Meet Urmila Chanam, the woman who loves the color red for more reasons than one

Image courtesy: Urmila Chanam

She is confident, determined and has fiery perseverance to take rural hygiene to the next level. Urmila Chanam, a journalist and an ardent social activist from Manipur loves red, as it’s more than just a color to her. It is the color of the menstrual blood.

She caters to issues such as HIV/AIDS prevention, drug abuse, education for the poor and gender rights. But her recent campaign called ‘Breaking the Silence’ is what has attracted people’s attention towards her.

Having suffered abuse herself in her marriage, Urmila decided to make that a turning point towards the betterment of women’s lives. From hygiene to improving the overall lifestyle of rural women, Urmila is tirelessly working to educate them about themselves, a culture that subjugates them and the means to untie the knot. And it’s not only in India. To spread the message of ‘Breaking the Silence’, Urmila is travelling places.

Image courtesy:  |  Ch Urmila
Image courtesy: | Ch Urmila

She deals with one of the most delicate issues in rural India –menstrual hygiene. Through her campaign ‘Breaking the Silence’, she is educating women on the need for such hygiene, at the same time teaching them how cultural practices relating to it can prove deprecating and isolating.

“I want them to take about these issues openly and without inhibition. That is what ‘Breaking the Silence’ is all about,” Urmila says.

Image courtesy: Urmila Chanam
Image courtesy: Urmila Chanam

Folomojo spoke to Urmila regarding her social work and the campaign. Read the interview to know more about the woman who is changing the face of rural reality for women.

1. What inspired you to take up this cause?

It was not just inspiration, but a fire that was burning inside of me. I had a troubled marriage, in which I was abused. The society expected women to look good by not talking about the problems they were facing at home.

The women too stuck to this outward image of a happy marriage, even though they were far from happy at home. I came out of my marriage and decided to help such women value themselves more and give importance to their bodies.

Image courtesy:  |  Ch Urmila
‘Breaking the Silence’ session | Image courtesy: | Ch Urmila

2. You have also worked on similar issues in Africa. How did that turn out?

There the situation is even worse. They have so many cultural practices that ostracize women from the society, especially during their monthly periods. In Uganda, girls are made to choose a number between 1 and 10. If they chose 5, for example, it means the girl would menstruate for so many days. Many such sentiments are followed.

Also they are so poor, they use polythene, tissues or sand wrapped in cotton cloth, to check blood flow. We went there to teach them to make their own sanitary pads. This is not a problem in third world countries alone. Even women in America don’t talk as openly about menstruation as you think.

In India, only 12% of women use pads. Imagine! What about the remaining 88%?

 3. When you went to the villages in India to educate them, what was the reaction like? Did you have to face reticence?

 No. My method was different. I didn’t just go to the villages and start speaking on issues of hygiene. That came in the end. The NGOs that I go through keep the ground clear, preparing them for my arrival. So, by the time I go, they would be ready. Initially, I begin talking about general issues such as HIV, gender equality, cultural equality, need for education etc and then slowly lead them to menstrual hygiene.

Image courtesy: Urmila Chanam
Image courtesy: Urmila Chanam

The men were also curious to know what all this meant. They never stopped the women, at least in my experience.

Through ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) I teach them how to make and use sanitary pads. I also donate many when I go there.In fact many men and students from the urban side have contributed boxes of sanitary napkins for the cause.

I also crack jokes so that the topic doesn’t get too serious and they laugh out loud.

4. What are the tools you use to teach them?

I take pictures and videos of these issues and also charts. I play videos on my phone and explain what they mean. I also have a flipbook that has naked and clothed animations of a boy and a girl in order to illustrate my points.

Image courtesy:  |  Ch Urmila
Image courtesy: | Ch Urmila

With this I teach them about their bodies, gender differences, different biological systems etc. Then I get to why there is maternal mortality and why it’s important for women to take care of themselves and value their biological cycles.

 5. How have you managed to find funding for all this?

I fund everything myself. Even though many are volunteering to help now, I still manage the show myself as I am into this alone. Now, all my money goes into taking ‘Breaking the Silence’ forward. The campaign has got many talking about menstruation and I think that’s important.

Image courtesy: Urmila Chanam
Image courtesy: Urmila Chanam

6. What is your message to people in general?

My message is that please quit the cultural system that is propagating the subservience of women and ostracizing them. Give up practices that weaken them. When each family realizes the importance of giving their women the freedom they need, eventually the society too will change.

 7. What is the future plan?

I am going to saturate every state in the country with my message. I am going to visit every village possible and educate women on what they are capable of. There are many other ideas, none that I can talk about at this point.

Having won many accolades for her contributions, one of which was the prestigious Laadli awards, Urmila is not looking back. She is rearing to go to ‘saturate every village’ as she puts it, to change the sorry state of women across the country and the world.

Also read

This lady’s innovative idea will make every woman feel loved, cared for and pampered during menstruation

#iamnotdown: Comedian Radhika Vaz tells women why they should stop being apologetic about periods

This girl asks shopkeepers why sanitary pads are wrapped in black polythene. What they say once she leaves will shock you