By Molly M. Ginty
Tuesday, September 14, 2004
"Our Bodies, Ourselves" is more than ever becoming the basic text for women across the globe. Translators of the free-thinking U.S. text are expanding its reach from Argentina to Turkey and adapting it to cultural boundaries.
(WOMENSENEWS)--In Asia, it teaches Buddhist nuns how to ease muscle cramps caused by hours of sitting meditation.
In Africa, it cautions women not to overeat; a health risk in a region where being overweight is the standard of feminine beauty.
In Latin America, it urges women to rethink the anti-choice stance of the region's Roman Catholic Church.
Across the globe, "Our Bodies, Ourselves," the pioneering text that became an underground sensation in the United States after it was first published here in 1970, is adapting itself to the regional variations of women's global reality.
After coming out in its first foreign-language edition in 1976 in Spanish, the text is now available in 17 languages and Braille. It has been published in 15 nations and will soon be released in India, South Korea and Poland. It has sold millions of U.S. copies and--with global distribution--garnered 20 million readers worldwide.
In addition, it recently inspired the creation of a similar African health text, "Notre Corps, Notre Sante," which features original content in French and is being distributed to women in 21 African countries.
Created by a group of Boston health activists 35 years ago, "OBOS," as it is widely known, takes health information that was once exclusively in the hands of medical experts and places it in the hands of ordinary women.
In all its translations, the book maintains its trademark approach of presenting medical information in the form of communal feminine narrative. Testimonials from ordinary women--about everything from menstruation through menopause and beyond--are interspersed with articles, charts, graphs and diagrams. Speaking to readers like a mother or a friend, "OBOS" covers reproduction, contraception, exercise and nutrition.
As it spreads into other languages and other cultures, the text is sparking a variety of consumer health movements.
The Armenia version of OBOS has inspired women's activists there to open a storefront health center where they distribute pamphlets about family planning and sexually-transmitted diseases.
In Japan, the book spurred its translators to survey 200 clinics and hospitals about their policies regarding women's health. In Latin America, the text provided material for an anti-smoking campaign specifically geared toward women.
"Education is the most powerful tool for lifting the plight of women worldwide," says Sally Deane, chair of the board for the Our Bodies, Ourselves collective, the Boston-based non-profit that oversees "OBOS" publications. "We hope to reach a global audience while maintaining our core of personal stories and accurate information about health topics that all women must know."
The creators of OBOS also hope to eradicate health threats that are of specific concern to women.
"We're concerned by the rise of religious fundamentalism, which impinges on women's ability to control their reproductive lives," says Judy Norsigian, the executive director of the Our Bodies, Ourselves collective. "We're alarmed by government cutbacks in developing countries that are preventing women from getting basic health care. We're also concerned that the pharmaceutical industry is blocking the production of generic drugs so developing countries must pay high prices to import them from abroad."
Back in 1976, when they realized their message could benefit women of all cultures, the creators of "OBOS" translated their original text into Spanish. That success led to more foreign-language texts and the OBOS Global Translation/Adaptation Program, which helps health advocates across the globe amend the book to suit their needs.
With a $75,000 annual budget (garnered mostly from foundations), OBOS administrators transfer the publication rights for the token sum of one dollar, then provide technical assistance with fundraising, negotiating publishing contracts, promoting books and distributing them. Sometimes, health advocates write their own testimonials and use photographs of women from their own countries. Sometimes, they use ready-made wording and graphics provided by the OBOS head office.
With each new publication of "OBOS," women's health advocates work to tell their own stories in their own voices. In their testimonials, they talk about issues that are universal among women: breastfeeding, having an abortion, living with a sexually transmitted disease and going through menopause. They also talk about topics that are unique to their own cultures, such as struggling to gain access to health care in a developing country and struggling to recover from a rape perpetrated by soldiers as an act of war.
The unique set of health needs of each group of readers has led to some surprising spin-offs. In Bulgaria, the shift from Communism to democracy is taking a somewhat anti-Western form. One aspect of that is a widespread antipathy toward feminism, which is seen as Western, anti-male and anti-family. As a result, the Bulgarian translation emphasizes women's rights as consumers, patients and citizens. It refrains, however, from discussing the idea that women are an oppressed or marginalized group.
Much of the Serbian adaptation was produced during the prolonged war in the Balkan region in the 1990s, so the privation of readers there was a major consideration. "The authors dropped the nutrition chapter," says Judy Norsigian. "It just seemed terrible to speak of food when people in the region were starving."
In Armenia, where a declining birthrate and economic hardship are causing massive emigration from the country, many people are wary of contraception and are pro-natalist. Out of cultural deference, the version published here emphasizes childbirth and gives somewhat shorter shrift to birth control.
Differences like these are reflected in "Our Bodies, Ourselves Transformed Worldwide," a collection of selected English translations of prefaces from international adaptations, which is available on the collective's Web site.
In addition to publishing texts in foreign languages, the Our Bodies, Ourselves collective also has its hands in health projects worldwide. It has distributed 300,000 free books--most of them in English or Spanish--to international groups. It contributes to small-scale projects such as helping Nigerian activists adapt the OBOS text to radio public service announcements and to large-scale programs run by leading health organizations such as the Contraceptive Research and Development Program, Family Health International, the National Women's Health Network, and the World Health Organization.
By the end of this year, women's health advocates hope to launch three new international editions of OBOS.
For the Tibetan version (to be published in India, home to a vast community of Tibetan exiles), they are writing about personal hygiene, which is crucial for women living in monasteries that house more than 500 people.
For the Korean version, they are addressing parts of the text to Russian sex workers and other foreign women who are flooding into the country in search of employment. For the Polish version, they are expanding the section on reproductive care since basic sex education is not available in the country's predominantly Catholic schools.
In the United States, the collective is about to publish its eighth revision of the English-language text. In the Middle East, the advocates are working to translate and distribute the chapter on childbearing to women in five Arab countries. In China, Nepal, Vietnam, Turkey, Kenya and Brazil, activists are meeting with private funders to drum up financing for new translations.
As OBOS international publishing continues to grow, its supporters hope it will continue to reach thousands of new readers; women who likely have nowhere else to turn for accurate health information.
"Most books about women's health are not woman-positive or designed to be used by women," says Mavi Kalem, a health advocate working to publish "OBOS" in Turkey. "Of all the books we have looked at, 'OBOS' is the one volume that provides a model that fills these needs. We want women to say, 'I read this book, and it changed my life!'"
Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer based in New York City.
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