We are a country where 23 million girls still drop out of school upon reaching puberty, either due to lack of menstrual health products or waste disposal systems. According to a report by Dasra, only 48 percent of adolescent girls in India are aware of menstruation at the time of menarche. This has serious consequences on girls’ lives in terms of internalising patriarchal myths, facing body image issues, being unable to cope with bodily change, and most importantly being completely unaware of how to watch out for symptoms of menstrual disorders.
Aditi Gupta, Co-founder of Menstrupedia, has been on an arduous journey to change this. Through their videos and comic books, Menstrupedia encourages open conversation around menstruation and calling upon parents to lead this conversation in a safe and responsible manner.
Here’s what she has to say:
Also read: Kashmir’s Only Woman D.C. Steps Up To Break The Menstruation Taboo
Tell us about your journey of creating comic books on the topic of Menstruation. You started your journey long before Menstruation became a buzzword. How difficult or easy was it to mainstream this form of Sex Ed?
Our experience has been really magical. At no point did we think of not doing it. And now that Menstruation has become such a buzzword, I couldn’t be happier. In fact I am waiting for a time when it will again stop being a buzzword, but will be used as commonly and casually as having “pimples” – something that happens to everyone but still everyone’s experience is very different.
The digital world gives you a gateway to the minds of people very easily, in a cost-effective way. The accessibility of what people are thinking is very easy, and not just in India but also globally. Global trends also help us to pick up and work things at the grassroots.
Menstrupedia was not the first to talk about menstruation but we definitely brought in a new positive perspective and positive narrative around this topic. We have seen the world on the shoulder of giants. We were happy to partner with brands like Whisper, whose “Touch the Pickle” campaign at that time won the Golden Lion Award for gender equality. After that, other brands followed in the whole conversation, and the situation changed. It just makes me really happy to have envisioned work around menstruation. We have learnt throughout our journey. Shame was used to sell menstruation, but we decided that the narrative has to change. It has to be a positive conversation. And we did it in just five-six years. So imagine, if all stakeholders work together, we can affect and change so many things. I am very confident that we can change the entire landscape of how sex education is seen and taught in India, and I am sure together we will do it.
How has the response of the parents evolved over time, and what all is driving them to teach their children early about Menstruation?
The parent’s feedback makes me so excited. So many parents have said things like “where was this book when I was growing up?” The experience of teaching has been so great and yesterday I was reading a tweet where somebody said they were waiting for another 15 years when they can gift this book to their own child, and teach about menstruation. There are tonnes of testimonials, feedback and reviews of the book on our website and on Amazon. But this has also been the result of repeated iterations. The version you see today went through at least tens of iterations in content and design, reviewing it several times. And through each of that, we have learnt.
What are the barriers to exhaustive Menstrual Health education currently? In terms of society, policy, business etc?
Every year, 80 lacs girls reach puberty. One-fourth of these girls are missing out on school. So there are many serious barriers. The first barrier is that of correct data. Every sector has different claims and it has honestly become confusing. For example, the people who make sanitary napkins, are saying that there is 12 percent usage. AC Nielsen has a different report, and there is another one by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. The campaign Lahoo ka Lagaan has a focus on accessibility, questioning the taxation. So there are different data and different perspectives.
Interestingly, a lot of this movement-building has been happening in the last five years. And so I feel that it’s good that we are confused, and discussing.
For us, crowdfunding was a huge boon. Not every time do we get market support for sustainable business for menstruation or women’s health awareness.
I also think that the stakeholders have been divided, comparing their products with others or claiming that one approach is better than another. Another worrisome practice is pad-bashing. Menstrual activism should not be tantamount to pad-bashing. Pads have helped thousands of girls, including me, to go to school, college and work. Reusable pad reusable cups have their own limitations. So we have to agree on all the nuances.
As for the government, of course, things are changing, but then again period products were labelled as luxury products. So I feel these things will continue to happen, but the stakeholders need to listen to each other and walk together. We cannot think that one campaign or one approach or one Oscar will change everything. I am a true believer of the collective view. Even if the views are contradictory, there has to be a collective progress.
What are your thoughts on the Women’s Health ecosystem that’s currently growing in our country? What are the gaps, if any?
The biggest gap in both menstruation and women’s health is that people do not accept it. They do not accept that there is a problem. Five years ago no one was even talking about it or acknowledging that education is needed.
So the first step is to talk about it, whether good or bad, for or against. Once we acknowledge the problem, then the government, policy or pharma will tackle it in their own ways.
Not acknowledging such issues also has a lot to do with how we are raised. It is a behavioural and attitudinal change that will take longer. And as a designer, I optimise for the long-term. The difficulty there is manifold and takes much more perseverance, but it is also much more effective.
I was recently taking a boot camp with young women who were so articulate and vocal. Almost 30 percent of them had PCOS but they were not talking about it.
Problem with taboo topics is that they are so immensely difficult to address. But that is also where the game is, where the novelty lies. If someone wants to solve in this space, they will definitely garner eyeballs as well as support.
One of the good things happening in the country right now is that anything that advances women’s issues gets supported. The main thing is not to focus on doing it perfectly, but to start doing it.
Young girls reading Menstrupedia comics in an Indian school
Also read: Women’s Health Festival Brought Up Period Politics To The Front
What does it mean to be a grassroots activist in the digital world? How’s the digital space changing the way Menstrual Health information is being consumed?
The digital world gives you a gateway to the minds of people very easily, in a cost-effective way. The accessibility of what people are thinking is very easy, and not just in India but also globally. Global trends also help us to pick up and work things at the grassroots. So, we have benefited a lot – we can see what information they are looking for and what their background is. So, research becomes very easy.
I also think that the stakeholders have been divided, comparing their products with others or claiming that one approach is better than another. Another worrisome practice is pad-bashing. Menstrual activism should not be tantamount to pad-bashing.
Digital is a great way for outreach, to influence people or even get in touch with influencers. But I feel it always has to be a mixture of online and offline.
For us, crowdfunding was a huge boon. Not every time do we get market support for sustainable business for menstruation or women’s health awareness. So at that point community support is very important. Digital is, therefore, a great tool.
Swarnima is the Founder of TheaCare and the Curator of FemmeCon.