By Urmila Chanam
I chuckle to myself re membering the optimistic ambition in me when one day I sat till midnight to make the roadmap, weeks before I descended in Manipur to roll out my global campaign on educating women about their bodies and menstruation.
I had several local NGOs and individual partners and a host of journalist friends based in Manipur which/who were keen to help me put my foot on the ground and do my thing. That made me confident as I drew into the map small red pins on locations spanning across four districts and five major halts in the state.
When I finally took the flight to Manipur and walked out of the arrivals in Tulihal Airport, I was met with my family with hugs, kisses and tears of reunion and a strange feeling in the deep recesses of my mind that told me, it was not going to be easy.
I also felt this would be a life changing experience.
My understanding of my home state was to be of little consequence to what would soon unfold in the next 30 days of working in Manipur. Everything I understood about my native so far was soon going for a re-alignment- some for the bad and mostly for the good.
My first day of work in Manipur was a wet, slightly cold and pleasant day in April this year in a village/leikai called Khabam Makha Leikai in Imphal West District. It was raining cats and dogs and I worried if people would turn up. Being always conscious to not get late in reaching the field site, I generally aim to reach two hours before the programme that helps me get acquainted with the terrain, community, surroundings, my own team and our arrangements for the training, refreshment or toilet facilities for the participants.
On this particular day, I was not sure about my course of action. One one hand, I wanted to be just the way I have been with my field team in the other eight states I work in the country- coordinating every minute detail over the phone beginning from the wee hours of the morning while on the other hand, my mind was telling me to slow down- the culture here was so different.
I listened to my heart and took the back seat that day, completely relying on my local implementation partner and seeking the opportunity to observe how things worked here. I tried to not get involved in being responsible for all the aspects of the day. This was very unsettling to me.
My biggest learning in Manipur is that when people work together very little words are spoken and silence means acceptance, respect and agreement. In the many parts of the country and overseas, silence could mean hostility, non-cooperation and plain disagreement. What a difference, you see!
Suggestions, plans, instructions are met with silence and a gap in understanding that silence could easily result in conflict in implementation but I learnt this difference fast and chose to move on to the next apparent difference. Thank God, I did not use an abundance of words here.
When I landed on site, there was the huge playground of Ibemcha Girl’s High School and the community hall to choose from for holding the in-tent trainings for girls and women. The leikai locality people were asked to help with setting up the place and young and old men in good numbers came out of their house to erect the tent, put the chairs, arrange the carpets and the likes. Few of them rushed to their homes to fetch a stapler for holding the chart papers on the tarpaulin walls of the tent, few got ropes, still few others got other kind of items to make the place ready for the day. In no time where there had been no one, I was taken aback to see so many helping hands.
The only question asked to us was why were we doing this program and who would be the participants. No one asked for our credentials and identity. This was not a land of permits, requests for approval, brand building or marketing. Just an honest intent was of immense value here.
The second learning for me was to find such community cohesiveness, helpfulness and resourcefulness vested in each person in the community. While people who live in Manipur may not even notice the value in this particular trait, for someone who works outside in different cultures this positive quality is called community ownership and community support group system that our strategic and training manuals teach us to try and develop in communities where large interventions of development are to be implemented. Large funds are utilized to develop this quality in the communities that are to receive such projects and programmes with a belief that this is a pre requisite for the success of the intervention.
Manipur, I found, has already got that quality. Can we build systems and processes in this culturally receptive community? Can we choose development projects and programmes that are community owned, community led and community driven over individual or business models and run by the private sector?
Just walking over to the cha-dukaan or the tea shop to hold a casual conversation about the training, the topic and that we were looking out to mobilize all the girls and women in the community to come and benefit from it was sufficient to gather large numbers of girls and women who thronged to the tent from morning till late evening. The volunteers had to organize women in batches so they didn’t have to wait.
This is another take-away for me to understand that the community in Manipur is very closely-knit. While this is a great strength, it could also prove detrimental to implementation if not tread carefully. I made a mental note on this aspect as I looked ahead to the days in front of me in the field.
