World Pulse

Busting Myths About Menstruation Boosts Women’s Self-Confidence in India

Kim Crane
Posted March 3, 2015 from United States

A year ago, Urmila Chanam set out on a journey traveling from village to village through rural India in a grassroots campaign to break menstruation stigma, myths, and taboo, and empower young women with information about their bodies. Today, she is gearing up for an even bolder effort leading up to the second International Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28.

As Urmila prepares for new events in even farther flung communities, she fears the dangers awaiting women activists who rattle the patriarchy, and she worries about growing religious fanaticism in her country. But when she pictures standing in front of a new group of young women, her greatest fear is always silence.

“What if they don’t respond?” she wonders. “What if I ask them something and there’s no answer? What if I smile and people don’t smile back?”

Urmila is talking about her Breaking the Silence Campaign, which gathers adolescent girls and women together in whatever space a community has available: a government school, broken down temple, old hospital, a spot near the well, under a tree, a rice paddy field, or even construction sites. There, Urmila brings vital menstrual hygiene and health information out into the open.

Urmila, who hails from a remote part of Manipur state in north-eastern India, feels a close kinship with the faces gathered around her. Her life has diverged in important ways from many of their stories, but she recognizes their reluctance to talk and smile in public. She is attuned to the challenges faced by girls who are often married off in their teens, and the accumulation of shame and silence around their bodies.

This is why that moment in every training when Urmila hears a chorus of women and girls saying the word “vagina” out loud feels like a miracle. They are breaking taboos and speaking openly with each other. Girls and women who have silently suffered shame during their periods and ignorance about their physiology, now have an instant support group. It is a miracle that Urmila hopes to see spread throughout her country.

menstrual hygiene training

Photo courtesy of Urmila Chanam.

Urmila’s efforts have been a labor of love. Her work is not coordinated by an NGO. She is a committed activist with a day job as an HIV/AIDS and public health development worker, and another job as a freelance journalist. In conjunction with in-person trainings, the Breaking the Silence Campaign has raised awareness about menstruation through social media, introducing interviews, information, a hotline, and quizzes to engage both women and men. Urmila also started the ‘My Pad Campaign’ and mobilized the donation of 10,000 sanitary pads in just one month to be distributed to girls and women in need. Inspired by the achievements so far, Urmila has set her sights on ending menstruation stigma in India for good.

It’s a stigma that has led to public health consequences in the country. According to a recent study, of the 355 million menstruating women in India, only 12% use sanitary napkins. Poor menstrual health can cause fungal infections, reproductive tract infections, and urinary tract infections, which can lead to cervical cancer. Women who practice unhygienic practices are also vulnerable to infertility. The Cervical Cancer Free Coalition reports that cervical cancer kills around 72,000 women in India every year, more than anywhere in the world, constituting 26% of the 275,000 deaths worldwide.

Many schools in India lack adequate bathroom facilities, and when schools fail to provide an environment where girls can manage their periods without humiliation, many opt to stay home.As many as 23% of girls in India drop out of school when they reach puberty.

Urmila knows her efforts have changed the lives of individual girls, but she hopes she is also doing something much bigger: demonstrating a solution that works. After her first year of one-off trainings, Urmila took a question she was asked to heart: How can this powerful campaign become sustainable and continue on after she leaves a community?

Urmila says she is willing to work with “anybody who can help me form a bridge and find and reach adolescent girls and women who the media cannot reach.” This year, as she travels to different regions, she is partnering with local stakeholders to ensure that there is always someone in the state who is trained to continue creating impact. Most of the stakeholders are civil society organizations with established outreach mechanisms and a strong reputation in local communities. Urmila is also exploring some less conventional partnerships, approaching individuals in leadership positions, recruiting a popular rock band AJ as a brand ambassador, and even working with regiments in the Indian army. Another key goal this year is to surface data to back the need and efficacy of such programs. Urmila already has twelve events lined up with partners in two different states. These partners will continue analyzing the data she collects and promoting the campaign once she has moved on to the next community.

