The Indian society houses belief systems that turn out to be detrimental for the overall development of an individual. The most harmful facet of these practices is that it is passed on from generation to generation without logical reasoning and informed opinions.
Aditi Gupta and Tuhin Paul from the National Institute of Design took up one such prevailing taboo in our society – Menstruation. Mothers tend to shy away from discussing this topic with their daughters while the Indian education system merely deals with it as a biological process without imparting education about the practical aspects involved in the cycle.
The husband wife duo, the founders of Menstrupedia make this taboo topic easier and fun for schools, parents and young girls. We speak to Aditi and Tuhin about the ground-breaking work they are doing in the field.
What is Menstrupedia?
Menstrupedia is an Indian social enterprise that creates innovative educational products and infrastructure for spreading menstrual awareness among young girls across the world. The need for Menstrupedia arose from one of the co-founders, Aditi Gupta’s own struggle with menstrual unawareness due to which she had to face many problems while growing up and therefore she helped create Menstrupedia to address such problems for young girls growing through a similar phase.
Menstrupedia was launched in November 2012 but legally incorporated in September 2013. In its young life, Menstrupedia has served 1.7 million people from around the world through its online educational content and more than 4000 girls in India through its printed book called Menstrupedia Comic. 15 schools in India have already adopted Menstrupedia’s educational material to teach about menstruation as part of their curriculum. Through collaborations with local organizations and individuals, Menstrupedia’s educational material is being used in countries like, Uruguay, Nepal, Philippines, Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, US, UK, Australia and Sweden.
Menstrupedia’s culturally sensitive approach and sustained innovation in the sector of Menstrual awareness has attracted widespread acclaim. Menstrupedia has appeared in leading news sources like The Wall Street journal, Reuters, Forbes India, Times of India, CNBC and more.
Menstrupedia’s mission is to empower parents and teachers to educate young girls about menstruation at the right time, help young girls learn about their bodies so that they are better able to take care of themselves during their periods and fight against the age old myths and taboos around menstruation that are not only discriminatory in nature but are also detrimental to the self-esteem and self-confidence of young girls affecting their growth in life.
What inspired you and Tuhin to take up this issue of Menstruation? Was it personal experiences? Tell us your story.
At the Natonal Institute of Design, Tuhin and I got into a relationship. Tuhin learnt more about the pain and inconvenience that girls and women go through every month during their periods and how they are often treated as being impure because of it. It wouldn’t be very hard to imagine what a young girl goes through in the absence of a proper source of information on the subject and on top of that being branded impure by her own family. I had myself experienced and dealt with menstruation related problems in my life and had always felt a need for trustworthy and easily accessible information on this subject. This might be a situation not just in India but in many other countries as well. We saw a lot of design scope to fill this gap of information as communication designers.
What started out as a thesis project at NID has now become Menstrupedia. I had taken up a yearlong project to study the level of awareness about menstruation in young girls. Though it was my project, Tuhin was closely involved with it from the beginning as it is not just a problem of women health and hygiene but also a communication design problem. At the end of the project we found a need for an appropriate guide about menstruation for young girls. In order to address the same, we created a prototype where we explained menstruation through the comic medium using characters and stories and tested it with young girls. We received a very positive response. Our yearlong research backs our work and that is certainly inspiration for us.
A comic was developed to test the medium. We took this comic in to schools in Mehsana, Gandhinagr , Ahmedabad and Ranchi. We received a very positive response from girls, parents as well as teachers. After working for three years in the e-learning industry and having saved some money as an initial investment, we quite our jobs and started working full time on Menstupedia from August 2013. Rajat Mittal (Third founding member) who is a graduate from DAIICT and a post Graduate in Computers from Arizona State University, joined us in 2013. With his technical skills our team was pretty much complete.
Your year long research would have been an eye opener. Tell us about your findings.
Millions of girls in India suffer in silence due to the myths associated with this biological process. Practices like keeping girls away from other family members, not allowing them to shower during their menstrual cycle can damage the self-confidence of a girl.
We conducted a yearlong research project with young urban and semi urban girls. 88% of girls in India use unhygienic ways of to manage their cycle. This is largely because there is a culture of silence around the subject. Girls remain unaware about hygienic ways of managing their cycle especially during the time they get their first periods.
