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Aditi Gupta: A taboo-free way to talk about periods

May 29, 2015

It's true: talking about menstruation makes many people uncomfortable. And that taboo has consequences: in India, three out of every 10 girls don't even know what menstruation is at the time of their first period, and restrictive customs related to periods inflict psychological damage on young girls. Growing up with this taboo herself, Aditi Gupta knew she wanted to help girls, parents and teachers talk about periods comfortably and without shame. She shares how she did it.

Aditi Gupta - Social entrepreneur, co-founder of Menstrupedia
Aditi Gupta uses storytelling and art to educate young girls about menstruation. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Periods.
00:12
Blood.
00:13
Menstruation.
00:15
Gross.
00:17
Secret.
00:18
Hidden.
00:20
Why?
00:22
A natural biological process
00:24
that every girl and woman
goes through every month
00:26
for about half of her life.
00:30
A phenomenon that is so significant
00:32
that the survival and propagation
of our species depends on it.
00:35
Yet we consider it a taboo.
00:40
We feel awkward
and shameful talking about it.
00:42
When I got my first periods,
00:47
I was told to keep it
a secret from others --
00:49
even from my father and brother.
00:52
Later when this chapter
appeared in our textbooks,
00:55
our biology teacher skipped the subject.
00:58
(Laughter)
01:00
You know what I learned from it?
01:03
I learned that it is really
shameful to talk about it.
01:06
I learned to be ashamed of my body.
01:09
I learned to stay unaware of periods
01:12
in order to stay decent.
01:15
Research in various parts of India
01:18
shows that three out of every 10 girls
are not aware of menstruation
01:20
at the time of their first periods.
01:24
And in some parts of Rajasthan
01:27
this number is as high as nine
out of 10 girls being unaware of it.
01:28
You'd be surprised to know
01:34
that most of the girls
that I have spoken to,
01:36
who did not know about periods
at the time of their first menstruation
01:38
thought that they have got blood cancer
01:42
and they're going to die soon.
01:44
Menstrual hygiene
is a very important risk factor
01:48
for reproductive tract infections.
01:51
But in India, only 12 percent
of girls and women
01:54
have access to hygienic ways
of managing their periods.
01:58
If you do the math,
02:02
88 percent of girls and women use
unhygienic ways to manage their periods.
02:04
I was one of them.
02:09
I grew up in a small town
called Garhwa, in Jharkhand,
02:11
where even buying a sanitary napkin
is considered shameful.
02:14
So when I started getting my periods,
02:18
I began with using rags.
02:20
After every use
I would wash and reuse them.
02:24
But to store them,
02:27
I would hide and keep it
in a dark, damp place
02:28
so that nobody finds out
that I'm menstruating.
02:30
Due to repeated washing
the rags would become coarse,
02:34
and I would often get rashes
and infections using them.
02:36
I wore these already for five years
until I moved out of that town.
02:40
Another issue
that periods brought in my life
02:47
those of the social restrictions
02:49
that are imposed upon our girls
and women when they're on their periods.
02:52
I think you all must be aware of it,
02:56
but I'll still list it
for the few who don't.
02:58
I was not allowed to touch or eat pickles.
03:02
I was not allowed to sit on the sofa
or some other family member's bed.
03:05
I had to wash my bed sheet
after every period,
03:10
even if it was not stained.
03:13
I was considered impure
03:14
and forbidden from worshipping or touching
any object of religious importance.
03:16
You'll find signposts outside temples
03:22
denying the entry
of menstruating girls and women.
03:24
Ironically,
03:28
most of the time it is the older woman
03:30
who imposes such restrictions
on younger girls in a family.
03:33
After all, they have grown up
accepting such restrictions as norms.
03:38
And in the absence of any intervention,
03:42
it is the myth and misconception
03:45
that propagate
from generation to generation.
03:47
During my years of work in this field,
03:51
I have even come across stories
03:52
where girls have to eat
and wash their dishes separately.
03:54
They're not allowed
to take baths during periods,
03:58
and in some households they are even
secluded from other family members.
04:00
About 85 percent of girls
and women in India
04:05
would follow one or more restrictive
customs on their periods every month.
04:09
Can you imagine what this does
04:15
to the self-esteem
and self-confidence of a young girl?
04:16
The psychological trauma
that this inflicts,
04:20
affecting her personality,
04:23
her academic performance
04:25
and every single aspect of growing up
during her early formative years?
04:27
I religiously followed all these
restrictive customs for 13 years,
04:33
until a discussion with my partner, Tuhin,
04:38
changed my perception
about menstruation forever.
04:40
In 2009, Tuhin and I were pursuing
our postgraduation in design.
04:44
We fell in love with each other
04:49
and I was at ease
discussing periods with him.
04:51
Tuhin knew little about periods.
04:54
(Laughter)
04:57
He was astonished to know
that girls get painful cramps
05:03
and we bleed every month.
05:07
(Laughter)
05:08
Yeah.
05:10
He was completely shocked to know
05:12
about the restrictions that are imposed
upon menstruating girls and women
05:14
by their own families and their society.
05:19
In order to help me with my cramps,
05:21
he would go on the Internet
and learn more about menstruation.
05:24
When he shared his findings with me,
05:28
I realized how little I knew
about menstruation myself.
05:30
And many of my beliefs
actually turned out to be myths.
05:33
That's when we wondered:
05:38
if we, being so well educated,
05:39
were so ill-informed about menstruation,
05:42
there would be millions of girls out there
who would be ill-informed, too.
05:44
To study --
05:49
to understand the problem better,
05:50
I undertook a year-long research to study
the lack of awareness about menstruation
05:52
