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Talking to ourselves

The Sixties were sputtering out when a group of women met in Boston to share their experiences with healthcare, to discuss their bodies, and to try and find out why women knew so little about the medical system that was supposed to treat them.

Our Bodies, Ourselves is what emerged from those weekly meetings that took on the momentum of a movement and continues to evolve today. And the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective is a synonym, more than 40 years later, for what women can accomplish if they pool resources.

In the Eighties, a group of women in Hyderabad had just discovered the collective’s work. “We realised how starved we had been for information about our health, our bodies and our sexuality,” write Veena Shatrugna, Gita Ramaswamy and Srividya Natarajan in the recently published Taking Charge of Our Bodies.

In the late 1980s, they translated Our Bodies, Ourselves into Telugu. As with the original project, they also included the stories of women from that area. In 2004, what they have produced goes far beyond a translation. It follows the lead set by the original collective in Boston — but the issues highlighted in India vis-à-vis healthcare for women are naturally, very different.

“We begin with the premise that the question of women’s health is tied up with her family, caste, community, state, medical profession, access to medical facilities, and now, even the World Bank’s conditions for the loans that they will extend to India!” they write. “…[Woman’s] health is as much the state of her body as it is the context in which she lives.”

For me, Taking Charge of Our Bodies is more than a health handbook — it’s a movement. New editions will be required every few years. Every edition will pull in more women: since the book is underpinned by actual accounts by women, it could be a constantly evolving document, a living chronicle.

What Our Bodies, Ourselves and Taking Charge of Our Bodies reflect is a very harsh reality. In a world where women’s medical problems are often treated as trivial or shameful or imaginary, it is up to us to do the best we can. The medical establishment, the family, the workplace — the three areas that directly impact women’s health—will not change on their own.

There is a more upbeat message. Recent studies show that women don’t deal with stress with the classic male “fight and flight” response. Instead, they build networks, make friends. If you enlarge that response, what you have is this: a project that leans on the thousands of stories women have to tell, that depends on knowledge shared by women. It knits together like a patchwork quilt, with everybody contributing to the grand design and the authors content to use the anonymous but empowering “we”.

The other day a teenage friend dropped by; she had a health problem she was embarrassed to discuss. I handed her both books and let her read the stories of women from the US and from India who’d gone through the same “shameful” experience she described. “Other women have had this'” she exclaimed. “Do they have an e-mail ID or an address'” she asked. “Maybe I’ll write and tell them about my experience. You know, just in case it’s useful.”

This is how it works. We get comfortable, we start talking, we share and we help other women. All we need is someone to invite us to sit down at the table and begin.

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