three or four, I will be stepping up, form my own organization and serve my community more. Whenever I see you dauntless in your Breaking the Silence movement, my heart expands its hope that someday, I will emulate what you do. So keep on keeping on, sister, because you have no idea how many women are inspired with what you do. I am one of them.

I'm happy that you took the time to celebrate! You made history! Women in India, and even in neighboring countries in Asia, and even the world, will one day look back and read about this historic event that there was one woman who led men riders to spread awareness on menstrual hygiene. Yes, please stay healthy coz we want this to be a sustainable activity.

Congratulations again! Well-deserved!

Hugs and prayers,

Karen

Millynairi
May 29
May 29

Congratulations dear sister Urmila. Your determination is just amazing!!

Urmila Chanam
May 29
May 29

Thanks a lot sister. We are one, let us walk together and oercome our issues.

Jill Langhus
May 29
May 29

Woo-hoo! You did it...

Congrats, dear... I knew it was only a matter time before you got featured Storyteller:-) Yay!!!!

Very proud and impressed by your story, your work, and movement:-) Shine on!

Urmila Chanam
Jun 05
Jun 05

Dear sister Jill,
You have been supporting and encouraging me for so long for submissions for Story Awards and I feel happy to celebrate this moment with you my friend. You are my blessing.
Love and prayers,
Urmila Chanam,
India
urmila.chanam@gmail.com

Jill Langhus
Jun 05
Jun 05

Hello dear:-)

Yay!!!! I'm glad I have been able to help you, support you, encourage you... You are a blessing, too, dear, to so many, in this lifetime, and beyond....

XX

SHILPA KASHELKAR
Jul 09
Jul 09

Dear Urmila
Thanks for sharing your story and struggle. During our staff training program, I have shared your work and strategies. All are really motivated through your work.

Urmila Chanam
Jul 27
Jul 27

Dear Shilpa,
Thank you for reading my story on World Pulse and your kind words. The effort that goes behind programs and the vision behind it are on going initiatives and with each year, we do more, reach a bigger impact. What is equaly important is to share our experiences and learnings along the way- this way we can help build many more women who are trying similar initiatives. If we walk together, we will reach the tipping point of women empwerment faster. Hope to read more from you on World Pulse. Feel free to contact me at urmila.chanam@gmail.com or on World Pulse inbox.
Much love always,
Urmila Chanam

narayani khadka
Jul 16
Jul 16

Dear Urmila, thank you so much for taking such a wonderful initiative. The ride must have been tougher while executing than it was in a plan. You are really inspiring to all of us. Power to you. Congratulations for being a featured story teller. Warm greetings

Urmila Chanam
Jul 27
Jul 27

Dear Narayani,
Though the work was a lot more in real than in planning stage, it worked out much better than expected; there were so many people who helped and organizations that supported. This is why taking every opportunity to talk about your vision and work is so important to align people to you. Thanks for reading.
Much love
Urmila Chanam