This Manipuri Activist Is Winning Awards Around The Globe For Smashing Menstrual Taboos

Posted by Shweta Raj Kanwar in Menstruation, Volunteerism
June 6, 2017

Leaving behind a life of domestic violence, this lady chose to take control of her future and has now become an inspiration for women to look up to. Urmila Chanam from Manipur has won a global award, Voices of Our Future Award by World Pulse, a social networking platform that connects women from 190 countries across the world with a vision to amplify women’s voices to speed up change and improve the lives of millions around the world.

Chanam from Manipur was among three from across the world who received the award. She received the award for utilising technology to achieve a high impact on community issues of menstrual hygiene.

Speaking to Shweta Raj Kanawar, Urmila talks about her journey from being a survivor of domestic violence to being a global inspiration for women, the issues she voices, and how she wishes to expand her network for a better future.

Urmila Chanam was born in Manipur but started her career at Shillong in Meghalaya. Her father was an army officer which gave her an opportunity to travel around the country, which contributed a lot towards what she took up later in life.

She studied social science and is a master’s in anthropology. She has always been interested in community and welfare work. She has also done a course in digital skills, as well as journalism. However, writing has always been her first love and she has also been a contributor to various newspapers in Manipur. She chose to focus on raising awareness and resources for “Breaking the Silence”, a campaign that has already won her awards like the UNFPA National Laadli Award in 2015 for the Best Social Media Campaign in India.

Here are excerpts from her interview:

Shweta: How long have you been associated with World Pulse Organization?

Urmila Chanam: World Pulse basically represents the ‘pulse’ of women around the world. It is a collective body of journalists and community workers working at the grass roots level. It works with a vision to alleviate the problems of women and find solutions that women want. I have been associated with World Pulse for about six years now. Their vision really impressed me and helped me find a purpose. I do not work for World Pulse but I am a community member. The women at World Pulse helped me to be what I am now. This award is a responsibility that I will carry forward.

S: When did you decide that changing the public perception on menstruation would be your mission?

UC: I always wanted to associate myself with community work. I am also a person who is not very interested in politics as I had a vision that the real change would come from the citizens. Talking about the situation in Manipur, I believe that the people have a great potential to bring about a change. But, my views on the importance of menstrual hygiene evolved over time.

Surviving Domestic Abuse

However, this achievement and the motivation to work endlessly for the good of the community did not come easily for her. Sharing her personal experience with us, she says, “I am a survivor of domestic violence. I was married to my childhood sweetheart. I knew him since I was four years old. I became a victim of domestic abuse right from the sixth month of my marriage. For eight whole years, I remained silent and did not share my woes with anybody, not even my family.”

This socially conditioned need to keep her troubles under the carpet cost her a lot in life. “This pretension, this ‘virtue’ of keeping mum about my worries nearly killed me. But that was the end of it. I decided to take matters into my own hands and taking only my three-year-old daughter with me, I walked out of my house, leaving all my belongings behind, in search of a better life.

This happened around eight to nine years back and the future seemed very uncertain for Urmila and her child. She says, “I left my job, my home, my belongings. I was literally running for cover and never looked back again. I earned everything brick by brick. My daughter is 12 now.”

This particular incident acted as an eye opener for her. This was when she realised that the biggest barrier to women empowerment in India is the social conditioning that makes women keep things under the carpet and not seek help.

This is the very reason why she founded the campaign known as “Breaking the Silence”. She envisions a time when women will be able to speak up and seek as well as provide help without any hesitation.

Urmila has been actively campaigning against the stigma attached to menstruation. She has been actively campaigning in various parts of the nation including Maharashtra, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Manipur. Very soon, Kashmir will be her next campaign destination.

Women should not be considered as outcasts when on their periods. Don’t treat us like outcasts for five days and pretend to worship us for the remaining 25 days,” she says.

Men should come on board and partner with women to work against the stigma attached to menstruation. My campaign also engages a lot of men and I am open to all sorts of interaction with men on this issue. Most men have also supported me and inspire me in my endeavours. In the last 90 days, various men have come on board and shown interest in this issue of menstruation and the stigma attached to it,” she says, while adding that women often presume that men may not support them or might be uninterested in this issue, which is completely false. The need to open oneself up to support is also a crucial thing in this regard.

Urmila Chanam’s Vision For Women

1. The number of women who use sanitary pads should increase. In India, every year 72,000 women die of cervical cancer due to poor menstrual hygiene.

2. There has to be a decline in the school dropout rate among girls after they start menstruating. About 23% of girls in India are leaving school as after they have their periods, they suffer due to poor sanitary conditions in schools and lack of proper disposal facilities. I want to see a supportive environment in schools, colleges as well as workplace regarding this crucial issue.

3.  The most important goal is for the government to include a chapter on ‘Menstrual Hygiene Education’ in the school curriculum, which should be taught diligently to all genders.

She goes on to say that northeast India will be her prime focus due to the fact that this region is comparatively cut off from the rest of the nation due to various reasons, which makes it important to introduce the campaign here. She added that menstrual hygiene management and sensitisation in the region will be of utmost importance to her.

She urged the people as well as the government to work in close collaboration with each other and create an environment free from all stigmas and unnecessary connotations.

The talent quotient of the northeast is undeniably strong. However, due to the armed struggle in various states, our energy has been diverted towards freeing ourselves from this terror. But, it is time now to rise above what has happened as the future belongs to us. It is time to part our curtains and look out at the world.

A version of this article was originally published here.