Breaking the Silence map

The path Urmila traveled for the 2014 campaign by train, jeep, and on foot to reach rural girls and women with menstrual hygiene training.

The menstrual hygiene movement in India is relatively young and has been slow to take root. “Menstrual hygiene should be included in school curriculums and girls should have access to separate toilet facilities with running water,” says Urmila. In 2012, the Government of India initiated for the first time a focused effort called the ‘Nirmal Bharat Yatra’, in partnership with international NGOs and civil society, to link water supply, sanitation and menstrual hygiene management. Since then, she says, advocacy efforts have been stepped up at the national level, and the government has made strides to mainstream menstrual hygiene management.

Urmila cautions, however, that like most policy, the budget isn’t always there to implement the recommendations, and even when there are resources, there is corruption along the line. “They are not enacted,” she says “until people make a lot of noise in the media and the grassroots.”

The noise level is picking up across India as training efforts like Urmila’s are popping up in different regions; social entrepreneurs are devising innovative solutions, such as the online resource and educational comic book Menstrupedia; and donors and international agencies are increasingly prioritizing menstrual hygiene in their agendas.

“I want to be the ambassador to voice what is required at the policy level,” says Urmila. Her ultimate dream is to have policy makers learn from her campaign, and she has been carefully documenting her efforts to that end. She hopes to see the government take on the responsibility of providing menstruation education in biology classrooms to reach all girls in the country.

Photo courtesy of Urmila Chanam.

Urmila begins every training with a game of lies. She says that after 10 minutes of telling each other lies, the girls all forget they aren’t supposed to be talking and smiling. They laugh as a young girl claims she is 50 years old, or a woman declares she has 11 husbands. “But how,” Urmila asks them, “do you know these are lies?”

“In every state, in every community, in every language group,” Urmila says, “somebody will always say, ‘We know what is a lie because we also know what is the truth.’”

She wants women to know that the tradition that teaches women that menstrual blood is impure is a lie. Women are told that they are not supposed to go to school when they are menstruating; they are not supposed to touch kitchen utensils; they are not supposed to worship; they are often compelled to leave their home and live elsewhere when they are menstruating. “Do you want to know the truth?” Urmila asks her captive audience.

Urmila finds that most are hungry for basic biological information about women’s and men’s bodies. Though the girls usually cover their faces with their dupattas in embarrassment when Urmila begins talking about the penis, this is often the only straightforward information they have had on the subject. In her three hour training, Urmila covers the physiological process of menstruation. She teaches girls how to manage their menstruation every month without pain or humiliation. She distributes sanitary pads and shows girls how to wash and care for reusable pads and dispose of them in an environmentally friendly manner. She teaches yoga for menstrual pain. Perhaps most importantly, she affirms their experiences, that women not only endure physical pain around their periods, but psychological pain when they are treated as dirty and impure and prevented from sharing information openly. In her trainings, she creates a safe space for girls to speak up.

Urmila recognizes the power of this transformation because it is the same transformation she herself experienced. Although she grew up in a successful, highly educated family, when she got her first period she had no clue what was going on. Like the majority of women in many regions in India, Urmila wasn’t aware of menstruation when she started her period. When she saw blood, she thought she was dying. Because of taboos around the topic, no one had warned her or helped her prepare.

Image of sanitary pad donations

Sanitary pad donations arrive from around the world. Photo courtesy of Urmila Chanam.

She was given a piece of polyester fabric that became hard with use, hurt her thighs, and caused her to dread that time every month. She was 27 years old when she first learned there were other options. “Menstruating days have never been enjoyable or comfortable for me,” she said. It wasn’t until she started working on menstrual hygiene as a journalist much later that she realized her period didn’t have to be something to fear.

After winning national recognition, the Laadli Media and Advertising Awards 2012-13, for her menstrual hygiene journalism, Urmila took it as a sign that perhaps she was meant to do more on this issue. She knew she didn’t just want to engage as a journalist, but to work as a trainer, as an activist, and an ambassador for breaking the myths around menstruation.

