‘Woman’s Hour’ in Odisha

Growing up and becoming a young woman in India can be a confusing, terrifying prospect in some rural and poor urban communities. Young women are given the barest of facts and no proper explanation of what is happening to their bodies. Traditions tell them they are both ‘unclean’ while menstruating; and that they are ‘now a woman’. They face up to the terrifying prospect (still practiced in some rural communities) of physical isolation in separate huts for the entirely of their period; as well as the potential of early marriage (despite child marriage being made illegal) to a man likely twice their age or more.

Sunolo Sakhi radio broadcast

So what can a simple radio show do in this context? How can the broadcast word make any difference? Of course it cannot be powerful on its own, but when combined with the courage of those teenagers and young adults, it can create shock-waves of change.

This is something I heard about first hand during a visit to Sunolo Sakhi clubs in the town of Bhubaneswar in Odisha State in November last year. Their Facebook page is here. And see this short Video to find out more.

A radio show now in its 3rd series with more than 30 hours being on air so far and being broadcast across six towns in the state of Odisha is allowing young women the chance to understand menstruation and all that surrounds it. The show, broadcast for an hour on a Saturday afternoon and then available as a podcast, allows girls to phone in and ask questions of an expert. Practical Action has supported the radio show, and helped girls and young women to form clubs at the community level where they can get together to listen to the show and discuss it.

Sunolo Sakhi in braille

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2018 #IWD, the team launched a braille version of the accompanying material: part of a commitment to make it even more widely accessible.

These girls have not had an easy time of it. They had to fight with their mothers and fathers to be allowed to even meet up. There was fear that the knowledge would be disrespectful and turn their daughters against them. All this simply to listen to a radio show together once a week.

The groups have been built, by social community workers. Building trust is essential, we start with a small number of slums (15 per month), and groups are now operating in 80 slums. Social mobilisers work with mothers in the community to build trust. These ice-breaking activities are essential: menstrual hygiene remains a cultural taboo and without building trust, awareness and openness girls would not be granted approval to join the clubs. Forming clubs is not easy, and it is essential to work closely with mothers and other families and community members, especially men.

Members of the Sunolo Sakhi club

On the show, questions are answered about the practicalities of menstruation: what is normal; and whether the myths they’ve been handed down are really true. They sometimes listen with their mothers. It opens a space for discussion, guided and organised by local facilitators. This may be the start of allowing these young women some basic agency. In urban contexts at least it can help gradually change the myths that constrain them. They will never forget what they’ve learned from week to week – and when asked how they would pass it on to their daughters they were adamant that the secrecy and taboos of the past would end in their generation.

Speaking at launch of Sunolo Sakhi braille edition

I confess I’m a fan of BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour – a national treasure of British radio which has been occasionally criticised as being too ‘safe’ with its discussions of how to make the best cakes, but also for being dangerously radical. It shares an objective of being a space where women lead the discussion about the topics of the day and how they experience them. It was a revelation to hear from these young women about the power of radio to both challenge and inform.

What did the girls think should be the future of the show? They felt there was still much to do on the issue of menstrual hygiene, but other associated issues were important too, in particular questions of child marriage, and there certainly seemed a huge appetite for the format and content.

Sadly no commercial radio station wants to take the show on with its own resources. But for the time being Practical Action hopes to continue our support. Personally I have rarely seen such fantastic value for money in empowering girls to take control.

Happy International Women’s Day 2018 #IWD #pressforprogress

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