Tuhin Paul was a student of engineering when he made a trip to the coastal city of Diu with his friends. One of the boys had injured his toes and been advised not to enter the waters. Watching him wistfully sitting by while they enjoyed the waves, the other boys devised an ingenious plan – to wrap a condom around his toe. This idea, while highly feasible, had a catch. Who would buy the condom from the store? They had never done such a thing before! After much bickering, Tuhin volunteered. “Even though we were buying it for a seemingly ‘good’ intention, there was shame attached to the act!” he recalls, to exaggeratedly illustrate the extent to which shame surrounds such taboo subjects – much like it surrounds young girls in India as they feel, even more deeply, a similar kind of shame, though unconnected– one that holds them back from the simple act of going to a medical store and buying sanitary pads for periods. Aditi Gupta, Tuhin’s wife, grew up under the blanket of such societal shame through her childhood – prompting her to resort to the use of rags during periods.
Today it appears that consciousness about menstruation has become more widely highlighted in the public realm, with movements like Nikita Azad’s ‘Happy to Bleed’ campaign taking the media by storm last year, prompting women to openly accept this natural biological process that has long been steeped in myths – that so often causes women to be forbidden from entering temples, touching pickle jars and cooking during periods. Aditi is one of these voices who is quick to remind that this same ‘impure’ blood that we so often surround with taboos, is the stuff that we survived on for nine months inside our mothers’ wombs. However, this simple discovery of the link between childbirth and periods has been relatively very recent in mankind’s history, she tells me – which is why so many myths have misunderstood the blood to be impure. Although research suggests that some of these regressive social practices were actually not founded, in ancient times, on the basis of suppression and impurity – but, instead, in recognition of the power of womanhood –misinterpretations of these intentions are what seem to abound today.
Aditi believes that to combat these taboos, the conversation around periods and other sensitive issues should begin at age nine before perceptions and stereotypes have begun to form. “It takes more time to turn a lie into truth,” she says, “As they say – it’s difficult to fix broken human beings, but easy to raise strong ones.” While education about menstruation is predominantly lacking in India, even the best schools often initiate such conversation too late. To find out why knowledge about this subject is so poor, Aditi had undertaken a Ford Foundation research project while she was studying New Media at NID, Ahmedabad. She wanted to probe the possibility of two situations – one, that either parents or teachers do not think it necessary to talk about this subject. Or two, that they think it necessary but feel they lack the proper tools to communicate the correct information. Over a series of interviews that revealed, more than anything, the great discomfort that clouds the Menstruation word, Aditi found – thankfully – that the latter was truer.
To address this situation of a ‘missing tool’, as design students, Tuhin and Aditi came up with an educational video game. But the question that immediately surfaced was – why make the tool dependent on electricity at all? When teachers around India barely know how to switch on computers in their schools, a computer-based medium would hardly be effective. They decided that the tool should be a physical one.
“We had to design something that would help any girl learn about periods privately,” said Aditi, “But in thinking this, we then wondered – are we invariably communicating that this subject needs to be hidden? In the process of breaking a myth, are we perhaps propagating another one?” Faced with this quandary, Aditi and Tuhin imagined a playful group activity that would simultaneously open up the subject for discussion while teaching the girls basic ‘learning points’. They made a board game. But not being board game designers, it turned out to be a complex bit of work for the duo to crack effectively.
Taking a pause, they asked – what are our core individual strengths? Aditi knew she made for a good researcher – having gathered several stories over the course of her interviews – and Tuhin was good at drawing. Stumbling upon an online archive of graphic novels, they came across several that were tackling similarly sensitive issues across cultures – ranging from domestic violence to alcoholism. “Why don’t we share the stories we’ve gathered?” they asked. Aditi recalled how it was only over shared jokes and stories exchanged in boarding school that she was finally able to let go of the shame associated with her periods – as the comprehension gradually dawned on her that she was not alone in her troubles. If the primary reason behind feeling shame is that we are not allowed to talk about this subject, then comics that share real stories – stories that every girl might relate to – might be a good solution.
