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THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE AND STAMINA

Aditi Gupta from India sheds light on myths and facts that surround menstruation in her research project Menstrupedia, an illustrated reference guide for parents, girls and boys that provides complete and correct information on the monthly periods -- a ritual that reinforces the woman's power and strength

The Womenz Bureau is very glad to share this exclusive interview with Aditi Gupta, Co-Founder, Menstrupedia, India

 

We will be glad to know about yourself and your family background.

I belong to a very small semi-urban town called Garhwa in Jharkhand state. I am an engineering graduate and a New Media Design post-graduate from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad.


In many communities in India menstruation is still a taboo -- not to be discussed openly, and treated ‘differently’. What is your own experience?

My experiences are no different from what many women in India face month on month. I got my first period when I was 12. When I told my mother about it she made me bathe with two-and-half mugs of water. She believed that by doing so, my flow would last only for two-and-half days. I was not allowed to sit on other peoples’ beds, wasn’t allowed to touch the place of worship or anything holy in the house. I had to wash and dry my clothes separately. I wasn’t allowed to eat or touch pickle, as it was believed the pickle would spoil if I touched it.  After my periods would get over, I had to wash the bed sheet, whether it was stained or not. In short, I was treated as impure or polluted. I was expected to have become ‘pure’ only after the seventh day when I had taken a bath and washed my hair.

My family could have easily afforded sanitary pads, but the question was “who would go to buy them, and risk their and the family’s dignity.” I had to resort to using cloth, which had to be washed and stored in a dark, damp and unclean corner of the bathroom. To top it all, menstruation had to be kept under the cloak from all male members in the family.

My experiences are no different from what many women in India face month on month.

When I started getting my period, I was told to keep it a secret from others even from my father and brother. Later when the topic appeared in our textbook, our biology teacher skipped the chapter asking us to go through it on our own. What I am today has to do a lot with how much my parents took care of me and my education. They always went that extra mile to provide the best of the facilities to me while growing up, but when it came to using sanitary napkin I did not have access to it because the place where I grew up, even buying of sanitary napkins is considered shameful.

 

What outlook did school had on menstruation?

My school was quite small and we had quite a friendly biology teacher who always took extra care and effort to make our lesson seem easy and fun, but when he too skipped that topic on menstruation asking us to go through it on our own, it made me think that periods are really a shameful topic and decent students don't talk about it.

We learnt to deny our own body, our own self, right from the time we started growing up, and then everything surrounding it, be it child molestation, periods, pregnancy, and intercourse. Even touching and hugging becomes shameful and embarrassing.

I managed to bid adieu to using rags when I was admitted to a boarding school in another city. My friends told me that I could buy modern sanitary napkins in any pharmacy. I went to the medical shop and very shyly asked for the brand name. The shopkeeper wrapped up the packet with paper, put it in a black poly bag and gave it to me. I was using sanitary napkins for the first time at the age of 15.

 

How did your partner Tuhin, and later your husband, helped you in understanding menstruation better? What prompted you lay the foundation of Menstrupedia?

In 2009 Tuhin and I were batchmates pursuing our post-graduation course in design. We fell in love with each other so I was at ease discussing periods with him. He knew very little about periods. While he was astonished to know that girls get painful cramps and bleed every month, he was also shocked to know about the restrictions that are imposed upon a menstruating girl.

In order to help me with my menstrual cramps, he learnt more about menstruation from the internet. When he shared his findings with me, I realized how little I knew about menstruation myself and many of my beliefs actually turned out to be myths.

After his study and search on the topic, Tuhin told me many things that I myself did not know about. So I took up a year-long project on menstrual awareness. This research project laid the ground for Menstrupedia.

We created a prototype where we explained menstruation through comic medium using characters and stories and tested it with young girls. We received a very positive response. So one inspiration was this that what we are doing at Menstrupedia has a thorough year-long research to back it up.

A comic was developed to test the medium. We took this comic to schools in Mehsana, Gandhinagar , Ahmedabad and Ranchi in India. We received a very positive response from girls, parents as well as teachers. After working 3 years in the e-learning industry and having saved some money as an initial investment, we quit our jobs and started working full time on Menstrupedia from August 2013.


Tuhin and Aditi 

 

Tell us more about Menstrupedia Comics in detail.

Menstrupedia follows the journey of three young girls and their experiences with periods. Each character represents a stage of adolescence — girls who haven’t started their period yet and want to learn more about them; girls who have just started their period and want advice on how to prepare for them; and girls who have had periods for some time and might be curious about the myths surrounding them.

The books are now in 16 languages, used in more than 6,000 schools across India. The books are locally printed in 5 countries, Nepal, Bangladesh, Uruguay, Hungary and China in their respective languages. We ship these books to 20 different countries from India.

An excerpt from Menstrupedia


What are some of the hardships you initially faced?

One hardship we initially faced was raising funds. The moment we’d say that we want to do something related to menstruation and create an educational tool, people would tell me that there is absolutely no market for it or ask us if we were an NGO. We had a hard time convincing investors that this is something that’s going to work.

 When we launched our crowd funding campaign, we only had two months of run time to survive. We had to cut our monthly budget. We moved to a one-room flat to cut the costs and bring out the book. But on the other hand we received an amazing response from people and our users loved what we were doing. It was a kind of a litmus test for us, but finally we raised more than we wanted to.

 

Did any of leading sanitary pads manufacturers in India take note of Menstrupedia?

