Megha Desai is the president of the Desai Foundation and an advocate for women and girls.
After a career in advertising, Megha has dedicated her life to fighting to cultivate dignity for women and girls in India and the United States. Her work has always centered around elevating health and livelihood with community-based programming. Her focus on menstrual equity began just over 10 years ago when she discovered how many Indian girls weren’t attending school after the onset of puberty.
The Desai Foundation has impacted over a million lives and has pivoted to address the urgent needs in India, as well as the long-term impact the pandemic has had on women, girls, and menstrual equity.
Here, Megha writes about period poverty and COVID-19's impact on women in India, and why it's crucial to invest in women and girls in the country and around the world.
You can read more from the In My Own Words series here.
During the first lockdown in India last year, Swati was around her father, brothers, and uncle more than she had ever been. In their two-bedroom house in a small city in Gujarat, suddenly everyone was at home, all the time. With her uncle appointed to go out and get the week's groceries and supplies each week, Swati was too embarrassed to ask him to buy sanitary napkins. So instead, she began using rags and old shirts to manage her period.
She had never been so aware of her period — and worse, she had never felt so embarrassed and ashamed about it. Using rags, having to hide them, and not having access to menstrual health and hygiene products put Swati’s health — both physical and mental — at risk, along with the health of millions of girls around the world.
As president of the Desai Foundation, which has been working in menstrual health for over a decade in rural India, I know firsthand that Swati's story isn't unique to her. Period poverty and the stigmas that surround menstruation affect women and girls all over the world, from the United States to Kenya to India.
In India, 71% of girls don’t know what their period is before they get it, and 75% of bleeders are at risk of infection due to lack of access to resources. False stigmas prevent bleeders from cooking, attending school or work, and even entering houses of worship. These hurdles keep girls from living a life that cultivates dignity for themselves and those around them. It can also have a huge impact on their ability to finish school and ability to earn a living: 23% of girls in India drop out of school after the onset of puberty.
Today, May 28, is World Menstrual Health & Hygiene Day, when we ask the global community to turn its attention to the plight of young bleeders around the world. At the Desai Foundation, we believe in a holistic and sustainable approach to community-based programming to help tackle period poverty.
Our flagship Asani Sanitary Napkin program takes a uniquely comprehensive approach, addressing all the issues around periods: awareness, product production, and product distribution. The program is designed by women, for women, and produces retail quality pads and disrupts the conversation around periods.
During the pandemic, we were able to adapt our programs to keep everyone safe and navigate India’s strict travel regulations. The Desai Foundation provides health, hygiene, and livelihood programming for women and girls, so we were able to employ women who had previously taken our sewing classes to make two-ply masks at home. Through this program, we created 350 COVID-safe jobs and made over 1 million masks that were freely distributed to vulnerable populations. We have also distributed 1 million pads to local communities, hospitals, COVID care centers, and rural women to support them in this time of need.
In response to the current wave, we’re providing necessary supplies and equipment, COVID tests, a support hotline, and many more resources. Our goal is to implement programs that are needed now, but can also fulfill long-term needs in the 1,000 communities we serve across India. The road to recovery for India, and especially for the women of India, is going to be long and hard.
It’s Menstrual Hygiene Day! We want to thank everyone who has taken the pledge so far and shown just how BLOODY FABULOUS they are! With your help, we have been able to distribute 500K pads for FREE to 50K bleeders in rural India. + pic.twitter.com/GZ4r7LVU0u— Desai Foundation (@DesaiFoundation) May 28, 2021
We all know that periods don’t stop for pandemics, and there are many factors that have exacerbated period poverty during this time. Many people lost their jobs, which means limited funds for sanitary napkins or other hygiene products. As Swati’s experience illustrates, lack of access to products can also be caused by shame. The chaos and restrictive travel lockdowns in India put these products further out of reach for communities in rural areas, and patients in overrun hospitals often aren’t given the proper products needed to manage periods.
But the hardship extends beyond managing periods under lockdown: The ripple effects of the pandemic on women’s education and ability to cultivate dignity may turn back the clock on women’s empowerment.
The fate of girls and women in India has implications for the rest of the world: Nearly 18% of the world’s population lives in India, so the global community’s response to their plightwill set a precedent for the value we place on women worldwide. We as a society need to invest in organizations that focus on women, girls, and rural communities to ensure they are not held back. It is more vital than ever to collectively recommit to our work of empowering women of all ages across the globe. We need to continue to dismantle systems that keep women and girls out of school, community, and the economy.
The world must continue to invest in the women of India. It must continue to bolster the support for women and girls’ global success so that the next time a catastrophe of this scale happens, we do not face a backslide of women’s rights and the lost potential of an entire generation of girls. Not just in India, but around the world.
This Menstrual Hygiene Day, we’re continuing to raise awareness about the issues surrounding period poverty and stigmas by celebrating and speaking loudly and proudly about menstruation. After all, we should be able to speak openly about something so natural, especially something that’s responsible for our continued existence.
At the Desai Foundation, we celebrate by participating in the #PledgeYourPeriod campaign to help end the stigma around periods. Funds from this year’s campaign will go to support the COVID relief efforts around menstruation in the current emergency in India. You can join us at PledgeYourPeriod.com.
A period should never be something that holds girls like Swati back from a life well lived.
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