While the recognition of her work encouraged her to develop the Breaking the Silence Campaign, Urmila says that this journey to this campaign has been at least 5 years in the making. She attributes her current success to the seeds of community and solidarity that were planted before there was ever a campaign, or even the idea of it.

As the youngest in her family, Urmila didn’t speak much growing up. “There was no one to hear me when I wanted to speak,” she says. After hitting a low point of isolation and low self confidence in 2010, Urmila logged into World Pulse for the first time and found a supportive community that listened to and celebrated her emerging voice. In the years since, she has relied on sisters near and far to help her realize her vision. “I am confident because I have sisters who stand with me in spirit.”

And they have stood with her in more tangible ways as well: advising her on curriculum, sewing reusable pads for her to distribute, coordinating logistics, suggesting training opportunities, reviewing grant proposals, donating money, meeting her with a friendly face in a strange city. “Breaking the Silence has not been an individual success,” Urmila declares. Her voice gets soft as she speaks about the number of people, including men, who have helped volunteer or supported her cause on social media. Her journey may appear a solo one, as she travels alone to each new community, but she is buoyed by support and encouragement from all over the world.

Urmila wishes for other activists—in menstrual hygiene or any field—to experience the benefits of a network of support. She advises someone in the position she was in a few years ago, with the seed of an idea and reservations about where to begin, to start by opening her heart to others and speaking up. She hopes that women who have been afraid to speak or who have internalized messages that the Internet does not belong to them, will find their way online and find a supportive community to help share their vision with the world.

Urmila’s trainings prove the power of a few words spoken out loud. By discussing the taboo subject of menstruation, a seal has been broken. Urmila hears women speaking the names of their body parts without shame. She sees women connecting and breaking through the isolation of taboos and societal restrictions. And she knows change can’t be far behind.


Editor's note:

You can connect directly with Urmila on World Pulse. If you are interested in engaging with other World Pulse members who are taking action and leading change on issues that matter, join the discussion in the World Pulse Leadership Group.

Comments 29

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Yvette Warren
Mar 05, 2015
Mar 05, 2015

Congratulations, Kim, on a wonderful story with a wonderful subject and message. This is the type of female empowerment, through honoring each other, that draws me to World Pulse. Thank you for honoring our Sister Urmila and her work with your talented writing. 

Kim Crane
Mar 05, 2015
Mar 05, 2015

Thanks Yvette. Speaking of honoring, one of my strongest take-aways after interviewing Urmila was how the support and encouragement from so many people has been key to the success of this campaign. There was not nearly room enough in the article to include all of the supporters and cheerleaders whom Urmila mentioned by name, but you are among them. I know you have been a big part of this effort, so kudos to you too!

Urmila Chanam
Mar 10, 2015
Mar 10, 2015

Dear sister Yvette,

Appreciation from sisters worldwide must be the most powerful force behind our individual work and the passion with which we pursue them. At the end of the day, we look for people who see what you are trying to do and derive strength when you need someone to just say, ' You are on the right path. walk on!'. Thank you for being that pat , the understanding nod and the accepting smile sister.

Much love

Urmila Chanam

India

Adanna
Mar 06, 2015
Mar 06, 2015

Look at the smiles and excitement on the faces of those young girls.

Well done Urmila and thank you Kim for creating more awareness about Urmila's work!

Urmila Chanam
Mar 10, 2015
Mar 10, 2015

Dear Adanna,

I share the same joy like yours when I see faces light up in smiles during my trainings and outreach. Women and girls in India live in such an oppresive environment that we also need to take into account that just one training is not going to make a sea of change immediately. But it is gratifying to know that the seed has been sown and with continued awareness building, girls and women will reclaim their right to good health practices and dignity.

Do keep the comments and discussions coming in. I will be so happy to interact.

