Shame is dangerous.
If you haven’t already watched Brene Brown’s TED Talks on shame and vulnerability, do yourself a favor—stop right now and look them up. They’re phenomenal. She speaks about the crippling effects of shame on our ability to connect with others and live whole-hearted lives. She explains how shame is the single greatest obstacle to our ability to accept and give love. On both an individual and societal level, shame is destructive.
But, did you know that it is harmful physically?
Around the world, women’s lives are in jeopardy every month because of shame. Women and girls are banished from society and contract dangerous reproductive diseases because of shame. Why? They have a period.
For the majority of women, every month the natural process of menstruation occurs—the body’s way of shedding the lining of the uterus through a flow of blood. But for millions of women it’s as though they are shedding their very dignity. This innate and universal process is a source of shame, embarrassment and isolation.
In villages in Nepal women are banished to huts for the duration of their period for fear that they may “anger the gods or contaminate the home if they remain indoors.” This past January, a woman died in one such hut from what was believed to be smoke inhalation in her attempt to stay warm in freezing conditions.
In rural areas in Africa, young girls miss up to five days of school every month due to their periods. 70 percent of reproductive diseases in India are linked to poor menstrual health. It doesn’t help that sanitary pads and tampons can be prohibitively expensive—in Afghanistan, a single pad can cost the equivalent of $4. This leads women to use dirty rags, leaves, newspapers and other unsanitary items to absorb the blood, putting their bodies at risk.
While we may think in the west that we are further along, attitudes towards menstruation are still fraught with discomfort and embarrassment. We use code words to talk about it, feel embarrassed if blood leaks on our clothes and there is general distaste for the subject. Instead of celebrating the complexity and efficiency of the female body, we continue to shame it.
This has to stop.
We cannot allow girls to believe their bodies are shameful, ugly, disgusting and neither can we allow them to miss school or to be isolated as a result. On March 8th, we celebrated International Women’s Day and acknowledged the incredible impact women have on society. Quotes like the African proverb, “If you educate a woman, you educate a nation,” flew across social media platforms for a day. But, it shouldn’t be about one day. We can do better.
We must educate, advocate for and empower girls and women, daily instilling pride and appreciation for the strength, competence and innate value of their bodies. Shame cannot be allowed to cripple the lives of so many.
Anupama Dongardive, a Local Expert we partner with in India, continually challenges stigmas that put vulnerable girls and women at risk and recently, she wrote: “International Women’s Day will be celebrated by a brief talk on hygiene from our board member, Dr. Chyyo Sada (gynecologist) and distribution of sanitary pads for 200 women. This is also an occasion for us to celebrate and acknowledge all those women who have remarkably made progress.”
Her countryman, Arunachalam Muruganantham is a man who understands the power of being an ally. When he discovered his new wife was using a dirty rag as a sanitary pad, literally took it into his own hands to change the culture of shame and the lack of access to basic sanitary products. Take a look at how he leveraged his privilege to be an ally for women.
What can you do to change this culture of shame?
We need to start with our own thinking. Do you talk about menstruation as a part of life or does it make you uncomfortable? As a woman, are you embarrassed about your period? As a man, are there girls and women in your life with whom you can celebrate menstruation, or perhaps begin a healthy conversation about it?
As is so often true, change begins with us and how we speak, how we act. Together, let us change the conversation and say “No shame, period.”