Becoming a Menstruating Woman

Illustration from Spreading Your Wings, the Hindi and English comic on puberty, menstrual hygiene, and social norms for girls in rural India.

The journey of creating and birthing Spreading Your Wings the first comic on puberty, menstrual hygiene, and social norms specifically for girls in rural India.

When the 40 girls sitting in a circle on the floor were asked by the trainer to list the types of materials used as sanitary napkins, I thought the woman translating for me must have made a mistake. “Packets of ash?” I asked, enunciating “ash” to make sure I was hearing correctly. “Yah, ash, like from a fire.” She said, laughing at my expression.

Before living in Uttar Pradesh, India, I hadn’t given periods much thought because growing up they weren’t really a big deal. I can’t remember learning about periods formally or my reaction to them, because it was such a natural phenomenon, something I took as a given — just like I don’t remember the moment when I first learned humans have hands, cause, well, it’s pretty obvious, what is there to react to? I was the last one in my class to get my period and when I did, my mom wanted to throw me a period party and my dad bought me flowers. With such a body-positive family, I felt like periods were, if anything, too much in the limelight.

While working for a local NGO in Uttar Pradesh, I surveyed hundreds of girls in rural villages to ask what they needed. What I heard over and over again was: We need information about how our bodies work, why we change during puberty, and how to care for ourselves.

I began sitting in on menstrual hygiene trainings, studying best practices from other NGOs, and learning to conduct my own. The overwhelming majority of women and girls with whom we spoke used mattress stuffing or dirty rags as sanitary napkins and hadn’t learned about menstruation until they’d already begun bleeding. I couldn’t stop imagining how terrifying it would be to suddenly begin bleeding profusely from my genitals without understanding why it’s happening.

Story after story solidified my devotion to assist these girls in knowing and loving their bodies, and demanding the resources they deserve.

One girl recounted how her friend died of an infection. As a sanitary napkin, the friend used a dirty rag that had cleaned a bicycle. She was then too ashamed of her vaginal discomfort to seek medical help.

I began realizing what those in this field already know: This issue requires widespread attention. And this issue requires more than supplying girls with information and sanitary napkins.

If girls internalize that they’re inherently impure, then they’re set up for a life of devaluing their bodies. The social norms and mindsets of shame surrounding vaginas and periods have fatal and traumatic psychological consequences.

But let’s face it, menstruation isn’t glamorous and there’s no significant research or data showing a causality between menstrual hygiene trainings and saving lives. From the standpoint of assessing immediate needs to keep people alive, decreasing maternal and infant mortality through maternal and child health trainings are understandably seen as more valuable uses of time and resources than budgeting for menstrual hygiene. Menstrual hygiene ends up being tacked-on as the wacky step-sister to water and sanitation interventions, and hardly given the attention it deserves.

Here’s the thing, though.

A fatal symptom of gender discrimination is the complete neglect of women’s health.

Treating health epidemics, such as maternal and infant mortality, as a stand-alone issues may help save lives in the short term, but it doesn’t begin to address the underlying root causes of these problems. It’s not simply lack of information and resources that yield maternal and infant mortality, but the combination of this with the systematic devaluation of women and their bodies, and the undermining of their capacities. And it’s this deadly combination which yields high maternal mortality rates, cervical cancer, anemia, malnutrition among women, high rates of female foeticide, and destructive menstruation practices.

Imparting health awareness and providing resources is simply not enough to change behavior in the long term, nor to address the myriad of health issues and the future ones to come. I’m of the opinion that health interventions would be more successful if the information provided was always in a tone of wonderment about the female body. No matter what health information is being provided, the underlying goal is always to dislodge the shame and myths surrounding the female body and replace it with love, respect, and comfort. It’s also critical for health information to be imparted within the context of created support groups where women and girls can co-foster and encourage these mindsets together. Culture changes in community.

Presently, the girls don’t grow up with a support system that encourages an internalized sense of self-worth and their body’s inherent value.

They are instead taught that the workings of their bodies are mysterious, terrifying, impure, and shameful, not to be spoken about in front of others, especially not men. As a result, they are less likely to seek medical help when in a state of emergency, let alone for preventative care, less likely to value their female child, and less likely to use the medical information and resources available when it contradicts what their parents, husbands, or in-laws’ misinformation.

And I’m of the opinion, though it’s clearly a biased one, that this is the larger value of menstruation education — it is a perfect entry point for beginning to change mindsets around the female body’s value and capacities. If, from the moment they begin menstruating, girls are internalizing that they’re inherently impure, producing toxic sludge, and less capable than male bodies, then convincing them to seek help if they start bleeding while pregnant will already be an uphill battle. I hypothesize, that if girls in support groups are taught about menstruation in a way that fosters common understanding, a sense of ease and admiration for their bodies, then maternal mortality numbers are likely to go down because they’ll feel more entitled to receiving care.

That’s why I created Spreading Your Wings to help address these obstacles. Spreading Your Wings is a 100 page Hindi comic on puberty, menstrual hygiene, and social norms for girls in rural India. No other comic exists that speaks to the rural specific logistical and social challenges these girls face. The book incorporates metaphors, games, and explanations that my team and I have seen resonate with girls in our trainings.

We strive to not just equip girls with the correct information, but to help them reframe the very way that they see their bodies, to transform the shame they feel into pride.

We wanted to develop a resource that NGOs can use hand-in-hand with trainings, helping girls remember what they learn, and feel eager to share that information with other girls. Spreading Your Wings reviews basic biological concepts and then goes on to supply more comprehensive information that’s often left out of trainings or sanitation pamphlets because there aren’t the resources or time to cover everything. Additionally, Spreading Your Wings supplies tips at the back of the book for how to run trainings, in hope that with this resource in hand, girls will feel empowered to begin educating each other.

We made a comic since the book is ultimately for children; and if it’s engaging and colorful, they’ll be more likely to read it.

Our comic is meant to provide joy and lightness to a topic usually considered weighty, and by doing so, diminish the embarrassment girls feel about their bodies and this subject matter.

We hope to inspire individuals and organizations to adapt Spreading Your Wings to other local contexts and we aspire to create future comics that address other social challenges. We’re excited to partner with other organizations to explore how this book can become more widely accessible to young women and overtime, we’d like to study the effects of this work to more finely meet the needs of girls. We believe in multifaceted approaches to this problem and interventions that are specialized for each cultural context.

If you’re interested supporting Spreading Your Wings, I hope you’ll consider donating to our crowdfunding campaign. To read more, please check-out our website and the United State of Women Spotlight.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read all about Spreading Your Wings and this issue we care deeply about!