PNG is one of our partners who came on board before the comic books were launched. There are also one of the sponsors of these comic books, with their help we subsidise books heavily. So when a comic book costs Rs 100 and if you buy more than one hundred copies, with the help of these subsidies we are able to send the books in thousands to villages, NGOs, schools and big organisations which are working in the field of menstrual hygiene and also with girls and women.

 

How is the public response to Menstrupedia?

The response to Menstrupedia in India has been overwhelming at every phase of our development, at every phase of our company. We have a zero marketing budget, so whatever marketing happens is through word-of-mouth. So when people come to know about our comic book they order it, since the media is also talking about us.

If you look at the impact figures, we have worked with five state governments so far. We are working with five state governments. The books were distributed to nearly 6,000 schools recently; these were the English and Kannada books; Andhra Pradesh governments distributed Telugu and English books to 122 schools which are the residential schools in 11 districts they have. This shows the tremendous response we are getting.

We have reached 1 million girls through our comic books; 5,000,000 through our online and off-line efforts. We have free educational tools which are called ‘Hello periods’ which are translated into 11 languages. The book itself is translated into 16 languages.

Apart from India, the books are locally printed in Nepal; also in Uruguay in Spanish and then distributed there locally. These comic books are being shipped to 20 different countries. Some people around the world are using Menstrupedia books to teach and learn about menstruation.

An excerpt from Menstrupedia


How is the mindset in India changing towards menstruation?

When Menstrupedia was launched, what it was able to do was to tell people it is okay about menstruation; on this blog it used to go viral and was read tremendously, each article was  shared 25,000 or 30,000 times or more than that. Now we can see that many of the crowd-sourcing platforms have started talking about menstruation.

Menstruation has become a trendy topic now. It is part of discussions in the mainstream media and blogs. In India there are two films made on menstrual health. If you look at the tone of the advertisement, earlier it was a shame to use or sell menstruation products. But a few days back   ‘Touch the Pickle’ campaign was launched. So this is how you can see the transition taking place. That is how exactly it is going to change perception of people and society.

In India you can see that the Supreme Court has ordered and given permission to women to enter holy places like Haji Ali, Sagarmala, etc. But it is still a long way to go to completely eradicate the taboo.

 

How about educating young boys too about menstruation?

Why not? The boys and men should be a part of the conversation. Actually, it starts from your home, when mother tells her daughter that she is not supposed to talk about menstruation to her father and brother. This is the scenario every next door. This is the need of the hour to involve  boys and men in the conversation, keeping them away from this discussion we are doing an injustice to them.

We are launching  a book on men's puberty also; there we will talk on masturbation, nightfall, what happens when they grow up and are attracted to a woman’s body, and their perception of female body, periods, what should they know about contraception, childbirth and all those things. When it comes to educate boys about menstruation, it is my most favourite workshop I conduct with boys. With boys you have to be a little sensitive. That is the time when boys are at innocent stage, and the macho perception has not been injected to them by our society. They are really receptive towards such education. Some of the boys asked me why only girls get these periods and why has nature made them that way. That highlights that boys should be taught about the issue at the right age about menstruation and puberty as well.

An excerpt from Menstrupedia


What are your views on woman leadership and equal opportunities?

I have seen that most of the girls dropped out of school when they reach puberty and they are also constantly dropping from the mainstream of society. When a woman is in leadership the process to design is all inclusive. Take my examples. I'm the co-founder of this company with my husband. This year we became parents so I could bring my child to the office -- after fifth day of the delivery I came to the office. Also, after my son turned four months I started bringing him to the office and my work continued.

In our office we've designed a separate space where I can bring my son, feed him. I could create this environment because I am learning in this company, we were also thinking to hire new moms who are very skilful, but experience a long forced gap in there career. When they come back to work after maternity leave their salary drops drastically, that should not happen. We are creating  an environment where our women employees can bring up their children. That change comes only when you have woman as leader.

Women should always opt for entrepreneurship, then she can design and make her own rules.  When I was pregnant I used to come to the office every day when I needed rest.  I used to rest in the office without any fear of my image in the office, what would be my position, or about my  growth trajectory in this company. Being an entrepreneur  is a great equaliser for a woman,  every girl should  try it if they have a  knack for it.

 

What is your most outstanding achievement so far?

My biggest achievement so far is reaching out to millions of girls and telling them that they are not dirty during the periods, they are not impure.  What I’m looking forward is when these girls  become mothers,  they have their own boys and girls whom they will teach about menstruation at the right age. This cycle of menstruation, and the myths that were passed on from grandmothers to mothers, mothers to daughters.  This vicious cycle should break, that is my biggest dream and biggest achievement. Every time I think about it, that brings smile on my face.

 

What are your future plans?

About our future plans we are publishing a book on boys’ puberty.  Recently we were excited about how we are going to reach millions of girls through our comic books in Maharashtra.  Then we are also going to educate gender heads of Gujarat through menstrual awareness workshops.  We are going to come up with comic books on reproduction, safe sex, contraception and  pregnancy.

 

Your message to women out there who are struggling to prove themselves.

My message to women and girls out there is that they possess unlimited superpower – so use it as your Superpower.  There is a famous quote by Maya Angelo in which said that each time a woman stands up for herself she does not realise for how many women she is standing up for. Unknowingly they are doing great service to fellow women, their sisters, their mothers.


Aditi can be reached at Facebook, Twitter & Linkedin 

 

 

 

First Published: 07-Mar-2019- 17:14


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