Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Menstrual Matters: Comics teaching young women about periods

Menstruation is one of the most perplexing episodes in a young girl’s life especially when, not having been warned about it by her mother or any other elder female person, it happens unaware. In olden time girls were told to never tell anyone about their ‘P,’ and to not even discuss it with their friends or sisters.

Things have not changed much today as mothers and elders are still very secretive about this subject. Recently some students of Beaconhouse University launched an awareness campaign about menstruation. Although it got a mixed response, it ignited a debate in our society. A few activists are now working to promote awareness, give girls the space they need to feel comfortable, and not keep themselves away from the society in ‘those days’.

Samreen Shahbaz worked in the area of sexual and reproductive health and rights for the past 4 years, starting with using online media to create awareness but now she has joined hands with CFx Comics to launch a series of comics on Menstruation and how young girls should deal with it. The comic written by Moneeze Burney, Mina Malik and Zoha Awais is divided into three parts and is available in PDF format in Urdu and English.

The Comic revolves around the concept of what happens with girls when they suddenly stain their dress with no one there to help them. The mother merely provides the daughter with a sanitary napkin and asks her to get into bed till she is ‘well’, nothing more is said. But times have changed and they need to be educated on this subject, so a lady guides her and helps her understand what is happening with her body.

“Women’s bodies and sexuality is a taboo subject in our society and this stigmatization has led to a culture of silence around menstruation in which young girls and women are more concerned with hiding the issue than to pay attention to the hygiene and health concerns associated with it. This is not only limited to rural areas but exists in urban areas too.”

She highlights the health issues girls face during periods as young girls are prohibited to openly talk about periods thus perpetuating the ill-informed beliefs and practices in our society. The stigmatization of menstruation has serious impacts on health, education and socio-economic participation of young girls. Young girls are reluctant to ask for help/information about menstruation due to the culture of silence around periods. Speaking about how she got the idea of ‘Menstrual Matters’ she said, “There is a dire need of normalizing this issue by starting a public dialogue around menstruation to remove superstitions and myths, and create awareness about menstruation among young girls and others including males. ‘Menstrual Matters’ is an attempt to remove this enduring silence and demystify menstruation. We started working on this project late last year online.”

To a question about involvement of other doctors or consultant in the comic project, she said “The concept development and research process for comics was very extensive. We looked at the content developed by regional organizations for use in other countries in South Asia and adapted it to Pakistani context. The first drafts were sent for review to experts who have been working on adolescent sexual and reproductive health in Pakistan and other experts who have been working on awareness campaigns in general. Their feedback was incorporated in the final drafts of the comics.”

Samreen talks about her research on girls health and hygiene, “Recently many studies have emerged on young girls’ first experiences (menarche) and their menstrual hygiene management practices and related issues. These studies report inadequate knowledge about menstruation, widespread use of unsanitary absorbents (pads), and washing and drying of reused absorbents across the country. Studies also report that many girls felt fear and anxiety at the time of menarche due to lack of information. Many girls are stopped from taking baths and walking too much during menstruation, as they believe that it will disturb the flow of the blood. In some cases, girls are barred from eating specific foods, such as spicy food since it is believed that those foods will disturb the period cycle.”

When asked how she got the idea for the comic she said, “People have always been more receptive to imagery than abstraction. In our comics, we have used visuals and graphics along with storylines that most young girls can easily relate to. The interesting thing about the comics is that we have used menstruation as an entry point to talk about and demystify the female reproductive system using very simple language and graphics.”

Menstrual Matters is also partnered with more than five schools in Lahore “to launch the comics and are working with a few more. We have also announced on our website that the comics (both in Urdu and English) are downloadable and can be used by ANY trainer/teacher/parents who might be interested in employing them as educational tools in their awareness raising work with adolescent and young girls.”

When asked if they would team up with brands linked to sanitary napkins she said, “We have some reservations about the language used in commercial brands sanitary napkin ads in Pakistan. Sadly, the notion that periods are private has been perpetuated by these ads in Pakistan, which is extremely problematic. In addition to tip toeing around the issue of menstrual invisibility in their publicity campaigns to promote ‘super-absorbent’ pads, they disregard all other methods used by women for menstrual management by terming them “unhygienic” and “unhealthy” which reinforces the feeling of embarrassment in girls and women who cannot afford expensive pads.”

The author of the comic, Moneeza Burney while speaking to The Nation said, ‘While it was challenging to write a script that would be fun to read as well as easy to understand for young girls, I felt that the final product and the subsequent overwhelming response to the comics have made it all worthwhile. I hope we are able to raise awareness about menstrual hygiene and help dispel myths associated with menstruation in an effective manner ‘

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