Periods. Blood. Menstruation. Gross. Secret. Hidden. Why?
A natural biological process that every girl and woman goes through every month for about half of her life. A phenomenon that is so significant that the survival and propagation of our species depends on it. Yet we consider it a taboo. We feel awkward and shameful talking about it.
When I got my first periods, I was told to keep it a secret from others — even from my father and brother. Later when this chapter appeared in our textbooks, our biology teacher skipped the subject.
You know what I learned from it? I learned that it is really shameful to talk about it. I learned to be ashamed of my body. I learned to stay unaware of periods in order to stay decent.
Research in various parts of India shows that three out of every 10 girls are not aware of menstruation at the time of their first periods. And in some parts of Rajasthan this number is as high as nine out of 10 girls being unaware of it. You'd be surprised to know that most of the girls that I have spoken to, who did not know about periods at the time of their first menstruation thought that they have got blood cancer and they're going to die soon.
Menstrual hygiene is a very important risk factor for reproductive tract infections. But in India, only 12 percent of girls and women have access to hygienic ways of managing their periods. If you do the math, 88 percent of girls and women use unhygienic ways to manage their periods.
I was one of them. I grew up in a small town called Garhwa, in Jharkhand, where even buying a sanitary napkin is considered shameful. So when I started getting my periods, I began with using rags. After every use I would wash and reuse them. But to store them, I would hide and keep it in a dark, damp place so that nobody finds out that I'm menstruating. Due to repeated washing the rags would become coarse, and I would often get rashes and infections using them.
I wore these already for five years until I moved out of that town. Another issue that periods brought in my life those of the social restrictions that are imposed upon our girls and women when they're on their periods. I think you all must be aware of it, but I'll still list it for the few who don't.
I was not allowed to touch or eat pickles. I was not allowed to sit on the sofa or some other family member's bed. I had to wash my bed sheet after every period, even if it was not stained. I was considered impure and forbidden from worshipping or touching any object of religious importance. You'll find signposts outside temples denying the entry of menstruating girls and women.
Ironically, most of the time it is the older woman who imposes such restrictions on younger girls in a family. After all, they have grown up accepting such restrictions as norms. And in the absence of any intervention, it is the myth and misconception that propagate from generation to generation.
During my years of work in this field, I have even come across stories where girls have to eat and wash their dishes separately. They're not allowed to take baths during periods, and in some households they are even secluded from other family members. About 85 percent of girls and women in India would follow one or more restrictive customs on their periods every month. Can you imagine what this does to the self-esteem and self-confidence of a young girl? The psychological trauma that this inflicts, affecting her personality, her academic performance and every single aspect of growing up during her early formative years?
I religiously followed all these restrictive customs for 13 years, until a discussion with my partner, Tuhin, changed my perception about menstruation forever. In 2009, Tuhin and I were pursuing our postgraduation in design. We fell in love with each other and I was at ease discussing periods with him. Tuhin knew little about periods.
He was astonished to know that girls get painful cramps and we bleed every month.
Yeah. He was completely shocked to know about the restrictions that are imposed upon menstruating girls and women by their own families and their society. In order to help me with my cramps, he would go on the Internet and learn more about menstruation. When he shared his findings with me, I realized how little I knew about menstruation myself. And many of my beliefs actually turned out to be myths.
That's when we wondered: if we, being so well educated, were so ill-informed about menstruation, there would be millions of girls out there who would be ill-informed, too. To study — to understand the problem better, I undertook a year-long research to study the lack of awareness about menstruation and the root cause behind it.
While it is generally believed that menstrual unawareness and misconception is a rural phenomenon, during my research, I found that it is as much an urban phenomenon as well. And it exists with the educated urban class, also. While talking to many parents and teachers, I found that many of them actually wanted to educate girls about periods before they have started getting their menstrual cycle. And — but they lacked the proper means themselves. And since it is a taboo, they feel inhibition and shameful in talking about it.
Girls nowadays get their periods in classes six and seven, but our educational curriculum teaches girls about periods only in standard eight and nine. And since it is a taboo, teachers still skip the subject altogether.
So school does not teach girls about periods, parents don't talk about it. Where do the girls go? Two decades ago and now — nothing has changed. I shared these finding with Tuhin and we wondered: What if we could create something that would help girls understand about menstruation on their own — something that would help parents and teachers talk about periods comfortably to young girls?
During my research, I was collecting a lot of stories. These were stories of experiences of girls during their periods. These stories would make girls curious and interested in talking about menstruation in their close circle. That's what we wanted. We wanted something that would make the girls curious and drive them to learn about it. We wanted to use these stories to teach girls about periods.
So we decided to create a comic book, where the cartoon characters would enact these stories and educate girls about menstruation in a fun and engaging way. To represent girls in their different phases of puberty, we have three characters. Pinki, who has not gotten her period yet, Jiya who gets her period during the narrative of the book and Mira who has already been getting her period. There is a fourth character, Priya Didi. Through her, girls come to know about the various aspects of growing up and menstrual hygiene management.
While making the book, we took great care that none of the illustrations were objectionable in any way and that it is culturally sensitive. During our prototype testing, we found that the girls loved the book. They were keen on reading it and knowing more and more about periods on their own. Parents and teachers were comfortable in talking about periods to young girls using the book, and sometimes even boys were interested in reading it.
The comic book helped in creating an environment where menstruation ceased to be a taboo. Many of the volunteers took this prototype themselves to educate girls and take menstrual awareness workshops in five different states in India. And one of the volunteers took this prototype to educate young monks and took it to this monastery in Ladakh.
We made the final version of the book, called "Menstrupedia Comic" and launched in September last year. And so far, more than 4,000 girls have been educated by using the book in India and —
And 10 different countries. We are constantly translating the book into different languages and collaborating with local organizations to make this book available in different countries.
15 schools in different parts of India have made this book a part of their school curriculum to teach girls about menstruation.
I am amazed to see how volunteers, individuals, parents, teachers, school principals, have come together and taken this menstrual awareness drive to their own communities, have made sure that the girls learn about periods at the right age and helped in breaking this taboo.
I dream of a future where menstruation is not a curse, not a disease, but a welcoming change in a girl's life. And I would —
And I would like to end this with a small request to all the parents here.
Dear parents, if you would be ashamed of periods, your daughters would be, too. So please be period positive.