“There is a deep sense of shame and oppression associated with menstruation”, rues Angel Konthoujam, an SBI Youth For India fellow from Manipur who wants women to celebrate the occurrence of menstruation as naturally as it happens. SBI Youth for India is a 13-month long programme that enables India’s brightest young minds to work on rural development projects with experienced NGOs. Supported by the State Bank of India, the fellowship offers one of the best platforms in the country to follow one’s heart and help solve rural India’s most pressing challenges.
Talking to Shweta Raj Kanwar about her journey towards making the world more acceptable to women’s needs, Angel Konthoujam opens up about her life, aspirations and how her model is effectively assisting rural women in Gujarat to open up about menstruation and tackle the taboo without any shame.
One of the four children born to her parents, Angel was born in the city of Imphal in Manipur. She completed her education from Scindia Kanya Vidyalaya, a boarding school in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh from class 8 to class 12 and graduated with a bachelor of Science Degree in Physics from St. Stephen’s College in New Delhi. Thereafter, she went on to pursue her master’s in sociology from Madras University.
Talking about what prompted her to become part of the SBI Youth for India fellowship programme, she says, “My father encouraged me to apply for the fellowship. I was interested in the fellowship as it gives valuable grassroots level exposure with partner NGOs who are seven of India’s most experienced organisations in poverty alleviation. The fellowship gives one absolute freedom to design and implement one’s own rural development project. I got to gauge the needs of the community and design my own interventions. I believe there aren’t many platforms where one can get such an opportunity.”
Menstruation is still considered a taboo topic in many households despite women’s rights being hailed time and again. And Angel took up this issue as part of her fellowship programme and decided to spearhead the stigma.
“Our society, in general, isn’t very kind to women. We live in a society where there is a culture of silence around menstruation which has been intensified by being passed down from generation to generation,” she says. Her effort is to remind society, and most importantly women themselves, be it in the rural areas or urban spaces, the importance of menstruation and how life depends on it. She also adds, “There is a need to reassess and revalue menstruation because that’s where life begins. It affects half of this country’s citizens and the stigma that surrounds this normal bodily function without which human life cannot be sustained has to end because it affects how women deal with menstruation. There is a deep sense of shame and oppression associated with menstruation. Women are made to accept the usage of old rags to manage their menstruation and told not to touch other human beings as they are ‘impure’ during menstruation. Most of us have been brought up with the concept that this is the only way we can deal with something that’s ‘filthy’ and ‘impure’. I want women to gain knowledge of the reasons why menstruation occurs, to help them open themselves to critical thinking regarding the taboo, and challenge the myths and lifestyle restrictions that have been imposed upon them. I want to equip women with a menstrual product that is relevant to their needs, to help them go through menstruation in a dignified manner”.
Recalling her experiences with the women in Gujarat, she says that in the beginning of the fellowship, she would spend hours in the project village, trying to understand their daily lives and trying to create a bond with the women. She never approached them with a dichotomous feeling that separated her from them. They knew far more than she did about their struggles and hardships and she definitely did not know more than them about their needs. Hence, Angel made it a point to always include them in the planning of the project. Their perspective adds a whole new understanding which helps in designing the solutions to the problem at hand.
One of the interventions was to facilitate educational sessions on menstruation, starting with the adolescent girls. For most of the girls, these sessions were the first opportunity they ever had to express curiosity about menstruation. Angel designed an interactive teaching aid, which allowed her to engage in a fun manner with the girls. In the first few sessions, none of them would give a response, apart from giggles. Then one session, she asked one of the students to facilitate the session in their dialect using the teaching aid. She right away took charge and with help from her friends in the audience, she managed to narrate the whole process of menstruation. This incident, Angel says, was one of the best experiences she had in the entire session, “I still have a recording of that session because it was a life-changing experience. I have never felt as much joy as I did that day in my life, ever before. I was very proud.”
When not in her ‘wonder woman’ avatar, Angel likes to travel but when she does travel, she spends ample amount of time getting to know the natives of the particular land, their rich culture and traditions. “I enjoy learning about people and their history. The fellowship has also been an extended version of my love for travelling. Dangs is a beautiful place inhabited by beautiful people,” she says, while adding, “I also like to indulge myself in poetry; I do document my time during the SBI Youth for India fellowship in the village through this medium. One of my poems on the Adivasi community will be in SBI’s coffee table book to be published regarding the fellowship.”
In the course of her time with these women, it is evident that Angel has bonded very close to them, when she says, “The women of the Kotwalia Community of Chichinagavtha are all my future aspirations. They are my sole inspiration and my motivation on rainy days. They remind me of the kind of perseverance people can possess regardless of the kind of hardships life can bring. Neglecting women as stakeholders of development is like rendering the body of development without hands. The women of my project village, given the chance, will surprise the world with their wit and confidence. This inspires me above anything else to work towards poverty eradication.”
The stigma regarding menstruation transcends caste, religion and region. “Even I did not know why I menstruate well into my twenties. I can only speak on behalf of my community in Manipur and state very honestly that conversations on menstruation rarely happen. We have lifestyle restrictions such as not being allowed in the kitchen, not being allowed to enter the religious worship areas, etc. I would love to engage with both men and women regarding menstruation back in my hometown, Imphal. I am looking to collaborate with non-profit organisations, schools, etc. in the north-east,” Angel adds with a firm determination while she works hard each day to enlighten the minds of not only women but men, into accepting nature’s ways that have so far been neglected by man-made stereotypes.
Her association with Sadhana Forest- a community consisting of individuals from all over the world – she says, has helped her amplify her current project in an effective manner. “My travels led me to Auroville and I learnt a lot about sustainable living at Sadhana. I was vegan the entire time. It was quite an experience. I also came to know about Eco Femme which works on producing re-washable cloth pads. I also worked with them regarding my fellowship project.”
After completion of the SBI Youth Fellowship Programme, Angel will be attending the University of Cambridge for an MPhil in Development Studies. She is being fully funded by the Chevening Scholarship. She plans to take her grassroots experiences and couple them with sound academic understanding to become a better Development Worker.
As a young changemaker, Angel Konthoujam believes in ample assistance from all government and non-profit organisations and the need to converge to help India eradicate poverty. As she rightly goes on to say, “I implore each and everyone to remember that change starts from within, be it regarding how we as a society treat women or how we as a society treat the underprivileged.”