Research in India shows that three in every ten girls do not know about periods when they get their first period and in some parts of Rajasthan nine out of ten girls are unaware about periods. We might believe menstrual unawareness would be a rural phenomena but our research showed that it is very much an urban phenomena too.
What are some of the myths associated with menstruation that you deal with in the comic?
If you are a girl or a woman who has had periods before, it is likely that by now you have knowingly or unknowingly encountered a menstrual myth. Menstrual myths are (mis)beliefs and taboos related to menstruation that are followed for reasons that have no scientific basis to them. But how did these myths originate? Earlier in the absence of scientific methods, the only way to unravel this mysterious phenomenon called menstruation was to draw deductions from what is externally observed and experienced during this process. Causes and effects of menstruation were falsely perceived based on such observations like periodic shedding of blood from the private parts of the females, which is sometimes accompanied by pain and sickness. For the primitive society a combination of blood and pain suggested danger against which proper precautions must be taken. These falsely perceived causes and effects of menstruation and exaggerated precautions against falsely perceived dangers of menstruation have over the time led to the various myths around the subject and contributed towards the taboo nature of it. Some of the myths that we deal with in the comic are- a menstruating woman is impure, dirty, sick or even cursed. Menstruating women shouldn’t take a bath; Menstruation leads to heavy blood loss, which results in anaemia. It is impossible to get pregnant while menstruating.
What is the response of schools? How far have you been able to penetrate in India?
So far 15 Schools have adapted the book as a part of their curriculum. I would like to share some of the feedback we have got from the readers of Menstrupedia. It is certainly encouraging.
Great Preparatory Book
“I got my period with no briefing about it from my mother or any body and it was a period of emotional distraught for me. So I had already briefed my daughter when she was just 9 years old! It was delighted when I saw the ad for Menstrupedia and immediately ordered for it, hoping that my daughter does not get her period before she gets the book. Luckily she indeed got it before she got her period. She is 10 years old now and the book was exactly what I needed for her. Many things have been addressed in the comics – like diet, hygiene, preparation for the next period etc. and it is indeed a wonderful book! I do have the closeness with my daughter to talk about everything, but I know that not many mothers/parents have that and this book will be a boon for such parents and kids. Kudos to you all for coming out with such kind of needed books. Thanks to you all”.
My daughter loved the book
“Few months back when my daughter asked me questions about what is whisper and why I am using it? I was little uncomfortable explaining her why I am using sanitary napkins. She is 10 years old and I realized, it’s time to explain her about menses. I started going through Google, books. Asking friends how to discuss this but it was very difficult to make her understand with all science. As I was going through Internet I saw this comic book with all cartoons like I am reading tinkle. I was very happy to read Menstrupedia comic book. I pre-ordered the book. After 2/3 months I received this book by courier and gave it to my daughter Parinita. I told her just go through it and if you have difficulty in understanding ask me. She was excited to see the book with cartoons. After reading she came to me and said mom I don’t have any questions now. I know now about menses. I was totally relieved. I recommended this book to many parents who are finding difficult to discuss with their young Kids”
Share your experience with the workshops you conduct for menstrual education.
We do not conduct menstrual awareness workshops, our goal is to empower, educator and any volunteer who wants to educate girls about periods. Using the comic book for conducting workshops has been very helpful for a lot of volunteers across India. Please go through this article
I was travelling to Ladakh to volunteer as a teacher at a couple of nunneries during the period between September and October this year. “Could I possibly introduce the Menstrupedia comic book in these nunneries and see if I can initiate an open discussion on the topic of menstruation and female reproductive health with these nuns?” I asked myself. I thought it was worth giving it a try and thus immediately contacted Aditi Gupta to inquire about the Menstrupedia comic.
I guess I should be eternally grateful to Aditi for arranging to send me the prototype of the Menstrupedia comic book (since the final prints were to be released in November 2013) before my trip to Ladakh.
Now the next question was, would it be advisable to approach the topic as controversial as menstruation, especially in a religious set-up like a nunnery? I would soon find out.
