Growing up in a conservative Indian family, Aditi Gupta never got a talk from her parents about the birds and the bees. As she reached puberty, there was no one to go to with questions about what was happening to her body. The subject of menstruation was to be avoided.
“I was told not to talk about it with anyone, and to never, ever let the men in my family know I was having my period,” Gupta, now 29, says. Shopping for the products women in middle-class households around the world use monthly was forbidden, as it would damage the family’s reputation. For the first few years after she hit puberty, Gupta used only rags.
So four years ago, Gupta and her boyfriend (now husband), Tuhin Paul, a designer and an animator, wrote and illustrated a comic book providing complete, and completely accurate, information about puberty and menstruation in a format kids would find easily digestible. Menstrupedia handles the most sensitive cultural restrictions carefully and refrains from explicit graphics that could make an Indian teen uncomfortable—or, worse, get her in trouble with her family. Today the comic has moved online; the Menstrupedia site gets 100,000 visitors a month from 195 countries.
Gupta wasn’t alone in growing up in ignorance. According to a survey by Indian feminine hygiene products brand Whisper, 62 percent of Indian girls have no awareness of menstruation until they get their first period. Because of ancient cultural mores, even among the relatively wealthy in India and even today, tens of millions of urban and rural girls are growing up with little to no reliable information on female physical development. Broadly speaking, mothers maintain a strict silence. Many teachers choose to skip lessons on reproduction and sex education to avoid fielding awkwardquestions from their pupils. In addition to the inchoate adolescent anxiety so many teens experience, there are taboos associated with the period. For several days a month, Indian females are considered “impure”—they are expected to wash their clothes and linens separately while menstruating and to avoid entering the kitchen and holy places.
It’s more than a matter of teenage embarrassment; failure to manage the menstrual cycle causes women and girls to shoulder burdens of time and cost unnecessarily, and it can shut them out of full participation in society, including employment and education. There are also health implications, as women have particular dietary needs during the years they are menstruating, especially during puberty.
After she reached adulthood Gupta decided she would work to transform how Indian society regards women’s natural cycles. The first step was to bring the conversation out into the open. “I knew if I could rid the shame associated with the subject, it would help change mind-sets,” she says.
The Menstrupedia comic has since made it into at least one corner of nearly every segment of Indian society, from the glass towers of Kolkata to the thatch huts of villages to the tin roofs of slum dwellings. Even nuns in Buddhist monasteries have seen the comic and put its information to use.
To expand her reach, in 2012 Gupta established Menstrupedia. It’s one of a growing number of examples of technology in India being leveraged to improve women’s health and well-being. Menstrupedia provides comprehensive information on puberty, menstrual physiology, and hygiene and busts the myths and superstitions that have kept so many women from reaching their full potential. The blog and the question-answer section feature some freewheeling discussions of puberty and menstruation of a kind that would have been unthinkable in India even a few years ago.
It’s the individual stories she hears that Gupta finds most rewarding. “A single father wrote to me saying he wanted the comic book for his 10-year-old daughter who was nearing puberty,” she says. A male college student posted to the website that it is unnecessary for women to hide their period from men. Gupta says she’s heard from many visitors to the site who “have gotten over their inherent shame about menstruation.” A few girls have told Gupta that they’ve mustered the courage to ask their mothers for products to handle menstrual flow, a big step toward their own active management of menstruation and toward breaking the taboos.
Gupta’s and Paul’s work may be more influential than that: Since the website’s debut, a major feminine hygiene product brand has launched a cheeky ad campaign called “Touch the Pickle.” Because 54 percent of Indian women observe taboos, including not bathing during their period, or believe they can’t get pregnant while menstruating], such changes to the culture around the subject are sure to have positive effects on women’s health.
The next step for Gupta is to translate the comic book into Hindi and other Indian languages and introduce it as an e-book. “Now that we’ve started receiving orders from grandfathers who want to give it to their granddaughters, we should reach out to more Indians,” she says.