Menstrupedia: Give me red4 min read . Updated: 21 Oct 2014, 10:21 AM IST
A comic book on menstruation is causing a small revolution on health and hygiene misconceptions
In a small village called Khata in Pilibhit district of Uttar Pradesh, home to two communities, the Yadavs and Lunias, a girl who has her period is given strict orders to not go near wadis (rice-and-lentil cakes) laid out to dry on the terraces. It is believed that the wadis would spoil. This is a belief that 12-year-old Meenakshi has grown up with, and one that her friends, Chhavi (10), Lakshmi (12), Pragya (15) and Sumedha (13) wouldn’t contradict. In October 2013, when Medhavini Yadav, a 29-year-old Ahmedabad-based designer of hand-crafted textiles, conducted a workshop with 20 girls on menstrual awareness, she found it tough to change their minds about the wadis. Instead, she focused on telling them to not worry about upsetting the gods if they entered a temple while menstruating, because after all, “there are women gods, too, so they’d understand". Meenakshi and her friends nodded.
Yadav conducted the workshop aided by a Hindi-language prototype of a comic book called Menstrupedia, which sought to dispel myths about periods and spread awareness about health and hygiene among young girls, with statements such as: “The process of menstruation is an essential and healthy body process and the menstrual fluid is just a harmless mixture of blood and tissue that wasn’t used by the body. There is nothing impure!"
One of the biggest successes of its makers—Ahmedabad-based couple Aditi Gupta and Tuhin Paul, both National Institute of Design (NID) graduates—has been to find the right characters to do this. In their one-of-a-kind comic book, Priya Didi, a doctor, tells younger sibling Pinki and her school friends, Jiya and Mira the hows and whys of periods. The 82-page English comic book, which released last month, tackles questions like, how babies are born, how periods occur, the physical changes in boys and girls during puberty, and how to use sanitary pads hygienically.
Gupta corroborated the information through online resources of United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef) and medical websites. In clean, crisp frames and a non-judgemental tone, the comic book addresses concerns of girls who are about to get their periods, those who have got their periods for the first time and those who have already started their periods, but are unaware of certain facts. The duo had London-based gynaecologist Mahadeo Bhide, who specializes in fertility treatments, to certify the information in the comic book.
“I got my period in class VII, and the chapter on menstruation was in our class IX textbook," says Gupta, 30, who grew up in Garhwa, a small town in Jharkhand. When time came to teach the class comprising four girls and two boys, her “friendly biology teacher" skipped the lesson. “Our educational system is ill-equipped to talk about this," she says.
Armed with this information, Gupta and Paul worked on a prototype comic book which was ready in a month, while still at NID in 2009. Gupta took this back to the girls she had conducted her research on, and was buoyed by the response she got—many girls said their favourite character was Priya Didi, because she answered all their questions.
In 2010, global survey company AC Nielsen conducted a study on the state of female hygiene care in rural India and found that of the 1,033 women who constituted the sample group, 75% lacked adequate knowledge on menstrual hygiene and care. The report found that girls missed at least 50 days of the school calendar due to menstruation. It is estimated that of the 355 million menstruating women in India, only 12% use sanitary napkins.
It was only in August 2012 that work on Menstrupedia began in right earnest. Gupta and Paul, by this time married and working in e-learning firms in Mumbai, quit their jobs and with an initial investment of around ₹ 2 lakh—all of their savings—began to work on the website that would “show that it was cool to talk about menstruation". The third co-founder Rajat Mittal, who was Paul’s roommate at Engineering College in Gandhinagar, also pitched in.
They chose to release an English version first, because it was “more production-friendly and accessible to audiences abroad", says Gupta. Recently Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, shared their comic book on Facebook. The book will be translated to Hindi—the version releases early next year—and other south Indian languages.
In many ways, the popularity of Menstrupedia lies in its ability to bring several people in on the efforts to spread the word. In the past year, nine workshops have been conducted by volunteers in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Patna, Ladakh and Mumbai, to educate young girls and women with the help of the comic-book prototype, which contained a brief introduction to the subject and the four characters, including Priya Didi. According to Paul, over 500 girls have been reached and “we hope to reach 3 million in the next three years."
Himani Baid, a 33-year-old Yoga teacher, was one such volunteer who took a session with 50 schoolgirls at the Fatima Convent School in Vasai, Mumbai, in November. Together with husband Kartikeya Dwivedi, who works at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, and a few volunteers, they distributed 50 copies of the prototype in Hindi. “The girls were shy to begin with," says Baid. “But we managed to clear a number of doubts and misconceptions about periods. The main idea was to make the girls love themselves," says Baid.