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When we think about menstruation, the very first emotion that strikes us is that of shame. In most Indian households, the occurrence of periods translates into ladki ab jawaan ho gayi hai (or that a girl has begun to mature). The very fact that a young girl has hit puberty is not so much about her transition from childhood to adolescence. It is about how her body will be sexualised, and that’s why most mothers discourage their daughters from even uttering the ‘P’ word. And thus, the cycle of shame starts. From the mother to the daughter, and so on.
Schools that are considered the ‘mecca’ of learning are no better. At a time when both girls and boys must be sensitised about periods, such conversations are brushed under the carpet. Even if these conversations do take place, they happen so discreetly. Remember the times when girls were discreetly asked to attend a workshop on menstruation, leaving boys curious and how. And if a girl crossed the lakshman rekha and spoke about periods to her male friends, she would be showered with all kinds of labels from ‘shameless’ to ‘fast’.
Fortunately, the times are changing. The credit goes to a series of menstrual health and hygiene advocates like Aditi Gupta, co-founder of Menstrupedia, who have been making relentless efforts to change the conversations around period. Her movement to help young girls and women unlearn shame is a marker of success, inspiring many others to follow suit.
In an exclusive conversation with Health Shots, Aditi opens up about her journey, the stigma attached to menstruation, and how males can be allies in this journey.
Aditi has educated more than 50,000 girls about periods, trained 10,000 educators and impacted the lives of 13 million girls worldwide. But her motivation to march ahead in this journey stems from the challenges she faced as a young girl.
The social entrepreneur started with her period at the age of 12, and just like in many other Indian families, she was asked to keep it a secret. Not only was she forbidden from entering the temple, but she had to use rags that led to severe rashes. It is during this time that she realised the sense of impurity and shame that girls experience, when they are on their period.
There is an Aditi residing in every household who is made to believe that something is wrong with her. Unfortunately, due to low levels of education and awareness, several myths exist even today. But many like her are stepping forward to eradicate the age-old stereotypes, spreading awareness about how periods are empowering and not shameful.
She uses storytelling and sequential art in her comic book Menstrupedia to educate young girls about periods in an informative and fun way. Over 10,000 schools in India use these comic books as a part of their curriculum. Myth breaking and period positivity are some of their popular strategies that have also made this project more inclusive, feels Aditi.
Walking down memory lane, Aditi recalls a campaign called ‘Touch The Pickle’ that they had done with one of the top sanitary napkin brands in the country. In India, there exists a social convention that girls must refrain from touching pickles or other preserved foods, because it will get spoiled.
“This was the first time a top brand wasn’t using shame to sell menstruation. We made it possible to have positive conversations around periods. The only time I think we were shaken was when someone had filed an FIR, after we had shared a poster of goddess Saraswati dressed in white. She can be seen turning around to check her sari, and that has a small red dot. We want to send out a message that even goddesses bleed, but I think by this time polarisation had already begun in the country, and so the reaction to it was such,” she adds.
Even then, Aditi believes that there are several movements that are taking shape today around periods and other things, which was not the case earlier. This is nothing but a positive sign!
It has always been important for her to educate young girls about periods and associated subjects, because there are many older women who are still not aware of their anatomy.
“Most women do not know that we have three openings between our legs. We have demonstrated it in a way that one of the characters in the book is drawing her anatomy, and it is very sketchy. A woman drawing her own anatomy is a very powerful image; this is also something we learnt during our research,” adds Aditi.
“We raise girls with shame and boys with ignorance. Unfortunately, we exclude fathers and brothers from these conversations. When we grow up, we feel males are insensitive towards our needs, without even realising that he has been brought up like that. It happens in every household. I feel we are doing a disservice to both genders by not speaking about these subjects. Even if menstruation doesn’t affect men directly, men who really care about the women in their lives do get impacted. Hence, it’s always a good idea to make them your allies in this journey,” she explains.
Although positive conversations have begun around periods, it will take time for people to embrace concepts like period talk and more. Citing an example from her workshops, Aditi adds that she comes across some new myth every single time, despite consistently debunking stereotypes in the last few years.
“I recently got to know about a myth, which says that when you’re on your period, you shouldn’t open your hair and step out after dark. You can imagine how many euphemisms exist even now. We can’t discredit the fact that we’re slowly moving in the right direction. Sanitary napkin companies are maturing too, but what I personally feel is that there needs to be more conversation about sustainable menstruation. Also, women should have more options at different times. For instance, I would use menstrual cups, but they don’t suit me anymore. I have again switched to pads. So, that’s what I mean,” she explains.
Praising the government on its Beti Padhao Beti Bachao campaign, Aditi feels a lot of work is being done not just at the central level, but also when it comes to state and district levels. But what’s a matter of concern for her is that despite conversations around women empowerment and other related subjects happening, women’s participation in the labour force is decreasing.
“The country needs more women in the workforce. I personally try to hire as many women as possible. After all, every little drop makes an ocean,” she concludes.