I was in the mountains of Haiti, working with a team of doctors and health care providers to host a clinic for the people in the area. This is a part of the world that doesn't have much access to health care. Doctors don't come up here. Medications - even a simple aspirin - are rare. That meant word of the clinic spread fast. Many people walked for a full day straight to have the opportunity to see a doctor (some for the first time in their life). The line to see the doctors was long, the sun was hot and everyone patiently waited. I was assisting my dear friend Bailey, a dermatologist. We saw lots of people. Some really simple cases, others a bit more complex. From babies to old ladies - we treated everyone that came.
AND THEN, A TEENAGE GIRL SAT DOWN.
This girl was obviously terrified. Her shoulders slumped, arms and legs almost curling in to protect herself. She quietly began to open up to us. She said that every month she gets a terrible headache. This is followed by horrible, shooting pains in her lower abdomen. Then she starts to bleed from between her legs - heavy, dark blood - and this goes on for days. She talks about how terrified she is, because this keeps happening every month.
SHE THINKS SHE IS DYING.
As she's telling us her symptoms and fears, Bailey and I are both shocked, confused and sad. It dawns on us that nobody has ever told this girl about her body. She didn't know that what she was experiencing every month was menstruation - a very normal thing that happens to literally every female on the planet. With the heart of a mother, Bailey tells this scared girl that she is perfectly normal. That she is not dying. Bailey then starts walking her through basic sex ed information. The anatomy of her body. How babies are made. Why she gets a period. What sexually transmitted diseases are. That her body is her own and nobody else is allowed to touch her without permission. The girl sat there, soaking this all in. She had obviously never been told any of this. We sent her off with a much better understanding of her body, her health and her rights - along with a sense of relief, some aspirin and feminine products. A little while later, another teen girl came in. She was also slumped over in shame and fear. She also thinks she's dying. She has no idea what menstruation is either.
AT THE END OF THE DAY, THREE TEEN GIRLS SAT DOWN WITH US, BELIEVING MENSTRUATION MEANT DEATH.
Bailey and I were both shocked and heartbroken. I had been working in Haiti for almost two years at that point, so I knew that sex and sex health was a taboo topic. But I didn't realize what that really meant until I was confronted with the generational impact of body shame that day at the health clinic. Women's bodies were beyond taboo - they were shunned and ignored. Even worse, our bodies had been a source of shame and neglect for so long that women stopped talking about them at all - even to their daughters and granddaughters. Sisters weren't talking. Friends weren't talking.
THE ENTIRE CONVERSATION ABOUT A WOMAN'S BODY WAS COMPLETELY ELIMINATED.
But it's so much more than just confusing periods with death. It's about holding power over another person. Of making them feel less than human. Of repression so systemically accepted that a girl is denied the rights to knowing herself, building healthy boundaries and claiming who she is. If knowledge is power, then these teen girls were entirely stripped of it by a system deeply entrenched in a spiral of shame. This cycle of silence barred these girls from their basic human rights.
This issue isn't confined to the remote mountains of Haiti either. Slut shaming. Human trafficking. Dowries and arranged marriages. Female genital mutilation. The gender pay gap. There are countless examples - both big and small, public and private - where our worth is measured by our bodies. Where we're made to believe that we're dirty. Where we're told to sit down, be quiet and smile.
As women, we carry the ability to create life. It should be a source of pride. Of power. Of respect. But in many corners of this world, our womanhood has been used against us. Shame is inherited, just like our eye color. We've been passing it down for so many generations that fear has replaced knowledge. Oppression has replaced rights. And respect is but a myth, barely whispered among girls bold enough to ask questions.
So let's make these kinds of conversations commonplace again. Let's ask questions about our bodies, celebrate our periods and build healthy boundaries of dignity and respect. Let's raise that whisper to a rumble. And let that rumble start to shake this earth. It's time for the women of the world, in all our bloody glory, to awaken.