Aditi Gupta was 11 years old when the sight of her bloodstained underwear sent her into a tizzy of confusion, shock and panic. After she was offered a quick solution — a cloth — as women across generations in her family had been using, an awkward celebration of her “womanhood” followed. “But what did it really mean? asked the little girl in my head,” says Gupta. Through her early teens, every time she menstruated, it made her “impure”. She could not visit the temple, play or even speak of it. Even if she did talk to someone — definitely not a man — it had to be in hushed tones.
At 15, Aditi was introduced to sanitary napkins. Every time an advertisement of the product played on television, whoever held the remote, instinctively switched the channel. When she asked a chemist for them, he hurriedly wrapped them in a newspaper or in black polythene bag, as if it were contraband. Aditi began to understand why most women in her family used cloth instead of sanitary napkins, because it was simply embarrassing to ask for it.
At the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, where Aditi was studying in 2012, her periods were becoming a kind of a hindrance. She had to work for long hours on projects and could not afford to take a break even if she was tired and in pain. Tuhin Paul, her batchmate, who she later married, was supportive of her and searched the Internet for remedies that he would often share with her. As a man, Paul had never been exposed to it growing up. A brief mention in biology class hardly qualified as education on the subject. He had no sisters and his mother never spoke about it.
Aditi also felt that after 17 years of hitting puberty, she knew precious little about her own body. “Am I the only one?” she asked herself. She travelled across villages in Gujarat and her native state, Jharkhand, looking for an answer. Everywhere she found the same pattern of shame and myth associated with one of the most natural bodily processes of a woman. She decided to do something about it.
Aditi and her husband designed an interactive journal with comic strips to create awareness and bust myths surrounding menstruation. This began as a college project. For the next year, along with Paul and software engineer Rajat Mittal, Aditi worked tirelessly to develop a blog and a comic book on the subject. “The idea was to normalise the conversation surrounding the subject and help young women and even men understand it,” says Paul. “Although parents feel that they should talk to children about menstruation, they feel awkward doing it. There is a lack of an appropriate means to communicate.”
In 2013, along with gynaecologist Mahadeo Bhide, they launched Menstrupedia, an online guide with FAQs, blogs, videos and comic strips. The website, which barely had 900 visitors a month, now has over 2,500 visitors a day. Later this year, in September, Gupta plans to launch the comic book in English and Hindi and then translate it into 15 other languages in the next three years.
Studies have shown that only 23 percent of Indian women can afford sanitary napkins. But for Sinu Joseph, 32, director of Mythri, a Kannada animation film on growing up, feels that the issue of menstrual hygiene is not just about affordability or availability of sanitary napkins. “It is more complex than that,” says Sinu. Four years ago, Sinu volunteered to be a teacher in a government school. In a class of 30, there were four girls and one of them suddenly dropped out because she had attained puberty. Sinu asked the teachers if they were trained to conduct sessions on reproductive health and menstrual hygiene. They were, but were not comfortable talking about it. She called on doctors to conduct classroom sessions but was surprised to see that even they cringed at the idea.
Sinu decided to do the sessions herself with the help of her colleague Vaijanti. “I realised that as a facilitator, I had to first bring myself to talk about my experience for the girls to open up,” she says. But then she found that the students were themselves uncomfortable about discussing such a taboo subject openly. Girls would shut their eyes, cover their ears and some even hurriedly shut the doors and windows. “‘Akka, nobody should hear us’, one whispered into my ear,” she recounts. What started off as a conversation on menstrual hygiene paved the way for more serious issues like child sexual abuse, teenage love and pregnancy.
“The shame attached to menstruation plays on our body image. We grow up hating our bodies, whereas we need to accept and understand them to be able take care of them. How will a young girl speak up about violation of her body if she is unable to speak about one of her natural biological cycles?” asks Joseph. Through Mythri, Sinu has reached out to 22 lakh girls and Asha workers across Karnataka. Another animation film on the subject in Hindi is in the pipeline.
Besides, not everything traditional about menstruation practises is wrong. For instance, cloth if used in the right way, is just as effective as sanitary napkins or tampons. “Whether you are using a cloth or a sanitary napkin, both need to be changed every 4-6 hours,” says Rajasthan-based gynaecologist and health rights activist, Vinaya Pendse. “It is a myth that sanitary napkins have some superior absorbing capacity. If not changed frequently, it can cause infections. Similarly, a cloth needs to be washed right away and dried in the sun.”
Some of the myths associated with menstruation are being reinforced by advertisements. Both Aditi and Sinu feel that the messages that these advertisements send out need to change. “Today all advertisements tell us how to best forget our period. And that is a very unhealthy mindset to grow up with,” says Sinu. It also reinforces the message of shame that most girls grow up with.
“Is it the only way a menstrual hygiene product can be sold?” asks advertising professional Santosh Desai. He feels that advertising of sanitary napkins has regressed since it first started out in India. “Earlier the device of communication used was still an open conversation. A woman would directly introduce the product but today we have gone back to associating menstruation with anxiety and embarrassment. The tone of the conversation around the subject needs to change and advertisers need to recognise that,” says Desai.