Do you remember your first periods? All the blood, the hush-hush conversations, and the list of bizarre "rules" that might have made you feel like an untouchable? Period stigma in India is way more pronounced than any of us would like to believe. And even those who have been lucky enough to never face it at home must have encountered it outside at some point in life. I, for instance, have an aunt who won't let you sit on the bed or even the living room sofa if you are menstruating!
Aditi Gupta, the Co-Founder of Menstrupedia had faced her share of the stigma and she finally decided to do something about it. From the strange silence around the topic to the uncomfortable rags that she had to use while menstruating kept haunting her. This is precisely why she along with her husband Tuhin Paul decided to take it as the topic for their research topic back in college. The findings were alarming. The two decided to do something about it and thus Menstrupedia Comic was born.
It is an educational comic, that has been specifically designed to fight the period stigma. It was back in 2012 that Aditi and her husband Tuhin left their jobs to work on the comic. Eight years later, the booklet is a part of the school curriculum in over 10,000 schools, available in almost all Indian languages, and has enabled school girls to become menstrual educators themselves.
Besides the comic, Aditi and Tuhin conduct digital workshops and masterclasses to educate children, parents, and potential educators about menstruation. Meanwhile, they have also managed to create a financially stable business. We recently reached out to Aditi to talk about Menstrupedia and how they have managed to convert it into a lucrative business. Here are the excerpts.
We started Menstrupedia because of our personal experience of the menstrual stigma. I was 12 when I got my first period. I was told to keep it a secret from others, even from my father and brother as if it was some kind of unspeakable sin. But the worst thing that it brought into my life was the endless restrictions. And it was not just my story. It was the story of millions of girls in India who suffer due to menstrual taboos and myths. As for Tuhin, it was only during his Masters that he actually learned about the discomfort that a woman feels during menstruation. We knew that there was a huge gap that had to addressed.
Don't know about easy or difficult. I would say that It has been magical. We set out to put a dent in the universe by challenging the social norms and we have been able to do that. Menstrupedia started as a classroom project then it became a diploma research project and in 2012 we quit our jobs and started focussing on it full time. We made it cool to talk about periods.
We wanted to talk about menstruation in a positive light because we realised that it was the only way to make people comfortable about the topic. And we managed to achieve that. Today, Menstrupedia comic get published in 6-7 countries locally in their native languages. We thought that we had created this for a 9-year-old Aditi living in Garhwa, Jharkhand where no one talks about periods and she has to know about it on her own. However, the response has been something else entirely. It is amazing to see how we have been able to make it trendy to talk about menstruation. The idea was to collectively raise a generation of women who are free of menstrual taboo and I can see that happening.
With Menstrupedia, we wanted to address the menstrual stigma. We did not want to say “We are working on this cause.’” It was more about addressing a problem that impacted us on a personal level.
Thus, when we started talking about menstruation, it was a lot about sharing our own stories and the stigma that we faced and observed. Because this would give courage to other people to talk about the stigma that they faced. When you are talking about a taboo topic or stigma, you have to become the face of that particular subject if you want more people to join your cause.
It is important to note that Menstrupedia is not an NGO, it is a ‘For Profit’ entity. Menstrupedia does not expect any free work and we do not do any free work either. It is integral to look at the financial side of the things to create a sustainable brand.
I don’t really associate myself with the tag of a “social entrepreneur” and prefer just “entrepreneur.” This is because the “social” tag has the potential of making people think that all one needs to do is social work without any expectations of profit attached to it. Most of the social entrepreneurs end up doing that but you have to learn about money. You have to learn finances. My advice to someone who wants to get into entrepreneurship and address a social issue is to work on something that scratches your own itch. If something is bothering you, try to solve it for yourself and if that solution works for you it will definitely work for 10,000 others and at least 100 of them are going to pay for it.
And I cannot emphasize on this enough: Keep learning! We are limited by our own skills so keep teaching yourself, you need to know about your users, marketing, sales, customer psychology, money, public speaking. And if you don’t then, then teach yourself!
Menstrupedia is the most innovative company in the world when it comes to teaching and learning about menstruation. Today, most of the companies are following our model in one or the other way. Menstrupedia made it cool to talk about menstruation in both the offline and online space. Millions of people use, teach, and learn through our tools. These tools are in all Indian languages. Apart from India, the books are locally printed in six different countries in their native language. Girls who read Menstrupedia comics five years back are becoming menstrual educators now. There is a whole generation of girls who are now open to talk about menstruation and it is all because of Menstrupedia. Today over 10000 schools and 2 lakh parents use our comics to educate children. We have the highest review on Amazon and are currently working with 9-10 state governments to take the drive to all the schools in India.
It is an 88-page book that talks about puberty, physical and emotional changes, nutrition, and how to take care of yourself during the cycle. We don’t do myth-busting but we enable girls to bust myths on their own. Give this book to a girl and she will be empowered to talk about menstruation on her own. The booklet is available in 18 languages and features four characters namely Priya didi, Jiya, Mira, and Pinky. Through storytelling and experience shared by these characters, the whole narrative unwinds into lessons and teaching points on menstruation.
Yes, we have an exhaustive resource for educators called Hello Periods videos. People can download them from our YouTube channel. They consist of a training program, an assessment module, and DIY videos to teach you how to conduct menstruation education workshops.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, we also organised Menstrupedia’s Master Classes which were attended by people from over 26 different countries. In my last masterclass, I had a participant from Bosnia too. In the last eight years, we have proved that a concept like Menstrupedia can sustain, and survive, and can really thrive. And whatever secret that we know, we are giving out to people. We want to make more menstrual educators, we want to make entrepreneurs who pick up more and more challenges and address the whole taboo.
In the beginning, the biggest challenge was to get the seed funding because we had quit our jobs, locked ourselves in a room, and worked on this comic for one and a half years. We were looking for investors and couldn't find anyone. However, we solved this problem through crowdfunding. That said, at different levels, there are different challenges and reaching out to schools is definitely one of them. The problem is really, really huge. In India, 1.3 crore girls reach puberty every year and 27 percent of these girls start to drop out of school. Reaching out to each one of them is a huge challenge.
When you are challenging social norms, instead of making people uncomfortable include them in the conversation and enable them to question the taboo themselves. That is exactly why our model works.
We have already managed to create an ecosystem where we can educate people about girls' puberty. Puberty in boys is something that we want to cover now. The conversations on masculinity start when the damage is already done. We have to raise our boys right. This is why we are working on this book called Gulu. It talks about boys’ puberty and will enable parents to talk about masculinity. It also addresses other difficult conversations like masculinity, addiction, bullying, how to behave around girls, personal hygiene, and nutrition. We want to fix the broken sex education scenario in India.
The scale of the problem is the biggest challenge. Approximately 1.3 crores girls reach puberty every year in India and 27 percent of them consequently start dropping out of schools. Reaching out to each one of them is a huge challenge. Secondly, the perception that period stigma is only a rural problem is also a huge challenge. The taboo is everywhere and needs to be addressed accordingly. Lastly, the school textbooks are messed up. Girls hit puberty as early as when they are in class 5. However, the chapter about menstruation comes up much later in the course and then even the language is problematic.
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