Women health workers of ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) deployed in rural areas of Uttarakhand are currently agitating against the state government. The cause for their agitation is the condoms that have been sent by the Central Government for door to door free distribution in villages under the revamped family planning program.
Distributing condoms is alright, but the problem arises over the name of these condoms, as they have been named as ASHA NIRODH. Condoms and talk of sex are still taboo in rural India and hurts the middle class sensibilities. It is but natural for ASHA workers have been agitated over such bizarre nomenclature and association that denigrates their dignity as they are associated with an organization bearing the same name. Terming it as an insult to their and other women’s dignity, these social workers have plainly refused to distribute these condoms. They burnt the effigies of chief minister and health minister in protest.
A few months back, the Central Government had revived ‘Nirodh’ as a brand and literally achieved a next to impossible task as Nirodh had lost market to other lustrous brands manufactured by big multinational companies and promoted by celebrities and film stars. For example a famous condom brand promoted by ex – porn star Sunny Leone raked in the eyeballs. But while Sunny Leone walked away with her booty after shamelessly appearing in explicitly suggestive these health workers faced great embarrassment and even humiliation almost on daily basis when they went out to distribute the ‘Sarkari’ condoms in villages.
“First they exploit us as employees and now they malign our image,” said an ASHA worker. “People now call us and say: ‘Ek Asha dena (Give me one Asha)’. They have even started making jokes on us. It is awkward and undignified,”she rued.
Asha condoms made these door-to-door women campaigners a butt of indecent jokes in Punjab also. Last month, they boycotted the drive. The product was called Deluxe but when fresh stock arrived in May, it had a new brand name and a more seductive package. Men started teasing the volunteers with lewed remarks. Asha Workers and Facilitator Union state president Kirandeep Panchola confirmed that all Asha workers in Punjab had boycotted the distribution of these condoms “until the government changes its name and we get a fresh supply”.
After gaining momentum among women health workers in Uttarakhand and Punjab, the voices of dissent have reached Rajasthan. The Congress has been quick to join the protest in the state against naming male contraceptives as ‘Asha’. Rajasthan Congress vice-president and party media chairperson Archana Sharma termed it a thoughtless decision of the Central Government.
Kavita Srivastava of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties a left organisation says, “The name of the contraceptive has been changed from Nirodh to Asha Nirodh. Aâ€ˆlot of women workers have been calling me and expressing their concern as they feel harassed and are becoming a topic of undignified jokes. We are planning to send protest letters to Union Health Minister J P Nadda to drop the name and withdraw the contraceptives.”
Running a safe-sex campaign under the National Health Mission, the health ministry is giving away free contraceptives such as condoms, besides regular and emergency pills, through these ground-level woman motivators. The product name was changed from Deluxe to Asha and dispensed in new, “more attractive” package — in the government’s views – which carries the image of a gorgeous couple aimed at seducing men.
An Asha worker is a woman in the age group of 25 to 45 who is qualified up to Class 10. Provided with knowledge and a medical kit to deliver first-contact healthcare, every Asha is expected to be a fountainhead of community participation in public health programmes in her village.
Major government campaigns and projects in India are oftentimes named after great political leaders even though some of them generated controversies. This trend seems to be motivated by petty personal or political gain. But one thing is certain, that such nomenclature is usually done after due deliberation. But what were our policymakers were thinking while naming these condoms as Asha? Was it for brand association like Tata Motors or Birla Cement. Unfortunately with condoms you cannot do that. Certainly, they did not follow the proper naming procedures, because while naming big projects, prestige of political bigwigs is taken into account but they have no concern for the dignitiy of ASHA workers. Otherwise, they would have discussed it with them before taking such an important step.
India was the first country in the world to officially launch a massive family planning programme during 1950s and 60s. But unfortunately this program remained just a government programme with no or little social acceptance or participation. Factors responsible for its failure were the high officials and policymakers who had no knowledge of ground realities.
Also, it not easy to talk about means and methods of family planning in rural households. And when an important method of family planning, that is, condom has been named as ASHA, and the same name carried is the brand of the rural health workers, then it becomes a little tricky. Instead of sales leverage due to brand association condoms would invite embarrassment and humiliation for them while distributing the product. People who have given this name should have realized it. Due to lack of sensibility to such issues, their efforts generate despair, not hope.