“We also knew we wanted to make something that the girls could carry back home with them after an educational workshop,” Tuhin said. “Otherwise the effectiveness would be limited to the time duration and space of the workshop. This way, they could show it to their mothers, sisters and even brothers. Each girl could then take the responsibility of educating her friends,” helping to carry the discussion outwards. A pamphlet prototype was made in NID and circulated in several schools, garnering positive reactions from many.
The characters in the comics – mainly comprising four girls at different stages of their lives – portray diversity, not only in religion but also in complexion. ‘Indianness’ is not emphasised too much as the comics are meant for international circulation as well. There is also a humorous scene with a boy character who, seeing vague advertisements about sanitary pads, concludes that they are meant for soaking up spilt blue ink. Gender sensitivity about sexual attractions is also incorporated after a reader pointed out that male-female attraction should not be depicted as the only kind of feeling that ensues upon hitting puberty.
Seeking to expand this comic series into a book, Aditi and Tuhin sought support, but nearly every business person that they met prophesied imminent failure of their venture. Investors were wary, often saying, “This is too niche a subject. You should diversify to include fashion, makeup and lifestyle products” – suggestions that the founders promptly turned down. They finally turned to crowdfunding via an online video. “Our most emotional moment was when the first thousand rupees was sent in, not by a friend, but by a stranger,” recalled Aditi, “We had tears in our eyes.” More than a year later, the duo came out with the Menstrupedia Comic. Translated into over ten languages, and reaching out to over seven countries so far, the book gently navigates the reader through the subject of growing up.
In 2014, Menstrupediamade it to the achievers’ list of Forbes India 30 Under 30, and Aditi’s TEDx talk sharing a ‘taboo-free way to talk about periods’ went viral, landing up on the official TED site.Though Aditi has become the face of Menstrupedia, primarily because “having a uterus” helps women connect with her, the team includes Aditi’s male co-founders Tuhin and Rajat Mittal. Recognising that children often “confide more in strangers”, the need for a dedicated group of volunteers who could visit schools and educate children and teachers, was felt to be the need of the hour. To help people do this of their own volition, a free video was made available online. The Menstrupedia team’s next agenda is to conduct quality teacher training programmes for such volunteers across the country.
“I’d rather call myself an educationist than an activist,” mused the free-spirited Aditi. “If you ask me, we cannot take the corporates out of any issue, because they have the money. For example, I think Bajaj Auto has done more for female empowerment than activists have. Just look at the number of women who ride scooters in Gujarat, with their husbands sitting behind them – it’s unparalleled elsewhere in the country!”The MenstrupediaComic is sponsored in part by ‘Whisper’ – the sanitary pad company that has, I feel, a woefully regressive name that perpetuates a culture of hush-hush discussions around periods. This fact has sometimes been a source of ire for activists. Undoubtedly though, it has been this kind of strong financial support that enables the team to give out the comic books at highly subsidised rates to NGO’s and schools. On a personal level, Aditi is gung-ho about the ‘sustainable periods’ movement led by the arrival of menstrual cups.
This Menstrupedia couple is undoubtedly amongst the loveliest people I’ve ever met – with Aditi’s effervescence balanced by Tuhin’s quiet poise. How did Aditi know that devoting her time to this taboo subject might be her immediate calling? She insisted that her husband Tuhin is behind this – “Tuhin brought out the ‘lack’ in me. Though, of course, my mother thinks that Tuhin has ruined me!” she laughed, referring to how she quit her stable job to start publicly talking about periods.
The success of Menstrupedia since 2012 has been unprecedented and inspiring for all involved in similar work – shattering the taboos that surround a natural process that affects half the world’s population – and reaching out to over 30,000 girls so far. The Menstrupedia Comic also adds momentum to a wider ‘Comics for Social Change’ movement that is fast picking up in India – one that is exemplified in particular by the rise of comics like the Priya series that address rape and acid attack issues, and smaller ventures like Linear Expression that make understanding urban issues easier; serving as testimony to the power of sequential art – an oft undermined medium – in communicating ideas simply yet highly effectively.
(All images from Menstrupedia Facebook Page)
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