Women: The Preservers of Traditional Medicine

Abstract: Medicinal plants form the largest segment of the biodiversity used by indigenous people. Traditionally, women are the providers of health care within the home. An important area of woman’s involvement in traditional medicine is in the area of antenatal and post-natal centre. Besides, they handle specialised areas like bone setting, eye disease management etc. Food and nutrition are important areas of women’s knowledge. Women also serve as conservers and cultivators of medicinal plants throughout the world. Education of women is important to create awareness of their rights and health care options. Women are thus the healers of human suffering in much of the world.

Keywords: complementary/alternative medicine, medicinal plants, home remedies, knowledge of traditional medicine, women’s expertise

Plants for health care form the largest segment of the biodiversity used by indigenous people for basic needs. (Darshan Shankar, 1996) Traditionally, women as mothers, wives and sisters were the providers of health care within the home. They were the custodians of a rich fund of knowledge on herbal remedies. Their knowledge about home remedies was handed down from one generation to the next by an oral tradition, that is part of our social heritage (Ekbal, 2002). The importance of the woman in the house cannot be overlooked. A woman should be regarded as the mother of a nation. The responsibility of the woman in the home include: (a) Education- b) Nutrition. c) Hygiene and sanitation. d) Promotion and conservation of culture and tradition. e) Provision of nursing care to the sick and f) Reproduction.

Housewives form the chunk of preservers of village based health traditions and the folk medicine stream. Women play an important role in local health culture. Home remedies are their forte and millions of women administer such remedies. The scope of home remedies is quite extensive and microstudies reveal their use in about 50 specific health conditions. (i) health (eg. galactogogue to enhance breast milk in a lactating mother or herbs that increase general immunity) (ii) prevention (e.g. In South Karnataka, the bitter decoction of the bark of Alstonia scholaris is consumed as a preventive for malarial fevers, and neem flowers are taken with turmeric as a preventive against measles, and (iii) curative health (these range from a toothache to dissolving a corn on the foot.)

Another area of women’s involvement in traditional medicine is in the area of antenatal and postnatal care, including delivery. There are significant traditional practices related to antenatal care for managing a range of conditions from early nausea and vomiting symptoms associated with pregnancy to management of worms and anaemia and toning of vaginal muscles before delivery. In postnatal care, the traditional knowledge of women ranges from the healing of vaginal tears to the use of herbs that help in early uterine contraction and cleaning of the uterus. As per a survey in India, traditional birth attendants (women) look after 65% of deliveries. Recent studies show that they are among the most sophisticated of the specialised healers. In Kerala, different methods and medicines are attempted to ease delivery by these birth attendants. This is besides the food and medicines given during the antenatal period. Just before delivery, castor oil with pepper is given as a linctus to induce labour. Butter and some special medicinal porridge made from sida retusa (local name kurunthotti) cedrusdeodara (local name davatharum) cuminum cyminum (local name jeerakam) and terminalia chebula (local name kadukka) are given to ease pain. Oil is massaged on the abdomen and the vaginal canal is anointed with medicated oil to prevent tears. The birth attendants attend to the cleaning of the orifices and the bathing of the newborns. There are also traditional postnatal health care methods, given to the mother soon after delivery. The oil bath for women with Dhanwantaram oil is a strict practice in Kerala. Ullimarunnu (where onion is the main ingredient) takes care of healing wounds, reducing pain, increasing breast milk etc. Paediatric care is also given by these traditional women healers. The traditional antenatal, postnatal and paediatric care are very comprehensive and is believed to be effective by the communities. In this era of compromised immunity, we have to take a fresh look at these traditions, that had given birth to stronger generations in the past (Hafeel, 2001).

