Nearly half of the humans on this planet are born with female biology, which means that roughly 3.5 billion girls and women will experience the natural process of menstruation. Yet for such a healthy, global phenomenon, girls around the world often are not educated about the topic. Different cultures handle menstruation in various ways, but many communities believe that girls are “unclean” during their periods, and countless menstruating girls are forced to stay home from school because they are not provided with sanitary materials or access to toilets. Many girls never return to school to complete their education.
Even in communities where girls have access to sanitary supplies and toilets, menstruation is a “woman’s issue,” and therefore, girls find that they can’t talk to the most trusted men in their lives. Because it is a gendered topic, girls are both silenced and shamed. This has serious repercussions for a girl’s mental and physical health.
Urmila Chanam is a social development professional working in HIV/AIDS and public health, and she is also a gender rights activist and journalist from the small state of Manipur in north-east India. She single-handedly leads a campaign in the most rural parts of her country called Breaking the Silence, which has educated thousands of girls about menstruation.
In 2013 Urmila was recognized as a recipient of the National Laadli Media and Advertising Awards for Gender Sensitivity for her efforts to expose issues revolving around women in India, and she was the winner of National Laadli Award 2015 for Breaking the Silence, which has become one of the most powerful health campaigns in India.
An excerpt from We don’t talk about it at all!, the story about the taboos around menstruation that won her the Laadli award in 2013, was printed in We Can’t Wait, a book released by the UN body and the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) on the World Toilet Day in Switzerland on November 19, 2013. The book serves to change policies globally around water, sanitation, hygiene, and menstruation. Urmila is a columnist for the leading English Daily in Manipur, the Sangai Express. Her stories and articles can be read in publications of the Women International Perspective (the WIP) and World Pulse in USA, Afghan Zariza in Afghanistan and in North-East SUN magazine, India Water Portal, and the Alternative in India. Her dream is to be the “Voice of the Voiceless” and help to amplify the voices of people who would have never been heard, spoken, or written about.
Urmila began her career with the Joint United Nations Programme in HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in India where she worked to involve policy makers and legislators in HIV/AIDS-related work and to mitigate the discrimination against people living with HIV. She now works in the state of Karnataka with the state lead partner organization dedicated to deliver prevention, support and care programs in partnership with the community of those who are at risk.
Urmila is an inspiring spokesperson for HIV/AIDS, and she helps to both empower the communities who are most at risk of the pandemic and also to connect affected communities across geographical boundaries through technology. She represented India in the International Conference on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP 11) in Bangkok, Thailand.
A supporter of women empowerment and the education of the girl child, she raises her voice against child marriage, domestic violence, trafficking of women and child into sex work, the pitiful economic status of farmers, and sex-determined abortions. As a social development professional Urmila is convinced her work and her words will make a difference. She believes: “It may take time, perhaps my whole life, but I am certain I will see the impact in my very own lifetime.”
Below is a letter Urmila wrote to her teenage self. She describes the confusion and fear she felt upon getting her first period, and then she offers advice about how to how to take care of her own body. She counters superstitions and misinformation with facts about menstruation, and effectively helps to break the silence.
Urmila’s letter is powerful. I believe it will help to educate young people of all genders, and specifically empower girls entering puberty.
Melissa Banigan Founder/Managing Editor Advice Project Media _______________________________________________________________________________________
Dear Thirteen-Year-Old Urmila,
I want you to know that you are not alone in feeling shocked, distraught, confused, afraid, and ashamed. Millions of girls worldwide – many of them in your country, India – believe that seeing droplets of blood in their underclothes means that they have attracted the wrath of demons, or have a deadly disease that might kill them. Many girls believe that their first periods rob them of everything they previously enjoyed in their childhoods. You also believe this.
I am certain that the dull pang of cramps in your lower abdomen did not warn you of the change that was occurring inside of your adolescent body. I am not surprised you were not prepared to see blood in your panties, because the majority of the girls in India are seldom taught about menstruation by their mothers, elder siblings, or teachers at school. Women and girls are taught to be silent about such things.
I want you to know that you are not dying. In fact, you have attained an increased capacity to give life. Also, you do not have a disease. The blood you’re seeing is a sign of good health and bleeding from that part of your body is a normal part of your physiological development. You have not attracted the wrath of demons, and I hope that you will never believe in any superstition about menstruation. Your life doesn’t have to change – especially for the worse – you can go ahead and plan your life just as you would like.
