Menstruation, periods, bleeding is considered something dirty, bad and worse, limiting to the growth of a girl. Not only then. Unfortunately, even now! Myself, my friends, my sisters, my nieces and now friends of my own teenage sons – all were introduced to the world of puberty with this strong misconception.
It is so sad that per our society, starting to bleed is a sign of maturity for a girl and a license to curb them too. In other words show stopper for their freedom, limiting their friendship with the boys, a dampener for pursuing any sports activities, and a big blow to their self-esteem.
On the contrary, which I personally realized only much later, periods or the ability to bleed is the most powerful tool given to us by Mother Nature. Why should we be ashamed of it? Rather we should wear it on our sleeve and at times even flaunt it!
Jokes apart, I am sure almost all of you would agree with me that our first period was nothing less than a trauma – both physical and mental.
Today, let us talk to a very inspiring young woman – Aditi Gupta – who is ensuring our girls have it easy. Aditi along with her husband Tuhin Paul has founded Menstrupedia which aims to dispel the myths and increase the awareness of periods in young girls as well as women. What makes her initiative stand apart is her unique approach towards spreading that awareness. She has opted to use the extremely creative approach of using comics to share this very critical information with young girls at school.
Swapna: I am so glad you agreed to talk to Eyra. We are very impressed with the kind of educative content you are developing and am so glad that now girls do not have to through the phase of ‘Oh my! I am going to die’, something that was so common when I was growing up. It was like the big elephant in the room that no one was willing to talk about. Unless, of course, one had a very forward looking mother or an elder sister who made it easy for them. I am into my 40s now, yet you are the first person I know who chose to bring it out in the open for all. What inspired you to do that?
Aditi: I think the inspiration to educate the masses stems from the isolation and humiliation that I and a million other girls in our country face during our periods. Whether it is restrictions on where we can sit, or stopping us from saying our prayers, or defining what food we can eat to washing our own bed linen after the cycle, were a good number of things that are highly limiting to us women!
Add to it, there is this eerie silence. It was a taboo to talk about it to anyone around. It was a pain to be silently borne every month.
In addition to these restrictive customs, I also realized that there is no access to hygienic products that should be used during those times. If buying a sanitary napkin was a no-no during my growing up years when we were part of an educated urban sector, just imagine the plight of millions of girls from the rural parts of our country.
And, of course, the fact that there was no awareness or knowledge being imparted on this simple biological phenomenon to girls. Girls usually get their periods when they are about 10 or 11 years old, but our curriculum touches on this subject only when they are 14-15 years. And that touching upon is also largely academic than practical.
So, with an urge to do something about it, we launched Menstrupedia to address the challenges of these young girls and helping them get over their lower self-esteem and self-confidence problems by getting past the social norms and lack of information.
Swapna: You know the main problem, as I see it, is periods being considered a taboo subject. Boys and even men are not aware of it. I remember at school, I have had some close male friends asking me about it. Especially when the folks from Whisper used to visit the school to spread awareness on sanitary napkins and the boys were sent off to the playground. And, this was in Delhi, in an urban set up. I, of course only fumbled, gaped and gawked, and probably never answered clearly. Do you think that men not being educated about it is also a core part of the problem?
Aditi: Definitely. Men and boys are excluded from this conversation. And the secrecy starts from women – our mothers. We are told that when you have periods you should not tell it to your father or brothers. And it is a common thing in everybody’s house. When you cannot share it with your close family, no question arises to talk about it with your colleagues and batch mates.
And this has to stop.
What we saw with Menstrupedia is that it is a big success with conservative and skeptical people about how we are going to break the silence about it. We have now decided to do a magazine for boys as well. Open discussion about puberty, sex, growth patterns – what is happening in their body and larger conversation on gender and gender roles.
With Menstrupedia, we ensured that the books are being used in all kinds of schools – contrary to the misconception that it is used in rural schools only. Our books are being used across the spectrum of schools, rural to elite ones where star kids and children of celebrities attend. And once at a school in Juhu – we gave the books to both boys and girls from a class. And it was heartening to see that.
We also worked with Teach for India. They gave us young kids to teach. 4th and 5th standard boys were very sensitive and highly inquisitive on questions of how to help the women around them, how to maintain hygiene, pregnancy etc.