Ninety percent of babies born in rural areas of the developing world are delivered by traditional birth attendants who are also predominantly female. Therefore the woman plays a very important role in maintenance of population. The role of a mother in rural areas also has a marked influence on treatment of the entire family. It is she who will decide whether treatment should come from traditional sources or whether western medical opinions should be sought. The mother will also have knowledge of local medicinal plants to treat family illnesses (Anonymous, 1996). Attempts have been made to document women’s traditional knowledge of home and herbal remedies, but they have remained on the periphery (Lakshmi Lingam 2002). The world conference at Nairobi appraised the UN of the need to integrate female traditional healers and birth attendants into the health system (Ekbal, 2000).

Women healers are sometimes seen in the folk stream, dealing with such specialised areas as bone setting, eye diseases, management of specific ailments like jaundice (treated with phyllanthus fraternus– local name keezhanelli) or skin diseases (managed with ixora coccinea – local name thetti) and respiratory diseases (controlled with ocinum sanctum – local name thulasi) especially in children. In recent years women practitioners are rising in numbers in the codified formal traditional medicinal systems like Ayurveda, Unani, Sidha and the Tibetan System, due to the encouragement being given to women, to participate in higher and professional education.

Women serve as conservers and cultivators of medicinal plants, throughout the world. In Africa and South America, women constitute the majority of traditional medical practitioners and are also the primary gatherers of medicinal plants. The importance of social changes in attitude regarding the participation of women in all productive and developmental sectors with particular reference to traditional health care is being recognised globally. (Bodekar, 1996)

Women have been de facto healers for generations, but this role has gone unrecognised in many countries. In later times, the traditional healing knowledge of women became the property of a patriarchal scientific establishment that disregarded and neglected them. The belated value of traditional health system may help redress this imbalance and enable women’s wisdom to be used for the benefit of humanity.

When unwell, women generally neglect their health or rely on home remedies. Education of woman is important to create awareness of their rights and knowledge of health care options. Economic empowerment provides skills to the woman, so that she can start her own income generating projects, with particular reference to traditional medicine. There is a need for community based programmes and associations to tackle the problems of women’s health, education, economic empowerment and legal rights. Lakshmi Lingam (2002) has critically assessed the linkage of women’s empowerment to health indicators.

A very detailed and extensive report was given by Dr.Lane of the different Vietnamese regions and their use of traditional medicines for women. thGynaecological data has been available from the 14 century, much of which has since been verified in modern times. Menstrual regularity, abortions, pregnancy and lactation have all been well – documented over the centuries. Traditional medicine of Vietnam has systematised knowledge of gynaecological and biological processes, treatment of menstrual disorders, nervous conditions, and acupuncture for excessive bleeding and to regulate the menstrual cycle. Hormonal deficiencies can also be cured by traditional medicines. Saraca Asoka local name asokam is a very effective herbal remedy to correct hormonal deficiencies in women. There are proven herbal remedies for ailments during pregnancy and to increase and improve lactation after the baby’s birth. There are herbal cures for the many sexually transmitted diseases and traditional cures for problems with the cervix. Acupuncture has been found to be a great pain reliever for prolapse of the womb. There are traditional herbal methods for birth control like clitoria ternatea– local name sankupushpam and euphorbia hirta- local name chitrapala. The method of birth control favoured in rural areas is early abortion. This can result in sterility or menstrual irregularity or pronounced bleeding. Traditional medicine can help with the disorders as well as treating the woman’s general health following pregnancy.

In China too, the role of women in disseminating knowledge of traditional medicinal plants is very important and documented, as well as passed down by word of mouth.

Women’s role in agriculture is also important. It is imperative that women know about food and nutrition, to keep the population healthy. The knowledge that rural women have of the nutritive properties of local plant and animal resources (wild and domesticated) is perhaps far more than the information contained in all the libraries of nutrition institutes, in terms of the inventory of food resources, their diverse properties, as well as processing techniques.The management of children and childhood disease is very important. It is also important that women recognise vitamin deficiency and treat it with local traditional medicine.

There are many women at “the grass roots” level, who have learnt traditional cures for family problems. It is important to keep communication going between these women from generation to generation, as much of the treatment and induced diagnosis is passed on by word of mouth alone and not written down.

