By Rabia Sooch Khandelwal
Born and raised in the small town of Garhwa, Jharkhand, Aditi was all too familiar with the myths associated with periods in India. She had been raised to be a confident girl, with great emphasis on education by her liberal and highly educated family. At 12, however, with her first periods came the first blow to her freedom in the form of a list of dos and don’ts.
Aditi recounts, “I was told to keep it a secret, as if it was some kind of unspeakable sin. I was not allowed to touch or eat pickle. I was not allowed to sit on sofas and other family member’s beds. I had to wash my bed-sheet after every period even if it was not stained. I was branded impure for those days and could not go to the temple.”
Like her, millions of other girls in India are ostracized every month during their periods. At this delicate age, their curious minds are overwhelmed with confusion, taboos and shame. Many resort to unhygienic practices posing grave health hazards; most develop low self-esteem and an unhealthy body image. From here begins the systematic oppression of women.
“Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.” Deeply motivated by this quote by Maya Angelou, Aditi stands today as the one who challenged the taboos and myths around periods.
An engineering graduate and a New Media Design post-graduate from National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, she collaborated with her classmate Tuhin Paul during their thesis project to study menstruation taboos.
After extensive research, she found that this problem was more widespread than anticipated. Neither parents nor educationists were comfortable talking about this natural process. The two young students of communication design saw the need for an effective tool to bridge the gap. Hence, the comic called Tales of Change was created to educate girls about periods in a fun and creative way.
The comic was an instant hit with all stakeholders. “Visitors on our blog said that 80% of the information was new to them. It brought home the fact that even educated people lacked awareness about menstruation,” recalls Aditi.
In 2012, having saved up enough for the initial investment and braving objections from loved ones, Aditi and Tuhin quit their jobs to start Menstrupedia. In 2013, they were joined by Rajat Mittal, a post graduate in computers from Arizona State University as their third co-founder, and Menstrupedia.com was launched.
The path to entrepreneurship, however, was fraught with challenges. Aditi and Tuhin – who got married along the way – were both clueless about the economics of running a business. “Menstruation was a taboo topic and investors saw a very niche scope for it,” shares Aditi.
The inspiration to push through came from users on the website. “Every voice that questioned the myths and the hypocrisies around menstruation strengthened my resolve to spread awareness,” she says.
So Menstrupedia launched a crowd-funding campaign and they managed to raise Rs 5.15 lakh to produce more comics. Since then the company has been self-sustaining and ploughs back profits into further expansion.
Aditi Gupta made it to the Forbes India 30 under 30 list in 2014. Today Menstrupedia comics are available in 15 languages, including two foreign ones, and the work of translation to more languages is ongoing. The organization works with four state governments and is in talks with more.
They have also developed free tools such as a 20-minute video animation in multiple languages that is being used by Anganwadi workers to education girls and women at grassroot levels. Their mission is to eradicate all barriers to spreading awareness at all levels of society in India and South Asia.
“When we get orders and queries from even countries like Australia, UK and Israel, I am amazed at the magnitude of this problem,” says Aditi.
In partnership with Whisper India, Menstrupedia has led initiatives like ‘Touch the Pickle’ movement that got Bollywood celebrities and TV personalities to talk openly about periods. The ‘Touch the Pickle’ ad campaign won the Grand Prix for the inaugural Glass Lions in the gender-equality category at the Cannes Lions International Festival.
Going forward, Menstrupedia will address the need of raising our boys right and will develop more such effective educational tools for boys on subjects such as puberty, sexuality and consent.
With a culturally sensitive approach, Aditi believes that a change in mindset can be achieved. She states, “To change the mindset of a family, it only takes one generation. And that takes care of it thereafter. One generation is my hope.”
First published in the July 2018 Anniversary Issue of eShe magazine
This article was syndicated to CNBC TV18.