In solidarity,

Urmila Chanam

India

Tamarack Verrall
Mar 06, 2015
Mar 06, 2015

What a beautifully written story describing the powerful work that Urmila is doing. This is such great information on how one determined, deeply caring woman can make such profound changes, first of all to so many women and girls, to their communities, to impetus for laws being changed...Urmila is awe inspiring, and your description does beautiful justice, carrying her actions to ever widening circles. Thank you for the report!

Urmila Chanam
Mar 10, 2015
Mar 10, 2015

Dear Tam,

I would like to thank sister Kimberly Crane for this story that is serving to unite all of us together and what a beautiful feeling that is when we are united to think about a global issue on poor menstrual health among girls and women and share our experiences, insights and recommend solutions from them. I invite you all sisters to share with me and Kim on how the situation is in your country, province, community and household. 

I invite all my sisters to follow my social media campaign this year to be launched in few days time ' Breaking the Silence 2015: From Shame to Pride' (Link of my FB page :https://www.facebook.com/urmila.ch/media_set?set=a.982610011799144.10737...)

With love and prayers

Urmila Chanam

India

sradha
Mar 08, 2015
Mar 08, 2015

well done. :)

Urmila Chanam
Mar 10, 2015
Mar 10, 2015

Dear Greengirl,

This month I will start my global campaign and at this juncture when I am running around organizing events,competitions, rallies and press releases it encourages me to have my World Pulse sisters with me in spirit. I thank you for the support and the cheering!! Keep them coming :)

Love to you Urmila Chanam, India

Olanike
Mar 09, 2015
Mar 09, 2015

Nice and impressive piece, Kim! I am truly touched and inspired by the all too important cause Urmila is committed to. By all standards, she is a noble role model for girls and women around the world.

Thank for sharing the life of such a beautiful and amazing change leader with us. Cheering Urmila on!

Urmila Chanam
Mar 10, 2015
Mar 10, 2015

Dear Tam,

I would like to thank sister Kimberly Crane for this story that is serving to unite all of us together and what a beautiful feeling that is when we are united to think about a global issue on poor menstrual health among girls and women and share our experiences, insights and recommend solutions from them. I invite you all sisters to share with me and Kim on how the situation is in your country, province, community and household. 

I invite all my sisters to follow my social media campaign this year to be launched in few days time ' Breaking the Silence 2015: From Shame to Pride' (Link of my FB page :https://www.facebook.com/urmila.ch/media_set?set=a.982610011799144.10737...)

With love and prayers

Urmila Chanam

India

Yvette Warren
Mar 09, 2015
Mar 09, 2015

We must all bond in bringing resources together to address the parliament of the World's Religions.

“No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundation of the religions.”

― Hans Küng, Christianity: Essence, History, Future

Yvette Warren
Mar 09, 2015
Mar 09, 2015

We must all bond to bring Urmila to the Parliament of the World's Religions.

No peace among the nations

without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundation of the religions.”

― Hans Küng, Christianity: Essence, History, Future

Urmila Chanam
Mar 10, 2015
Mar 10, 2015

Dear sister Yvette,

Faith Based Organizations around the world have reservations around reproductive health and sex education. I would like to explore their stance on the need to educate girls and women on menstrual health and its hygienic management. I am thrilled to look at the possibility to present my abstract based on my experience on the field in 9 states in India and 4 countries overseas.

Love and hugs Urmila Chanam India

Melissa Banigan
Mar 10, 2015
Mar 10, 2015

And what a labor of love!! I love Urmila's work, and I love this article. 

Urmila Chanam
Mar 10, 2015
Mar 10, 2015

Dear Melissa,

Thank you for having given me the platform to deliver my message to all those '13-year olds' through your upcoming book. I am so thrilled.

Love and hugs Urmila Chanam India

Shilpa Balakrishnan
Mar 12, 2015
Mar 12, 2015

Congrats sister Urmila...and thank you kim to bring it out. Happy to hear what you have done to these girls... May be these should be conducted in other remote place also... keep going... We support you...

