Bade Gopamma, 52, of Markandi village in the Ganjam district is on a mission to spread awareness among fishing communities on the need for menstrual hygiene. The subject of menstrual hygiene is currently in the news because of the Akshay Kumar starrer Padman.But Gopamma has been working with quiet dedication on raising awareness on this sensitive subject for some time now. Without formal education or support from men of her community, she has succeeded in her efforts to empower women by teaching them ways to live a hygienic life and earn a fishery-based livelihood. She has also been encouraging girls’ education.
It was after the 1999 super cyclone which almost ravaged her village that Gopamma embarked on her mission. Initially, she faced tough resistance from her
“Along with other likeminded women in our village, I started Divya Jyoti, a self-help group for socio-economic empowerment. In the first year, the significant changes we were able to bring about hurt the ego of the men in our community. The village committee, in particular, felt that our group would overshadow them. So they convened a meeting and asked us to stop all our activities. They insisted that women should no longer go out of the village, especially to banks and the block office, without their permission. When the women refused to listen to them, they excommunicated the members of the group and prohibited us from taking part in any social and cultural activities. Finally, when seven members defied the committee order, they locked them in a room for a night and took away our registers and records. They also assaulted some of us. But we stood united, fearlessly, and filed a case with the police. We took out a rally to the office of the collector and sub-collector and sought their intervention against the highhandedness of the village committee. With the help of the top officials, we won the case. We have been successfully working through our self-help group for social and economic upliftment since 2000,” Gopamma said.
“Any talk of menstruation cycle, hitherto, was considered taboo in our community. Due to illiteracy, people were influenced by superstitions. We tried to overcome these problems but due to lack of awareness we had to work extra hard. Once we participated in a fair at Bhubaneswar to display our fish products and that is where we first came across low-cost sanitary napkins being manufactured by Shyamsundar Badker, who received training from Arunachalam Muruganantham, the pioneer in the manufacture of cheap sanitary pads,” she said.
Badker helped to install a pad-making machine and trained the self-help group members in handling the machine. “Then we started making low-cost sanitary napkins priced at Rs. 18 for a pack of six and sold them to local shops and other self-help groups for Rs. 15. In addition to selling napkins, we held awareness raising programmes on menstrual hygiene and educated adolescent girls and women on the subject,” Gopamma said.
The venture now generates regular income and employment for the members of the group. The napkins made by the group are not totally machine-made as part of the work is done manually. “Hence, the finished product may not match the sanitary napkins available in the market, but the napkin quality is adequate to maintain cleanliness,” added Gopamma.
Gopamma is an active member of the Ganjam District Traditional Fishermen’s Union and Odisha Marine Fish Workers’ Union. She has participated in workshops and meetings sponsored by the World Social Forum and World Fisher Forum and in various national fisheries workers’ forums under the NFF banner.
Gopamma organises community-based awareness campaigns focusing on the girl child and girls’ education in coastal fishing villages. She was also instrumental in minimising child labour and child marriages in the coastal villages. Besides, she is also active in community-based social marketing of oral contraceptives to popularise family planning in Ganjam district.