NEW DELHI – When Aditi Gupta was a teenager, getting her period was a monthly ordeal of isolation, stigma and shame. “I was told not to sit on the sofa or on anyone else’s bed. I was discouraged from entering the kitchen and I was made to stay away from festivities and social events,” she says. “In short, I was treated as impure or polluted and it greatly affected my confidence and self-esteem.”
It was only when she started university at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad that she realized how little she actually knew about what was going on with her body. Whenever she had issues or questions about her period, her then-boyfriend, now husband, Tuhin Paul would turn to the internet for information. “His research proved to be an eye opener for both of us. I learned things about menstruation that nobody had ever mentioned to me,” says Gupta, 32.
Speaking to other women about their own experiences, Gupta and Paul realized there was a general need for greater awareness among young Indian women about menstruation and menstrual hygiene. In 2012, they launched Menstrupedia, an illustrated website that teaches visitors about the physical and emotional changes girls go through when they reach puberty, as well as answering questions such as, “How important is it for a girl or woman to be aware of her body?” Then they launched a crowdfunding campaign to allow them to put their drawings to paper. The result is Menstrupedia Comic, a fun, colorful book that follows four girls as they learn about periods and everything that comes with them.
In India, the majority of girls know little or nothing about menstruation before their first period, according to UNICEF. A taboo subject that’s rarely discussed in homes or schools, menstruation is often seen as shameful. The culture of silence around periods can leave girls confused and fearful when they hit puberty. This lack of awareness often costs girls their social lives and education: Almost one-quarter of girls in India drop out of school when they reach puberty. It also comes with health risks, with studies showing that around 90 percent of women in India don’t wear sanitary pads, using materials such as rags, newspapers and sand instead and increasing their risk of reproductive tract infections. When she was younger, even Gupta, who says she belongs to “a well-settled, educated family,” used a cotton rag instead of a pad. “In the small town where I was growing up, everyone knew each other. I thought going out and asking for pads in a store would impact my family’s reputation,” she says.
The Menstrupedia comic books feature four relatable characters: Pinki, who is yet to reach puberty; Jiya, who gets her first period during the course of the story; Mira, who has already started her period; and Pinki’s older sister Priya, a doctor. The story opens with Pinki’s ninth birthday party, which gives Priya the chance to tell the girls all about growing up. As they’re eating a meal together, Jiya leaves to go to the toilet and panics when she sees blood in her underwear. Priya explains that it’s her first period and shows Jiya how to use a pad. In her advice to the girls, Priya touches on everything from pregnancy to nutrition to self-esteem: “Sometimes because of these hormones you may feel overtly conscious about your changing body. Always remember everyone is beautiful and unique in their own way.”
The book, which is aimed at girls of nine years old and above, isn’t shy about the facts – drawings of the female anatomy are accurate and detailed; one panel shows the blood stain in Mira’s underwear. And girls are reading it in droves. Since its publication just over three years ago, the book has been translated into 10 languages, including Spanish and Nepali, and Gupta estimates it has reached 75 schools and 50,000 girls in rural India. She says the website gets an average of 150,000 visitors each month and orders for the books have been pouring in from around the world.
Khushboo Singh, 22, and Nirali Thakkar, 21, use Menstrupedia in their menstrual-awareness campaign Bleed to Feed in five villages in Jhunjhunu district in Rajasthan, India’s largest state. They say the books are more effective than the traditional method used to teach reproductive health in schools. “Information is generally provided through audiovisual content and girls soon forget what was shown to them,” says Thakkar. “The comics can be stocked in school libraries, a girl can borrow the comic, share it with other women in the family. It is also teacher-friendly as it provides a more constructive and engaging way of dealing with the topic that no one is comfortable talking about.”
Health workers, too, can use the comic, both to educate themselves and to supplement the information they share with rural communities. “Despite government guidelines on menstrual health hygiene, the health workers tend to reinforce traditional knowledge, which is based on myths and customs,” says Thakkar.
Singh and Thakkar have seen firsthand the consequences of the stigma around menstruation. They meet girls who are kept in seclusion, prohibited not only from going to school or temple, but even forbidden to enter their own kitchen or eat meals with the rest of the family. “For young girls in villages, the menstrual phase becomes very traumatic as there is no one to guide them or provide emotional support,” says Thakkar. In the five villages where the Bleed to Feed campaign runs, across both the Muslim and the Hindu communities, “most parents marry off their daughters soon after they get their first period and they become mothers at a very young age.”
For Gupta, catching girls early to teach them about puberty, growing up and the physical processes their bodies are going through is a way to lift the taboo and break the cycle of school dropouts and early marriages. Using frank talk and cartoon characters, “we can raise a generation of mothers who are not only aware about menstruation themselves, but also ensure that their daughters learn about periods at the right time,” she says.