In Pursuit of Shamelessness

There are few emotions more harmful than shame. It threatens the most fundamental love and respect people have for themselves. It is often accompanied by immeasurable discomfort, isolation and pain [1]. Shame is not to be confused with the humiliation of social fumbles or the guilt of disappointing a loved one – these feelings arise as the consequence of particular actions and can be distanced from one’s self-concept. In fact, in healthy doses, humiliation and guilt may serve as beneficial indicators of what behaviors we accept of ourselves to inform future choices. Shame, on the other hand, is never valuable. Some of us have experienced shame tangentially and transiently by empathizing with literary characters and the people we care about. Others have more intimate relationships with shame, becoming consumed and debilitated by it.

Shame follows many young girls in India relentlessly, like a shadow on a sunny day. I frequently hear phrases like शर्म कर” or “ನಾಚಿಕೆ ಇರಬೇಕು” (have shame) directed at young girls by well-intentioned family members, teachers and complete strangers. And while a variety of cultural and religious ceremonies take place in homes all over the country to celebrate an individual’s adolescence, puberty often marks the induction of girls to a lifetime of shame. The experience of a first period is daunting enough for a young girl – it can do without the burden of stigmatizing messages and alienating taboos [2]. But alas, the notion of menstruation as an impure, blameworthy, disgusting process infiltrates the minds of so many.

I am only beginning to consider the psychological consequences of hating oneself because of an uncontrollable, biological process. I am, however, becoming increasingly aware of the more tangible repercussions of living in environments that are not period-friendly. The stigma of menstruation certainly oppresses girls from all walks of life around the world, but its most detrimental implications manifest in particularly vulnerable communities – places with high poverty and low education levels. Government schools in India are uniquely positioned to empower the children of vulnerable communities through education, a prerequisite of upward social mobility. But this opportunity is inaccessible to girls who miss up to a week of school every month, or worse, drop out entirely because of their periods.

I hope to confront this multifaceted issue through my work at Reaching Hand. On the one hand it is an infrastructure problem [3]. Too many government schools lack the private, functional spaces – namely, toilets – needed for girls to engage in proper menstrual hygiene management (MHM). On the other hand there is a troubling information gap. Girls are often unaware of menstruation until menarche, do not understand it as a normal, biological process and are never taught how to manage their menstrual hygiene. The resulting poor MHM practices lead to individual health concerns in the short term and perpetuate the shame of menstruation in the long term. Reaching Hand’s initiative and my main project for the year, Girls Glory, aims to remove these barriers. We do this by building toilets and teaching puberty and health & hygiene workshops in under-resourced government schools all over India.

It is not a quick solution and requires growth, both in terms of how many girls we reach and how comprehensively we approach the problem of MHM inaccessibility. Even perfect, widespread implementation of Girls Glory will not overturn deeply-ingrained cultural stigmas immediately. And everyday I learn of more challenges that may slow down our efforts (i.e. navigating the bureaucracy of India’s government education system) or contextual limitations I failed to consider before actually visiting the field (i.e. the need to promote only reusable menstrual absorbents when inadequate or no waste management systems exist). But I am motivated by the potential to improve the health and education of girls and accordingly, replace shame with dignity. And girls who go to school become educated mothers who are much more likely to talk to their daughters about MHM and in turn, prevent future cycles of shame. Clearly, it is imperative to prevent girls from dropping out of school.

One of the simplest ways to do that, I have learned, is by building a toilet.

The recent inauguration of toilets at a government school in Channarayapatna, the rural outskirts of Bangalore.

 

[1] I first started thinking about shame and actively deconstructing it in my own life after watching Professor Brené Brown’s TED Talk “Listening to Shame” a couple years ago. She distinguishes between “Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake” and “Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.”

[2] “The beauty of RED” is a short, powerful video directed by Vimida Das that provides a good introduction to the stigma of menstruation in India.

[3] A survey that informed India’s 2015 National MHM Guidelines found that in 14,724 government schools only 53% had a separate and usable girls’ toilet.

Deepa's interests in the philosophy, politics and economics of health inform her desire to understand public health initiatives and challenges in India. As an undergraduate, Deepa worked in teenage mental health promotion, college access efforts for Navajo youth and technology-driven Parkinson's Disease research advancement. Prior to AIF, Deepa was involved in nonprofit and community advocacy work as a Jonathan M. Tisch Scholar for Citizenship & Public Service and Institute for Global Leadership Synaptic Scholar.

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8 thoughts on “In Pursuit of Shamelessness

  1. You and your team is doing an incredible job,,. Deepa, going to the roots of the problem, and trying to bring dignity, which many of our societies think,, it’s a shame, needs to be applauded. Keep up the great work.

  2. I can relate to those contextual limitations you’ve encountered in the field. Your work sounds fantastic. Keep it up! I can’t wait to read more.

  3. Deepa- This is a very thoughtful post, and actually taps into a lot I’ve been thinking about of late. I’ve noticed how women (in all cultures) tend to revert to shame when they feel they’ve done something wrong, and that it’s effect is negatively paralyzing. Time for us to find new ways to communicate, and also empower all women to refuse those feelings of shame. Looking forward to reading more!

  4. I really enjoyed reading this piece, Deepa! Thanks for sharing your motivations and providing us with some solid background information. I’m so proud of you and excited to see where your work takes you! Definitely looking forward to reading more! Good luck and learn lots!

  5. I like how you explored the topic of shame for this post. It helps me to see how experiencing shame can be just as destructive as the physical consequence of not being able to use the bathroom when you need to.

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