Nearly all girls who are born with female biology will get their first periods between the ages of 9 and 16 years, and they continue to get them monthly (every 21-35 days for 2-7 days per cycle). This phenomenon, called menstruation, affects a girl for about 3,000 days in her life – a total of 40 years. It ends in her late forties or early fifties during another phenomenon called menopause.
The function of menstruation is to biologically prepare you for motherhood and bear a child, although you should know that you do not ever need to have a child in order to be a complete woman, and that menstruation doesn’t guarantee that a woman will be able to give birth. Menstruation only serves to confirm that a girl’s body is doing what it ought to be doing, and that she is growing up. Every girl on our planet menstruates – girls of all races, cultures, and economic backgrounds. Girls who have physical and cognitive disabilities menstruate. Girls who are happy, sad, and angry menstruate. I’ll reiterate that it is not a sickness, illness, disease, or infection, and it also isn’t harmful, dirty, shameful, unclean, or in any other way negative.
When you become an adult, you will teach thousands of girls about menstruation. You will combat discrimination and break the silence about this topic. But right now, as a young teenager, you still suffer the shame of getting your monthly period. When you first got it, at age 11, you knit your brow and thought you were dying. That day, you felt an uncomfortable restlessness at school and a dull ache in your lower abdomen. In the evening, you dressed to play badminton at the army officer’s club with your friends, and looked in horror at your panties, which were wet with fresh, red blood.
I wish that someone – anyone – had told you what to expect. I’m so sorry you had to feel that shame and fear. I’m now going to tell you the basics about menstruation. Going forward, I think this information will help you.
Every girl and woman born with biologically female bodies have a uterus. Two ovaries are attached to the uterus by the Fallopian Tubes. Every baby girl is born with eggs inside of her ovaries. As she reaches puberty, these eggs start to mature. Every month, one matured egg leaves an ovary and reaches the uterus through a Fallopian Tube. As the egg moves through the tube, blood starts to build up along the inner lining of uterus. If a girl were to have sex and a man’s sperm fertilized one of her eggs, this would result in a pregnancy. The blood would help provide nutrition for the developing fetus. When there is no fertilization, the body sheds this buildup of blood, tissue, and egg through the vagina. This process, menstruation, is absolutely normal.
It is also normal to experience physical and emotional changes even before you get your period. Every girl and woman is different. You might feel cramps, pain, bloating, weight gain, food cravings, painful breasts, headache, dizziness, or irritability. Or you might get a short temper or feel aggression, anger, anxiety, panic, tension, nervousness, fatigue, or depression. Your might even find it difficult to concentrate.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to take care of yourself. Drink warm beverages such as tea, place a hot water bottle on your abdomen, or take a relaxing bath. If these things don’t help (or if you don’t have these things), you can get on your elbows and knees so that your uterus is pulled downward by gravity. This will help it to relax. Or try to lie on your back with your knees up and move them in small, gentle circles. You do not have to limit your activities at home or school during menstruation, even if you are active in sports. But if you feel tired or emotional and feel the need to rest, then rest. This is not a sign of weakness, but rather, a powerful sign that you know how to listen to your body and take care of yourself.
There are many packaged sanitary pads that you can purchase, but if you don’t have access to these items, then you can cut clean, dry cotton cloth to fashion into pads for absorbing menstrual blood. Safe menstrual practices include changing your sanitary materials at least three times a day (or when they become soaked), changing your underwear daily, washing hands before and after changing sanitary pads and cloths, and using sanitary pads or clean cotton cloths that are specifically for menstruation. If you reuse materials, wash and sanitize them with hot water and detergent and let them dry in the sun.
I hope all of this helps. One day, you will better understand exactly why you bleed monthly. You will learn what to expect during your monthly cycle, how to help yourself when you experience cramps and discomfort, which sanitary materials to use, and how to still maintain an active life.
In India and in many other countries around the world, many girls miss school during their periods and even give up entirely on getting an education. You will not be one of those girls. It might be hard to believe now, but one day you will help to break the silence about menstruation. You will visit thousands of girls living in rural communities and tell them about their bodies and the natural processes of getting their periods. You will become a leader and an advocate for women and girls and others who are silenced.
But all of that won’t come for many years. For now, please just believe this – what is happening to you is normal. Menstruation isn’t something bad that happens to you, it is something healthy that is a part of you.
I love you,
Urmila ________________________________________________________________________________________*Note – Photos used with permission of Urmila Chanam. Advice Project Media and authors hold the copyright to all of the content on this website, meaning that this letter (or portions thereof) cannot be reprinted without permission.