So as soon as I arrived at the Chulichan nunnery in Rizong, I consulted their current teacher Gen Jigmet if I could show the Menstrupedia comic book to the nuns and she was more than happy to let me do so.
Though I had taken the first step towards actually implementing what I had in mind, I was still unsure about how I was going to broach this important topic in my class at the nunnery school.
The saving grace for me was that the nuns in my class were in the age range of 14-25 years (in a way already in the ‘reproductive age’ and aware of what menstruation was all about) and by the end of my first week at the school, had already gotten over their initial shyness and were quite enjoying their classes.
As a result, when I took the Menstrupedia comic book to them and briefly explained to them the purpose of it, they had no reservations about reading or discussing it. And that was that – they went through the entire comic book, slowly reading it in a group. They discussed the contents among themselves and consulted me whenever they came across an unknown terms or concepts, getting them clarified to the best of their knowledge and mainly because they were not quite proficient in Hindi.
After all the nuns had finished reading, we had an open group discussion on what they understood from the book, what their take on it was, what their own experiences in this particular area were and most importantly, whether they thought that this was a taboo topic which wasn’t supposed to be discussed in school or not.
To my surprise, they all agreed that until they read the information given in the Menstrupedia comic, even they were of the opinion that Menstruation was a ‘dirty’ and ‘abominable’ thing and often wondered why women suffered from it in the first place. After reading the comic book however, their views had changed and now they felt that this was a vital part of womanhood and there was nothing about it to feel ashamed about.
I shared my beliefs and experiences with these girls as well and encouraged them to talk to me about their physical problems, especially those related to menstruation. To be honest, all this came as a pleasant surprise to me – their inquisitiveness to get their facts right and their incessant questioning, none of which indicated that these budding nuns, who were growing up in a Buddhist institution were in any manner shying away from a topic like menstruation.
The best part was that while this exercise clarified their ideas and beliefs about menstruation, it also helped me to get over my innate hesitancy to approach such a sensitive issue in public and boosted my confidence to take this up as a mission to reach out to the maximum number of girls I possibly could.
After Chulichan, I faced a similar kind of encouraging response to the Menstrupedia comic at the Choglamsar nunnery. Fortunately, here my students were nuns between the ages of 13-17 years. They too took this entire exercise of referring to the Menstrupedia comic book very seriously – discussing it openly and also asking me questions like “But is it really necessary to take a bath every day during the menstrual cycle?” The reason behind this was that at most a nunneries having a bath was a weekly and not a daily affair owing to their hectic schedules, coupled with the inaccessibility of any available water source and extremely cold temperatures.
I had to do some quick thinking to answer their question logically but what touched me was their genuine concern for their own health after reading the information provided in the comic.
This was not all at Choglamsar nunnery. The older nuns who looked after the younger nuns studying at this nunnery actually requested me to conduct a session with them before I introduced the Menstrupedia comic to the nuns at the school and they themselves had a lot of queries on the subject of menstruation and wanted to ensure that they knew their stuff correctly, in case the girls came up with any questions in my absence. After we finished with both these sessions, they asked me if I could leave the Menstrupedia comic with them at the nunnery for future reference. Their wisdom was admirable to say the least, because they knew the importance of this topic and were actually making an effort from their side to make sure that the nuns at Choglamsar nunnery continued to receive this information even in the future.
This was a real learning experience for me as a woman and these were my valuable experiences with the Menstrupedia comic book. I sincerely hope that I can continue to take this useful information to many more girls in many more schools – not only in Ladakh, but all over India in the forthcoming years. Thank you Aditi, Tuhin and Rajat and everyone else who has put in such tremendous efforts in conceptualizing Menstrupedia for the benefit of thousands of young girls in this country!
Author: Ina Mondkar
Editor: Divya Rosaline
What are your future plans with Menstrupedia?
We aim to create a nation- wide infrastructure for menstrual education. The book would translated in 10 India regional Languages by the end of this year. Our audio-video app of the books would be also launched. Currently we are working with local organization to get the books available in Nepal and South America. Nepali and Spanish translation is done.
How could one contact you?
Do visit our website www.menstrupedia.com or write to us on firstname.lastname@example.org