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Holistic Healing Through Rural Herbal Traditions

Updated: June 12, 2010 11:56 am

By reclaiming traditional herbal healing systems, training women to use these for their own health and that of their communities, the Shodhini network facilitates natural and traditional alternatives in health care to meet women’s special needs

Aikya Mandala, a green expanse on the outskirts of Bangalore, is a refreshing oasis where people can rediscover the healing touch of natural herbs and myriad ways in which the human potential can be fulfilled in harmony with other living creatures of the earth. Working since 1982 with rural and tribal communities, landless groups and members of scheduled castes and tribes, Aikya extends their social work to include people from all faiths. “We feel rural people are poor, backward and helpless,” Philomena Vincent, director, Aikya says. “Working with rural communities made us appreciate their rich knowledge in health care, both promotive as well as curative.”

            Aikya facilitated a unique collaborative health network called Shodhini on natural and traditional alternatives in health care to meet women’s special needs. In the beginning, field workers of Aikya connected with rural women to gather local wisdom on women’s health traditions. In October 1987, 50 women’s health activists from rural and urban areas from all over the country met to discuss issues related to women’s health. Also present was Rina Nissim of the Geneva Women’s Health Collective, a group promoting and training health workers in systems of natural healing in gynaecology.

            The meeting led to the formation of a group of women under the banner of ‘Action Research on Alternative Medicine and Women’s Health’ with Rina Nissim as the convener. The group comprised women from grassroots organisations like Deccan Development Society (DDS), Action India, Aikya, Sarthi, Eklavya, and others, and also women’s research and documentation organisations and individual activists and experts.

            The Shodhini collective aimed to identify common health problems which rural women felt shy to discuss. Gynaecological problems, anaemia, urinary tract infection and night blindness were common and neglected even when the women had access to modern medical care. The Shodhini researchers felt that the western health care system or the dominant, classical medical systems of India rarely examine the social roots of diseases. The patient is treated as a passive body and medicines are prescribed to treat the symptoms. Women’s serious complaints are often treated lightly and their healing traditions and lore are dismissed as unscientific by established patriarchal systems of medicine.

            Adherents of Shodhini treat the patient as a whole individual who participates along with the health care provider in her own healing of the body, mind and relationships. Shodhini attempts to create a space apart from the male-defined concepts of women’s bodies and minds, where women can freely express and share their experiences and their understanding of their own bodies.

            Tanushree Gangopadhyay, a journalist and activist based in Ahmedabad at that time, participated in the initial founding of the movement. “Self-help is an important aspect of the Shodhini approach,” she says. “This boosts women’s self-esteem, which in turn improves her general sense of well-being. As researchers interacting with rural women healers, we examined each

other and freely discussed our health concerns among ourselves. This eased many of our self-doubts and gave us a psychological lift. Training local women in traditional medicines was ideal for rural interior areas far from hospitals and mainstream doctors. There were several members and activists like me working together as a strong team with tribal vaids and herbal healers. As an educated urban professional, I visited rural areas and began to understand and respect the wisdom behind traditional local beliefs and practices.”

            According to Shodhini, a woman’s physical health problem needs to be approached holistically because it is affected by her social condition and personal experiences. The healer’s approach has to be tailored to each woman’s family situation and financial status, which can place psychological pressures upon her. “Getting well” has a deeper meaning…being alive, participating in and giving and taking from the energies of the universe. Pregnancy and childbirth, for instance, are an integral part of life and do not necessarily need doctors, nurses, hospitals and medicines.’ (Touch me, touch-me-not: women, plants, and healing, brought out by Shodhini and published by Zubaan Books).

            Shodhini’s researchers realised that folk healers and local women empirically knew many natural remedies to sustain good health. But this knowledge was not codified or coordinated with other communities. The book, Touch me, touch-me-not: women, plants, and healing, attempts to record some of these strategies of survival, of how women in India have stayed healthy traditionally.

            The book seeks to understand traditional healers and their healing practices, document their use of herbs, preparation of herbal remedies and practice of non-herbal healing practices, including some of the rituals that accompany the process of healing. It also seeks to ‘help women take charge of their bodies through a process of self-help so that they understand the body, its rhythms as well as its power.’

            After 18 months of identifying healers, herbs and their botanical names, the group had information on nearly 250 plants, many of them used for the same symptoms in different parts of the country. Their work led to the Women and Health (WAH), a national collaborative initiative formed in 1992 with Aikya as an active member. “We at Aikya continue to work primarily with women, while not excluding men and involving young children,” Philomena Vincent says. “Women’s skills are a continuing living tradition in rural India. Today, many years after Shodhini’s inception as a trailblazer, women taking charge of their health is a movement that is growing and spreading. Original individual members and new organisations are setting up highly effective natural healing movements in their respective areas.”

            FRLHT (Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions) is a good example of such a movement. Their work covers documentation and assessment of local health traditions for management of malaria, capacity building of traditional bone setters, promotion and mainstreaming Ethno-veterinary practices in veterinary education and research, and establishing 162 folk healers’ associations and imparting training on oushadhikarn (traditional methods of preparing herbal medicines).

            Deccan Development Society (DDS) of Andhra Pradesh, one of the founder members of Shodhini, is also among those successfully promoting traditional healing methods. The Medicinal Plants Project of DDS supported by Find Your Feet was started in 1996 to create village medicinal commons on government wastelands through soil and moisture conservation works, bunding, fencing etc. They have ensured the continuing regeneration of traditional herbal medicinal resources in villages and boosted folk healing practices. They are also making an ecological impact by creating perennial green herbal patches in village wastelands.

            Aikya’s own programmes for Wandering Healers, and sessions on holistic therapies open to all, including urbanites, for a nominal fee, are helping people to be free of overdependence on conventional drugs. “There is no longer only one Shodhini,” Philomena Vincent concludes. “Its many offshoots are growing and spreading the message of natural health care.”


By Monideepa Sahu

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