Women play an important role in the management of the community, making decisions regarding health care, nutrition and general welfare. There is a need to recognise the important role that traditional medicine has played throughout the ages to sustain the health of rural women. Primary health care is the responsibility of women. There is a need for training so that the mother knows about balanced meals, hygiene, and first aid.(Anonymous, 1996). Women as healers are to be trained to use traditional knowledge for the care of their children, the elderly, the sick and the animals. Village mothers play a vital role in control of diarrhoeal dehydration. (Nations, 1996). In Uganda, women play multiple roles like provision of health care to children, husband, relatives and other members of the community. (Kiyingi, 1996). There too, women and children are the main beneficiaries of traditional health care delivery systems, with women being the main traditional practitioners because of their role as the mother. Though no adequate documentation has been done, available literature shows that traditional medicine is widely used in villages where modern medicine is scarce.

There is no better health education than a convinced village woman who in turn can convince the patient of the need for treatment. The fear of permitting a village woman, even with specific training, to undertake such tasks is chiefly in the minds of those who do not believe in the intelligence and abilities of the common people. The village health worker and the female multipurpose worker can refer the patient to the primary health centre for any complication, which is infrequent. (Antia, 1991). A major factor responsible for the remarkable improvement in the health and demographic profile of Kerala is the literacy and education level of the population, especially of the female, which has now reached even the remote and predominantly Muslim and economically backward Malabar districts. This key factor and also the importance of her status in society has been demonstrated. Kerala is now an egalitarian society with universal literacy. In the field of health, this has led to more appropriate utilisation of both public and private health services of all systems, also a better use of the available nutrition, water resources, sanitation and general cleanliness. Today, Kerala stands out as a beacon of health for the rest of the world. (Antia, 1994).

Women, therefore are the frontline, although often silent and unrecognised healers of human suffering in much of the world. Traditional birth attendants deliver infants and tend to pre-and post-natal needs. Women healers save infants from deadly diarrhoea dehydration, cure common infections and advise on nutrition. They console the broken heart and treat everything from infertility to sexually transmitted diseases. Although often unappreciated, most mothers are healers of the family tending to accidents with first aid medicinal plant remedies, cultivated in their house gardens, maintaining the family diet, administering medications, changing bandages and providing counseling and an essential emotional support system. Despite their vital central role in the health care of most developing areas, women healers often remain ‘anonymous spirits’, curing unselfishly, without much compensation or even recognition. New strategies have to be devised to increase women’s access to and role in the health care system. If sufficiently educated in matters of health and hygiene, she can bring about substantial improvement in the community health standards.

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Antia N.H. “On Health and Healing: Community Health Care in India”. Indian Journal of Paediatrics 58. 1991: 161 – 170.

Antia N.H. “Kerala Shows the Way to Health”. International Congress on Kerala Studies. Abstract V2 21-01 AKG Centre for Research and Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, August 1994, pp. 94 – 95

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Darshan Shankar. “Conserving the Medicinal Plants of India. The Need for a Biocultural Perspective. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2. 1996: 349 – 358.

Ekbal, B. “Women’s Health Care : A Picture of Discrimination“. Samyukta 2. 2002: 45 – 50.

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Kiyingi S.N. “Women as Farmers and Health Care Providers”. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 2. 1996: 435 – 437.

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Works as a scientist at the Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute, Palode, Thiruvananthapuram. Her research interests are plant conservation, ethnopharmacology, and herbal drug development. She has to her credit over 40 research papers in national and international journals.

S. RAJASEKHARAN. Is a scientist at the Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute, Palode, Thiruvananthapuram. His research interests are ethnomedicine and herbal drug development. He has published over 100 research papers in national and international journals.

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P.G. LATHA.Works as a scientist at the Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute, Palode, Thiruvananthapuram. Her research interests are plant conservation, ethnopharmacology, and herbal drug development. She has to her credit over 40 research papers in national and international journals. S. RAJASEKHARAN. Is a scientist at the Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute, Palode, Thiruvananthapuram. His research interests are ethnomedicine and herbal drug development. He has published over 100 research papers in national and international journals.

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