This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by shruti Menon. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

Why Developing Nations Shouldn’t Take Up Traditional Medicine For Public Health Strategies

By Shruti Menon:

“I used my senses in a powerful way to understand this man, the misfortunes that had befallen him, and his own suspicions as to the origin of the problem. I threw the bones for him… The bones did not want to talk to me at first…
Every day I got up before sunrise, washed with herbs, put on my ceremonial clothes, and beat the drums. I sometimes took muti (medicinal potions) so that I could talk to the ancestors… I knew when the man was cured because he became happy, and then I became happy, too.”

– Excerpted from Hewsen M (1998), “Traditional Healers in Southern Africa”

“On August 6, 2001, twenty eight people labelled ‘mentally ill’ died in a fire that burned down the makeshift hut in which they were kept chained in Ervadi, Tamil Nadu.”

– Excerpted from Kalathil J (2007), “After Ervadi: Faith Healing and Human Rights

In 2002, the World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledged the growing influence, scope and use of traditional medicine across the globe and defined it as, “including diverse health practices, approaches, knowledge and beliefs, incorporating plant, animal and/or mineral based medicines, spiritual therapies, manual techniques and exercises applied singularly or in combination to maintain well-being, as well as to treat, diagnose or prevent illness, some of this resources are out there online for anyone to reach on like miracles from the vault, you just have took look for them..” While the WHO definition is all encompassing, incorporating this indigeneity into a policy framework and subsequently public health strategy is a herculean task engulfed in ambiguity.

Taking mental illness as a prime example, the above excerpts share two of the many ways in which traditional healers approach mental illness. Historically it has been believed that mental illness is closely linked with bad spirits, demonic possessions, witchcraft, malignant and nefarious mystical entities, each taking their own form based on the cultural and religious setting; thus, what were ‘jinns’ in Islam, were evil spirits in Christianity or ‘bhoots’ in India.

However, these cultural explanations of illness are not limited to possessions by paranormal beings but also include symbolism attached to certain objects or food that act as transmitters of magical substances. Therefore, the variation in perception concerning the causes of behavioural changes in an individual is reflected in the variety of indigenous methods used to cure them. The popularity of the Balaji temple in Rajasthan, India, which is said to treat people possessed by evil spirits, is witness to these belief systems. Treatments here range from physical therapies to reduce pain to chaining people within the temple premises indicating a diversity in beliefs and perceptions.

A major problem in incorporating traditional medicine is the ambiguity and intangibility of socio-cultural beliefs and unaccountability of the same. Among the Zulu in South Africa, ‘dirt’ plays a pivotal role in illness and illness management. They believe that ‘dirt’ finds refuge in the ‘vagina’ and ‘womb’ of a woman. Thus, a woman is a carrier of diseases like HIV. Thematic associations are made with ‘wet’ vaginas causing ‘dirt’ to ‘stick’. Traditional beliefs for curing a man affected by HIV/AIDS are through intercourse with a virgin during which they believe the disease is not transmitted to the girl.

Alternatively, the lack of direct translation of illnesses from local languages further impede the identification of illness and provisioning of appropriate care. An example of this is the term for depression across languages. In Cambodia, depression does not feature as a part of the vocabulary, instead the term thelea tdeuk ceut, which literally means ‘the water in my heart has fallen’, has been indicative of symptoms similar to that of depression.

This diversity in beliefs and perception of disease coupled with other factors like disease burden affecting the particular society, socio-economic condition of the society, existing medical systems and framework within the society, are important considerations for modelling successful public health strategies. The existing biomedical model is structured around strict guidelines, where bodies are seen as therapeutic interventions to hospital architectures and clinical trials are the benchmark of quality, safety, efficacy and effectiveness. While one cannot ignore that in time traditional forms of healing have incorporated and used biomedical language and technology in the postcolonial era of globalization, appropriating them into a biomedical framework would require professionalisation of traditional healers, standardisation of terminology, technique, treatment and pricing and knowledge assimilation and dissemination in a manner that promotes research.

Individually all of us have our own beliefs about traditional medicine – we either completely mistrust them or believe that some forms of traditional healing are more legitimate than the others and find a hierarchical use of medical systems more appropriate. With the current state of health care in most developing countries, it would be more appropriate for governments to improve upon the service delivery of the biomedical framework rather than incorporate traditional methods of healing. Given that biomedicine has proven effective and has an existing infrastructure, governments should work on improving delivery in rural areas and educating the masses rather than building an infrastructure and legal framework for a new system that may or may not prove efficacious.


Image source: Kerdkanno/ Pixabay
You must be to comment.
  1. Red Elephant Foundation

    Shruti, this is a very insightful and informative post. Your articulation and soundness of research in this piece is very compelling, and makes this one of the most amazing reads we’ve chanced upon in recent times!

    1. shruti Menon

      Thank you REF! I am glad you enjoyed it 🙂

More from shruti Menon

Similar Posts

By Charkha Features

By India Development Review (IDR)

By Apoorva Singh

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below