Because change happens: how advertising is helping to tackle menstrual taboos in India

'Project Free Period' created three-day training programs for sex workers in India, so they could learn while not working

Advertising has the power to change the world, but in India, where taboos around menstruation continue to linger, it is facing its toughest challenge yet. We take a look at how brands, agencies and even Bollywood are working to open up conversations about menstruation.

Menstruation has long been taboo in India. Major misconceptions abound across society, and many women are still barred from handling certain foods or visiting places of worship while menstruating.

Despite menstruation being an experience lived by as many as 355 million girls and women in India, only 18% currently use sanitary napkins, while approximately 82% of women often turn to traditional, but unhygienic and unsafe alternatives such as old cloths, rags, hay and ash.

The state has attempted to address the issue through measures like exempting sanitary products from sales taxes and PSA-style education with films like the Bollywood hit Pad Man (below). However according to Amar Tulsiyan, founder of feminine care brand Niine Sanitary Napkins, 71% of girls have no knowledge of menstruation before their first period.

Niine has launched an ambitious five-year plan aimed at raising awareness of menstrual hygiene and tackling the associated taboos. To coincide with Raksha Bandhan, a traditional festival that celebrates sibling bonds, the brand launched a campaign video in which brothers empowered their sisters by shielding them from social taboos with the tagline ‘Celebrate #ProtectiveRelationship with Niine’.

Rahul Mathew, national creative director of DDB Mudra, is of the opinion that despite improving attitudes in pop culture, social stigmas and behaviors around periods haven’t significantly changed.

The agency worked with feminine hygiene brand Stayfree on the '#ProjectFreePeriod’ campaign. He believes that a large section of society continues to relate periods to pain, shame and embarrassment – perpetuating familiar but dated practices.

Engaging with the issue has typically entailed risk for brands, but Matthew says that brands can help heal societal divisions especially in the case of sex work, which is subject to additional taboos. He says: “For sex workers, a three day period often means three days without work.” For ‘#ProjectFreePeriod’ the two organizations partnered with Prerana, a Mumbai-based NGO that works with sex workers to create three-day training programs and teach new skills such as candle-making, henna design and basic beautician services.

“The reactions of those involved were overwhelmingly positive. Hundreds of students attended the workshops and we received thousands of requests from men and women who wanted to volunteer,” says Matthew.

“Stayfree believes that young girls and women in this country are moving forward on journeys of progress every single day. Nothing should come in the way of their progress – especially not their periods. ‘Dreams Of Progress’ is the lens through which Stayfree defines its purpose, products and people. And so, for us this is not a conversation about risk but a direction we want to move towards with intent.”

Mathew notes that consumers are now savvy enough to differentiate between lip service and authentic action and suggests that audiences are now are seeking to engage with brands they believe are truly invested in building a sustainable, ethical future.

Tulsiyan says that advertising can change perceptions as well as impact consumer decisions. He says: “It is a powerful tool. It has the ability to reflect current attitudes as well as induce change for a better future. With so many mediums to engage with consumers, brands can now start social movements and change the world.

“Storytelling is a great way to grab consumers’ attention and sensitize them to the issues of the under-privileged. It’s not just about eliciting an emotional response, it’s a bout producing an emotional connection with the consumers.”

Following on from its Raksha Bandhan campaign, Niine has further partnered with Junior Chamber International (JCI) to drive a menstrual health awareness campaign across 500 cities in India.

Tulsiyan highlights that for a brand, expressing a point of view can be a matter of concern – such stands do not always bode well. In a country like India, not every brand purpose is accepted with open arms.

He says: “There are still segments of society that may not believe in female empowerment, and brands advocating that through advertising messages are not going to resonate with them. It will take a continuous conscious effort to start a dialogue about menstrual hygiene awareness. Just because some audiences in India are still not comfortable discussing these issues, that does not mean we stop trying – that is exactly what we’re trying to change.”

This feature appears in The Drum's December issue, which focuses on how advertising has become a 'dirty word' even among those in the advertising industry. We look at the plight of ad schools in a changing industry context, discover the stories behind brilliant ad campaigns past and present, and find out how some of the business' greatest luminaries plan to restore the image of the industry. Get your copy here.

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