Okay so the tent was erected. The refreshments had arrived. I could see a good turnout of participants from the small opening of the tent where I was seated. I drank some water. My volunteers were doing a fantastic job of registering women and girls and keeping them engaged. I had only one anxiety. No matter how many trainings I might have given, the initial first few moments are always critical. These are the moments I struggle to break the inhibition, the shyness, the fear, the shame in each girl and woman I open the conversation with. Few communities and groups take an hour, some never quite come out of their shell and some open up in just few minutes of my effort.
Much to my surprise, I found that at KhabamLeikai I did not have to make any efforts to break the shyness or inhibition among women. From the time I started till the time I closed, girls and women bombarded me with queries, concerns, experiences and thoughts. The discussion was so rich and vibrant that I carry the satisfaction of having reached this locality in my campaign and empower women and girls with accurate information of their bodies.
The first woman who came in was accompanied by her adolescent daughter. She told me she used only cloth because she could not afford sanitary pads. While she was talking to me, her heavy gold bangles were making clinking sounds and my gaze went to the amount of ornaments she wore. For a woman spending Rs 30/- on an essential item which will improve her health is still a luxury in this region.
The women and girls waited in spite of the rain for their turn to get inside my tent to receive training. Women who had reached menopause disregarded any advice from volunteers that the training was targeted for girls and women who are menstruating and got in!
I gave individual attention to each and every one I met and found a unique connect with women in Manipur. My understanding of the person, their issues, their perspectives and aspirations got deepened from such a rich interface.
Women are so hungry for information on their bodies, health and periods. The women appear to need this space to discuss sex, family planning, spacing between children, medical termination of pregnancy, menstruation anomalies and their own opinions. There were no side-talks, no shy smiles and no delay in asking what they wanted to know. They spoke freely and they spoke till they finished.
Could this mean women on the whole here have no access to information? Is information of this kind only limited to health and medical practitioners? What is the level of performance of the Accredited Social Health Activists (the ASHAs) and other health outreach workers in the state?
I found the younger girls use sanitary pads and the older women use cotton cloth to absorb menstrual fluid. Several girls and women complained of itchiness, foul smelling white discharge, irregularity in period cycle and being reliant on painkillers for menstrual cramps. A relatively high incidence of medically terminated pregnancies (MTP) or abortion was noticed among married women and low usage of contraceptives by these women. Condoms, married women say, are not very popular in their community. One woman said,
‘I had to get abortions three times in the last two years as we had already had the number of children we wanted. My husband does not use a condom and I don’t know where to find female contraceptives. It has resulted in three unwanted pregnancies!’
The same woman had sever pigmentation on her face and complains of burning sensation in her stomach everyday which keeps her awake through the night.
I also found an alarming high percentage of married women who had their wombs removed. On the slight pretext of a cyst, the women are being advised to remove their womb before it turns cancerous. All these analysis have been done on the basis of the conversation and not based on documents of their medical history.
Why are women being advised to remove their wombs in the first sign of trouble? And what is the underlying cause of these women developing womb-related issues? These are questions that I find immensely interesting and worthy of observation over a period of time.
Few women also said that they never got treated for their concerns or went to a doctor.
“I thought what I was suffering was no big deal and not fatal. I was also anxious what the doctor would think!’
The best part of that day remains the crowd pressing in to enter the tent long after the sun had set and even in pitch darkness owing to load shedding on that particular day. I had to firmly announce the training to be ‘over’ to end the day even when there were many more waiting outside to talk to me. .
KhabamMakhaleikai in Imphal West district in Manipur will always remain close to my heart. As I walk ahead to reach more geographies and religious communities this year, I value my experience and learning that working in Manipur has given me to understand my people, my community better. This new found understanding has given me a deeper love and a firmer resolve to continue my work on educating women and girls in Manipur.
(Urmila Chanam is a consultant of knowledge management in HIV/AIDS working for a multilateral organization, FHI 360, managing a USAID project for Orphaned and Vulnerable Children. She also heads a global campaign ‘Breaking the Silence’ which is about menstrual hygiene management and banishing taboos around menstruation.Arecipient of the National Laadli Award on Gender Sensitivity in 2015, she has been working with agencies like World Pulse (USA), WSSCC (Geneva), Voices of Human Rights (USA), Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS),World Bank and the National AIDS Control Organization (NACO). Her singular effort in all her work is to connect with the grass-root and take forward real issues to a platform from where she can influence policy decisions.)