and the root cause behind it.
05:57
While it is generally believed
05:59
that menstrual unawareness
and misconception is a rural phenomenon,
06:01
during my research,
06:07
I found that it is as much
an urban phenomenon as well.
06:08
And it exists with the educated
urban class, also.
06:11
While talking to many
parents and teachers,
06:17
I found that many of them actually
wanted to educate girls about periods
06:19
before they have started
getting their menstrual cycle.
06:24
And --
06:28
but they lacked
the proper means themselves.
06:29
And since it is a taboo,
06:33
they feel inhibition
and shameful in talking about it.
06:34
Girls nowadays get their periods
in classes six and seven,
06:38
but our educational curriculum
06:43
teaches girls about periods
only in standard eight and nine.
06:44
And since it is a taboo,
06:49
teachers still
skip the subject altogether.
06:51
So school does not
teach girls about periods,
06:56
parents don't talk about it.
07:00
Where do the girls go?
07:03
Two decades ago and now --
07:05
nothing has changed.
07:08
I shared these finding with Tuhin
and we wondered:
07:11
What if we could create something
07:14
that would help girls understand
about menstruation on their own --
07:16
something that would help
parents and teachers
07:21
talk about periods
comfortably to young girls?
07:25
During my research,
07:29
I was collecting a lot of stories.
07:31
These were stories of experiences
of girls during their periods.
07:33
These stories would make girls
curious and interested
07:38
in talking about menstruation
in their close circle.
07:41
That's what we wanted.
07:45
We wanted something
that would make the girls curious
07:47
and drive them to learn about it.
07:50
We wanted to use these stories
to teach girls about periods.
07:52
So we decided to create a comic book,
07:57
where the cartoon characters
would enact these stories
08:00
and educate girls about menstruation
in a fun and engaging way.
08:03
To represent girls
in their different phases of puberty,
08:08
we have three characters.
08:11
Pinki, who has not gotten her period yet,
08:13
Jiya who gets her period
during the narrative of the book
08:16
and Mira who has already
been getting her period.
08:20
There is a fourth character, Priya Didi.
08:23
Through her, girls come to know
about the various aspects of growing up
08:25
and menstrual hygiene management.
08:29
While making the book, we took great care
08:32
that none of the illustrations
were objectionable in any way
08:34
and that it is culturally sensitive.
08:38
During our prototype testing,
we found that the girls loved the book.
08:41
They were keen on reading it
08:44
and knowing more and more
about periods on their own.
08:46
Parents and teachers were
comfortable in talking about periods
08:49
to young girls using the book,
08:52
and sometimes even boys
were interested in reading it.
08:54
(Laughter)
08:57
(Applause)
08:59
The comic book helped
in creating an environment
09:03
where menstruation ceased to be a taboo.
09:07
Many of the volunteers took this prototype
themselves to educate girls
09:10
and take menstrual awareness workshops
in five different states in India.
09:14
And one of the volunteers
took this prototype to educate young monks
09:18
and took it to this monastery in Ladakh.
09:21
We made the final version of the book,
called "Menstrupedia Comic"
09:24
and launched in September last year.
09:27
And so far,
09:30
more than 4,000 girls have been
educated by using the book in India and --
09:32
(Applause)
09:36
Thank you.
09:39
(Applause)
09:40
And 10 different countries.
09:46
We are constantly translating the book
into different languages
09:48
and collaborating with local organizations
09:52
to make this book available
in different countries.
09:54
15 schools in different parts of India
09:57
have made this book
a part of their school curriculum
10:00
to teach girls about menstruation.
10:03
(Applause)
10:05
I am amazed to see how volunteers,
10:12
individuals, parents,
teachers, school principals,
10:17
have come together
10:21
and taken this menstrual awareness
drive to their own communities,
10:23
have made sure that the girls
learn about periods at the right age
10:27
and helped in breaking this taboo.
10:31
I dream of a future
where menstruation is not a curse,
10:34
not a disease,
10:39
but a welcoming change in a girl's life.
10:40
And I would --
10:43
(Applause)
10:45
And I would like to end this
10:49
with a small request
to all the parents here.
10:51
Dear parents,
10:55
if you would be ashamed of periods,
10:57
your daughters would be, too.
10:59
So please be period positive.
11:01
(Laughter)
11:04
Thank you.
11:05
(Applause)
11:06

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Aditi Gupta - Social entrepreneur, co-founder of Menstrupedia
Aditi Gupta uses storytelling and art to educate young girls about menstruation.

Why you should listen

Aditi Gupta is a social entrepreneur and co-founder of Menstrupedia, working towards spreading awareness about menstruation. While studying at the National Institute of Design as a Ford Foundation research scholar, she has conducted extensive research in understanding the scenario of menstrual unawareness in India and its impact on a girl's life. She has designed effective educational tools for girls and schools using storytelling and sequential art for educating young girls about periods in a society where the subject is a major taboo.

Menstrupedia Comic is a complete guide on periods designed by Menstrupedia team being used by more than 30 schools across India. The books are being distributed in other countries like Nepal, South America and Nigeria.

Gupta is a World Economic Forum Global Shaper and made it to the achiever's list of Forbes India 30 under 30 in 2014 for her work towards breaking the taboo around menstruation. She is a International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) alumni. Her work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, CNBC and BBC. She aspires to create a future where menstruation is not a taboo but a welcoming change in a girl's life.

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