A new website and comic book called "Menstrupedia" aims to shatter the taboo surrounding periods in conservative India, where millions of girls face social discrimination, reproductive health problems, and low self-esteem due to lack of awareness about menstruation.
A girl's first period is often celebrated in many Western countries, marking her move into puberty and then womanhood. Yet in both rural and urban India, menstruation is rarely discussed openly, and the silence burdens young girls by keeping them ignorant and subject to social exclusion.
Even after girls' first menstrual cycle, parents and teachers feel uncomfortable informing them about the physiological process and hygiene practices to follow. "The taboo has led to numerous menstrual myths being created which suggest that having your period is a disease or a curse – which leads girls and women to believe they are dirty and impure," said Aditi Gupta, a social entrepreneur and co-founder of Menstrupedia.
"Menstruating girls and women are not allowed to go to the temple, or touch certain food as it is thought it will go bad. They don't know about hygiene, and end up with rashes and urinary tract infections," said Gupta. "The idea behind Menstrupedia is to help end these issues." Menstrupedia's 90-page comic book and online platform integrate fun real-life stories and colourful illustrations to build menstrual awareness.
The website and comic market themselves as an encyclopaedia about periods, discussing issues including puberty and the physiology behind menstruation, as well as menstrual myths.
Both also seek to address menstrual hygiene, which is a key problem for many girls who do not know how to keep themselves clean, resulting in infection and illness. Currently only 12% of girls and women in India use sanitary towels, with most using a piece of cloth that is washed and reused.
"Surveys show that 80% of girls are unaware of what menstruation is before they get their periods. It can be frightening to see blood coming from your vagina," Gupta told Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of the Sankalp Unconventional Summit, one of Asia's biggest gatherings for social enterprises.
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"When girls enter puberty, they can often deny their bodies. But it is essential for them to accept their bodies in order to be empowered from within. This will make them less vulnerable to discrimination as they will be able to stand up as informed individuals and dispel the myths."
A hit with Buddhist nuns
According to Gupta, there is no other Indian initiative similar to Menstrupedia. While there are books and online resources, all are written by foreign authors for Western audiences and are unsuited to Indian readers.
For example, the visuals in Western books are often considered "too naked" or "shameful" even if educational, and materials must be designed in a subtler way for Indian parents to allow their daughters to read them, Gupta said.
Showcasing her initiative at the social enterprise conference and seeking funding for her start-up, Gupta said around 500 comics have been distributed and the response has been positive. The website receives around 70,000 visitors monthly, not just based in India but from all over the world.
Gupta hopes to work with NGOs and businesses to deliver Menstrupedia content to up to 300 000 girls in urban and rural schools over the next three years. The comic book will be sold in urban areas at a cost of 500 rupees, but distributed free or at a nominal cost in poorer rural parts of India, Gupta said.
The resource is now in English only, but Gupta plans to translate it into Hindi and 15 other Indian languages, including Punjabi, Bengali, Marathi, and Tamil. The characters and stories will be adapted to suit different cultures. "Those that have read the prototype have loved the idea and so have their parents.
They felt we dealt with the issue in a way which was not shameful, and were able to overcome their own inhibitions and talk about menstruation," said Gupta. "It was also distributed amongst Buddhist nuns in monasteries in India. They told us they believed they were impure before, and the comic has made them feel more confident about their bodies."
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