Ariana Abadian-Heifetz spreads awareness about menstruation, but in an interesting way. Come October, She is releasing a comic book — ‘Spreading Your Wings’ — for young rural girls where she talks about menstruation through characters in a comical way. She tells us that the book is ultimately for children; and if it’s engaging and colourful with characters they relate to, 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 are made to feel about their bodies and this subject matter.”
Ariana moved to India (Rae Bareli, precisely) in December 2014 as part of the Rajiv Gandhi Mahila Vikas Pariyojana (RGMVP), where she was chosen to be the Program Expert of Leadership Development and Communications. Coming from Boston in America, Ariana had grown up in a cross-cultural, cross-religious family, where learning from her mix of heritages was a huge part of her upbringing. And so she had never thought of menstruation as being a big deal. In fact, her family was so open about it that they wanted to throw a party for her when she started menstruating.
She has also been a passionate driver of gender equality and hence she worked for it in America and looked for ways to reach out and explore it in other countries as well. “I deeply value learning from diversity. Given my passion for gender equality, I explored opportunities to work in India and learn from the wonderful interventions already being done across the country to decrease gender discrimination. I hoped to be able to share some of the insights I’d gained from working in America and hoped to bring back insights and the best practices I’d be learning in India – a cross-pollination of sorts, which I hope to continue for the rest of my life,” Ariana told SheThePeople.TV.
However, her first time in India, sitting with a bunch of girls from UP in Rae Bareli was sort of a revelation for her when they talked about menstruation. “During these interactions, I realized how fear and misperceptions about menstruation have long-term effects on self-esteem and discomfort in seeking medical help.”
She came across many myths regarding the subject and saw how the common method, trainers used of telling girls, “the myths you believe are wrong”, is unproductive. From discussions with her colleagues she realized it is more constructive to provide an explanation for the myth rather than just dismissing it.
“I decided to offer explanations of where each myth comes from, why it was logical at the time, and why it no longer applies. Watching the trainer do this showed me how to disprove myths while still honouring the wisdom of the communities. Whether you’re an outsider like I am from a different country or an outsider from just a different town, it’s so important that information sharing isn’t patronizing or shaming.”
From her experience between America and Uttar Pradesh, she drew that, like in America, in India, girls are often not taught menstruation in a body-positive manner.
“I spoke to family members and learned many had similarly traumatic experiences as the girls I spoke with in UP. Though my family members had greater access to medical information and resources than the girls from rural UP, the shame and negative feelings associated with periods largely didn’t go away.”
“Whether it is in the West or in India, if menstruation is taught at all, it’s often scary, embarrassing, or at best a monthly hassle that women deal with in private. When menstruation is spoken about publicly in mass media, it’s often in a censored or demeaning form (i.e. blue liquid in advertisements, exaggerations on women’s mood swings during PMS). These types of attitudes tend to promote bodily-shame and low self-esteem.”
“The more I learned about attitudes surrounding menstruation within Uttar Pradesh, the more I wondered whether the body-positive attitudes I had taken as “normal” were actually common in my communities back home. I realized I’d never actually asked my own mother, grandmother or other female family members how they’d first learned about their periods.”
“I spoke to family members and learned many had similarly traumatic experiences as the girls I spoke with in UP. Though my family members had greater access to medical information and resources than the girls from rural UP, the shame and negative feelings associated with periods largely didn’t go away. And these mindsets had greater consequences later in life. I began to realize how critical, widespread, and cross-cultural this issue really is.”
Having several conversations with young girls in rural areas, she was faced with a few pertinent questions that the girls always prompted her with. How a girl’s body works? “Why we change during puberty, and how to care for ourselves. So girls living in rural areas already understood the importance of learning about their bodies,” said Ariana. And she has strived to incorporate the answers to all these questions in her comic book.
Talking about the challenges she faced while formulating the book, she said, “The main challenge was ensuring we used language accessible to a variety of age groups and explanations that wouldn’t upset conservative elders. The language and metaphors I used in the book are taken directly from the trainings I’d conduct. For translating the text into Hindi, I’ve partnered with women who’ve been conducting menstrual hygiene trainings far longer than I have and could transform the English into appropriate accessible Hindi.”
Ariana did a lot of research before coming up with her own comic book. She looked for all the books that were already available and came across that there wasn’t even a single book that was affordable, body-positive, engaging and addressed all the rural-specific questions we’d receive.
“Our comic 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.”
The book is primarily written for NGOs, schools, and skills centers to use hand in hand with the work they already do with girls from rural communities. Ariana’s aim for the book is that it reaches 20,000 girls in the first year and influences how menstruation is talked about within schools and families.
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