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Urmila Chanam put behind a life of domestic abuse and came up with a campaign to break the silence around menstruation, taking it even outside India.
Urmila Chanam is a journalist, a knowledge management & communications professional. She is also a social activist, a gender rights activist, a blogger, public health professional and the face behind the hugely successful campaign on menstruation- Breaking the silence- from Shame to pride.
She works with HIV positive children and even takes time to organize festivals like North East Food Festivals.
Her campaign received the National Laadli Awards for Gender sensitivity-2015. She is a survivor & fighter of domestic abuse, loves the colour red and also a single mother.
Social media is an amazing platform that can make an individual create miracles or be on the other extreme of sailing on meaningless addiction. One woman, already working on many projects, decided to channelize her energies in building a campaign, got it initiated on social media and turned it into a massive success.
Menstruation is not spoken about openly even to this day in our country due to societal pressures and beliefs.
Breaking the silence was important for Urmila Chanam and she became the face of an issue that was shrouded in hushed tones. The campaign, that began in 2014 received national and global attention for its reach and had support from unexpected quarters. Women from urban regions in the country, Bangladesh, Taiwan and several other countries reached out to Urmila to take her campaign to the women it mattered most to. Reaching grass root levels in rural India was the objective of the campaign. Apart from the year-long efforts, the campaign is pursued actively from March to May 28th , commemorated as International Menstrual Hygiene Day.
Training rural women in Uttar Pradesh
Through on-ground trainings and awareness, the campaign led Urmila Chanam to talk to adolescent girls and women on menstruation that has surrounded itself with myths, taboos and stigmas. Urmila reaches out to these women to talk on accurate information of health, menstruation, its hygienic management and creation of a support system to ensure access to sanitary material, information and education.
The campaign that began on Facebook ensured she received over 10,000 sanitary pads for donation in one month. Volunteers and women wanted to help Urmila to reach out to more women to help them understand their bodies and live healthily. The campaign included interviews with public health professionals, key messages from activists, journalists and professionals from the social impact sector and even included a test for men on their knowledge on menstruation.
As part of the campaign and to talk about menstruation and health, Urmila has since the last three years reached out to 7000 women trained over 80 school teachers, has been consistently working with NGO’s to reach out to rural regions.
I meet Urmila at a cafe where she came dressed in a traditional North-eastern costume. She is someone who is extremely proud of her roots and has blended with various cultures within the country. Having her homes in Bangalore and in Manipur, Urmila is an individual who seems to carry on various roles easily.
“I was born in Manipur but having a father working in the Army ensured I travelled to various cities. As an adult I am happy that the exposure did make me adapt to new situations quickly. But as a child I was torn as I always had to leave my friends. I was not able to formulate long term friendships as we always had to move on. Perhaps that is the added reason that I made my daughter stay in one place as I didn’t want her to go through this.”
“Being a single parent- it has been a learning process” she says before adding after a pause, “I have been subjected to domestic violence for eight years before I decided to move out.”
Urmila comes across as a very strong individual and this statement astonishes me as she is the one who always encourages women to express themselves and has become the face of women empowerment. “It was a love marriage and yes I was completely in love with this person but just after six months, things started changing in my life. I would get beaten up every other day and often I would keep hiding my scar, bruise or a black eye.
It was an irony as I was this activist where I was educating women on how to open a bank account, talking to them about women empowerment, talking about self-care and economic independence, but somehow I could never change the situation at home.
My parents didn’t realize the ordeal I was going through for a long time though perhaps they had some hints about it. I would keep myself away from them and when once I tried speaking to my mother she didn’t take it seriously and kept repeating that problems happen in every marriage. Those words just silenced me for a long long time I could remember.
It was only after a while that my sister came to visit me and asked me to get back to our parent’s home for a change. Perhaps it was time for introspection and finally my mom guided me in believing that I had to choose life again or carry on with the pain. I think I required that push before I decided it was enough.”
Urmila tells me that she actually wanted to resolve her marital problems but things went out of hand and she got separated. She had a two-year-old to look after, and had to rise above it all. Probably the anger, depressions, hurt and many other feelings were turned into something more useful that would indeed make an impact in her life as well as that of others.
She began writing on menstrual health and participating in public health campaigns. These soon got her intrigued as she started meeting more women particularly from rural belts and she understood the huge gap in understanding the importance of their own health.