That said, a lot of work needs to be done. And I am hopeful as slowly, silently things are changing.
Swapna: Another challenge is, of course, our elders. Our moms, aunts and even teachers do not talk about it in the open. As you rightly say, teachers invariably skip the entire chapter and ascribe it to a self-reading session. Do you find teachers still doing that? Why do they do it? Is it because they are women themselves and find it hard to talk about it?
Aditi: We must understand as to why teachers are skipping the chapter. As designers, we understand and do know that it is attributed to human behavior. People feel embarrassed to talk about menstruation. And that is where Menstrupedia appears.
This discomfort, this sense of embarrassment is something that Menstrupedia takes away from the subject and it tells the educator that ‘Oh, this is a lovely way to teach about menstruation’, and that is why it works.
Today there are millions of teachers across the globe using it to teach the young ones.
Our book, and our tool – Hello Periods – are both helping in bridging this lack of knowledge and is enabling, rather empowering, them to teach about menstruation without feeling ashamed. The tool can be downloaded for free and is available in eleven languages.
I know people are uncomfortable because of their culture, their background, and this inherent human behavior called ’embarrassment and shame’.
However, let us start talking about it.
What we can do as designers and social innovators is to enable them to overcome these feelings and take away the embarrassment. And people do overcome it. Today, I see an army of volunteers, just there for taking workshops. I train so many people today across the spectrum of senior school girls to school principals, and on an average I get at least one testimonial from some corner of the world.
Swapna: Pinki, Jia, Meera and Priya didi are our next door girls and so relatable. You chose a medium that I would term as entirely non-academic. What prompted you to take that approach? The dreary biology books?
Aditi: So, the current version of the comic that you see right now is probably the fifth version of our content. A lot of work and a significant amount of research and iterations have gone into it before it has reached this shape.
As designers, we are very particular about what our user needs, and how to tackle them.
We initially contemplated a computer game and a board game. But then they did not seem too right for a sensitive subject like child molestation and sexual violence.
Tuhin, the nerdier of the two and an avid storyteller well versed with animation, came up with the idea of using a comic book.
And it worked well for us as fundamentally comics give us the freedom to use real life stories. And in addition, it is not a threatening medium. If you say you are releasing a book on periods, people will be a tad wary. Yet, you say it is a comic with characters who are similar to you, you are going to get a quick buy-in.
And hence we chose the format of comic and the prototype really worked.
It was amazing to see boys and girls reading it together. Girls were reading it in front of their fathers. This was something that was happening for the first time.
I must add that while designing the content, we were very particular that there should be nothing objectionable about the comic to the parents. Because even if the girls are the readers, teachers and parents are the gatekeepers. So, anything that is there, any visual that is there in the comic is non-threatening.
There is one place where we tell the girls about the three openings between the legs. It was very important to tell, first for the cleanliness, to remove the stigma around the vagina and the body parts, then to enable them to use different kinds of sanitary product in future, everything. I mean, the basic anatomy is not known to a girl. Even that, we have drawn in such a way that you will not feel – ‘oh this is something dirty that we have opened’.
So yes, the comic has evolved after a lot of iterations.
Also the names Pinky, Jia, Meera, Priya didi, etc. have also been thought through and evolved. We chose names that are commonly found and relatable with a global touch. Meera is a very common South Asian name. Priya didi is highly relatable to all of us. Jia is a Muslim name that we used to keep it highly inclusive.
And today, when the books get ordered from 18 different countries, I can only feel that the groundwork we did in designing and planning the book has borne fruit.
But I do not think our Biology books were any kind of inspiration. On the contrary, the poor content within them was!
We should not be giving this bad content to the children. Our kids deserve better!
Swapna: Last but not the least, where can we buy copies of these comics? And what would be your message to all the parents out there?
Aditi: You would have to go to www.menstrupedia.com and you can buy the comic books there. You can read the first chapter for free. All these comic books are heavily subsidized for NGOs, CSR and for schools, or for free distribution.
We also have free educational tools called ‘Hello Periods Video‘ in eleven languages. In nine Indian languages and the other two are Nepali and Spanish. Anybody can download this video and start to teach girls about menstruation.
The message I would like to give the parents is, ‘Dear Parents, if you would be ashamed of periods, your daughters would be too. So please be period positive.’