Love

Shilpa...

Urmila Chanam
Jun 06, 2015
Jun 06, 2015

Thanks Shilpa for the encouragement and support. India is a huge country and the challenge is its size but efforts will always be on remote places. Where are you from? Do keep in touch. I might just come your side some day- who knows.

Warm regards, Urmila Chanam

Anne Marie Seery
Mar 13, 2015
Mar 13, 2015

Thanks Kim for sharing this wonderful account of Urmila's work. She truly is an inspiration ♥

Urmila Chanam
Jun 06, 2015
Jun 06, 2015

Sister Anne <3

I am inspired by the support, understanding and help women are capable of extending to each other so that we stand up together and do our own bit to improve lives of other women. I miss you!

Hugs and kisses Urmila Chanam

FEMVOCATES
Mar 21, 2015
Mar 21, 2015

Wow!  What an amazing and inspiring story!  This is so wonderful - all of your hard work has really paid off, and you have changed the lives of so many women and girls.  Congratulations on creating something from scratch that is going to make a positive impact on so many lives! We need more people like you!  I love it, and I have shared this article on our site, as well as with all the volunteers I am working with in India right now.  

-Rebecca

Urmila Chanam
Jun 06, 2015
Jun 06, 2015

Thank you Rebecca for cheering me on. It feels good and I feel stronger.

With love from India Urmila Chanam

coolasas
Apr 16, 2015
Apr 16, 2015

Wonderfully written Kim. It transported me to where Urmila is --empowering young girls and women, the journey she's been on and the journey ahead.

When I think of when I was younger, starting my menstrual period I was also bombarded with traditions that was hard to cope with but education was key for me. It gave me choices on how I want to deal with it month after month and because I was in a supportive family, surrounded by their love and understanding I was able to overcome the changes in me and not stress about it. That is what Urmila is doing for the many young women in India and now globally -- educating them and giving them all her love and understanding, to give this young girls opportunity to enjoy their development into womanhood without fear and stress instead to become like Urmila to others -- loving, understanding and more.Good luck Urmila, we are with you all the way!

Urmila Chanam
Jun 06, 2015
Jun 06, 2015

Sister you have summed up my efforts and goal so well and so accurately. Girls and women worldwide are living in inhumane conditions-why? Because they lack support and love from their families and communities. We are battling along our lives on our own. I focus on building support groups and a enabling environment for girls and women so that they can manage menstruation and their life better. Thank you for the support. It means a lot to me.

Hugs and kisses, Urmila Chanam

Jensine Larsen
Jun 22, 2015
Jun 22, 2015

Dearest Urmila - 

Keep going!!  You are an inspiration to so many.  I hope many more join the Campaign and start their own initiatives learning from your example, sharing ideas and successes.  

I share another program in Kenya that is a sister organization, called ZanaAfrica, http://www.zanaafrica.org/ . By making affordable sanitary pads, delivering health education, and informing policy, ZanaAfrica creates new opportunities for women and girls to thrive as focused students, productive workers, and informed mothers.

Love,

Amriyota
Jul 07, 2015
Jul 07, 2015

Thank you for this beautifully written article on a very serious issue . India is a very complex , multicultural and multi lingual country with some fixed problems from north to south and east to west. thank you Urmila for your dedication and vision. we seriously need lots of Urmila to fix these problems. 

Urmila Chanam
Oct 22, 2015
Oct 22, 2015

My dear sister Jensine,

Thank you for your love and encouragement and personal friendship that I receive from you. It builds me everyday as I struggle amidst several challenges here. I will love to connect to ZanaAfrica and I am so impressed with their work. It becomes so critical that we all collaborate and unite our efforts to make a bigger and deeper impact.

Love and hugs from India,

Urmila Chanam,

Breaking the Silence

India

Urmila Chanam
Oct 22, 2015
Oct 22, 2015

Dear Amriyota,

Thanks a lot <3

Love

Urmila Chanam