Opening up a conversation with men and women, holding a placard to showcase that the issue is not to be associated with guilt or shame, talking about the red droplets are all important aspects of the campaign.
Urmila now travels 10 states and 5 countries including the remotest villages in Bihar, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Manipur and more.
Training school teachers
“I use charts, flip charts, a lot of visuals that can be seen and felt in terms of modules, figurines and keep in mind about minimal use of technology. Technology somehow acts as a barrier when I talk to these women. I have often seen that rural women particularly consider it to be almost a sin to think of their own well being, nutrition, diet, health and in the process their hygiene, care and emotional well being gets compromised or neglected.
India is facing one of the largest number of cervical cancer and one cannot ignore factors like hygiene, personal attention to oneself and health when you talk of such concerns.”
She shares some of the astonishing findings that she has come across while meeting thousands of girls and women for the campaign.
Even many married women who have children have no information and understanding on menstruation, why it occurs and for how long it will take place. They often use very poor quality of cloth is used for periods. There is a total lack of understanding on how to be hygienic.
“I have seen young girls having fungal infections, itching and boils in private parts and inner thighs from poor hygiene. Menstrual cramps and discomfort along with mood swings are the most frequent complaints from girls and women.”
I was astonished and saddened when she mentioned the kind of methods adopted by young girls and women in remote areas.
“In one of the camps when I began displaying the kind of methods one can use during menstruation like clean cloth pads, sanitary pads, tampons, various kinds of clean lingerie used and menstrual cups, a young girl in her teens shared, “ Didi, you haven’t displayed what is used here in U.P in this village?” I didn’t understand what she meant until she picked a plastic polythene cover near her and kept it on the table. It was hard for me to digest that women use even covers apart from leaves, used undergarments of their men in the home or even shared cloth strips by women in the same household.”
When I ask Urmila if she becomes like one of the rural women to get them to bond with her better, she pauses and adds a firm NO. “I want to be this city girl itself as many of them look up to me as an inspiration. It is important in life to have role models or people whom you can admire. I myself have had many inspiring women and men from whom I have learnt and keep the process going.
It is also important not to be judgmental on the practices the women have been following and keep an open mind and likewise impart what is right for them on good menstrual hygiene. Sometimes I have seen women who just have two sarees and one long skirt as their petticoat in the wardrobe– they really don’t have any other clothes to use for menstruation. I cannot hand over pads or cloth strips to everyone – for now it is imparting knowledge.
It is also important for me to maintain a distance on the other personal problems that they have which are sometimes discussed. I can give them oral solutions, but I am careful as I do not believe in giving false hopes. My domain is health and I stick to it to impart relevant and important information.”
“I have a strong word of advice for those women who are undergoing abuse at home. If you are in a relationship and feel changing certain aspects of your behaviour hasn’t yet positively impacted your relationship, then it is a sure time to introspect, think and act wisely. Please seek help and perhaps it is wise to move on in life without the abusing individual to take the journey of life with you.”
Urmila has recently been involved in organizing a food festival from North East region of India in Bangalore. “It is fun, interesting and a great tool in building bridges with people. I am next going to be involved in organizing a fashion show of North East region and hope it is going to be good.
I feel privileged to be in this position where I can travel, reach out to urban audiences through social media and my meetings with professionals who can create that difference and reach out to villages through my trainings.
My daughter who is eleven now accompanies me sometimes and I do feel it is a great learning for her too on the exposure she is receiving. Reaching out to a group of women in a region takes a good five hour training and it hasn’t been possible for me to get back to them again on the progress or if anything has changed in their lives but many of them reach me later to talk on phone. The experience of bonding during those few hours is indescribable.”
As I wrap up the conversation after a two hour chat, I still find the time has been less to know about this strong determined woman sitting in front of me. Breaking the silence somehow seemed more apt as a title for Urmila as she has broken the silence that she retained for a long time and is now directing her efforts in pushing women for better health. Urmila is now in the driver’s seat of this journey and she seems to be enjoying the ride and helping all those who want to go through the ride with her.
1. Change your sanitary pad/cloth every 6 hours, 4 times a day, irrespective of the volume of your flow.
2. Never exchange panties or cloth with anybody else for good hygiene.
3. Make sure to take a bath every day you have periods.
4. Wash hands before and after you change your pad/cloth
Image source: Reshma Krishnamurthy Sharma
I am an independent writer, storyteller, blogger and a mum residing in Bangalore, India. Earlier
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