The Oscar-winning documentary “Period. End of Sentence.” showed the world the stigmas that has been traditionally attached to the Indian woman. Traditionally, at the time of her menstrual cycle, the woman is considered impure. Undergoing her regular bio rhythm, unfathomably everything she touches in that time is deemed tainted.
Then there is “Period Poverty,” where girls cope with their menstruation with rags, newspapers, leaves; anything they think has properties of absorption, leaving their health vulnerable. Education is stymied because without protection she can’t stay long in public. Recently, media reports talked of women having their wombs removed so they could make a livelihood as a sugarcane cutter – without privacy in the fields or proper material to use, a normal working month would otherwise not be possible and money had to be brought home.
In the midst of these horrors stands a vocal, passionate Megha Desai determined to bring about change. As president of the Desai Foundation she fights every day to improve these conditions.
Making a difference was an idea that was nurtured early by her parents Samir and Nilima, who began the family foundation when Desai was still in school. The Indian American activist never lost sight of its work as she went about getting a BA from Barnard College and, later, launched a successful career in advertising.
Now fully focused on philanthropy, she spoke with India-West about menstrual hygiene from her home, which lies “between Boston and New York.”
Q: Why menstrual hygiene?
A: We are focused on livelihood and health issues and we realized that it directly affects both of this and we applied a 360-degree lens to it. This is the rationale. But there is also the personal; we’ve all experienced even family members not letting us talk about our periods. In India even the process of buying pads is made to seem dirty. I was shocked when I read that 71% of Indian girls don’t know what periods are when it happens to them. One woman told me she was 11 when she began to bleed on the playground and she thought she was dying. Think of the trauma. They also don’t have access to good products. How can you hold a job if you have to take off five days every month? It affects a woman’s dignity.
Q: Do the cultural taboos differ in each region of India?
A: Geographically, yes. The Tamils celebrate the period. There are sects of Islam where girls can’t touch books during the period; treacherous for education. There is this thing among Hindus that you cannot go to the temple, you are not deserving of god’s love. You can’t touch this or that, you can’t cook. The origins of this…I believe it first came from a good place. Back when women had to walk five miles to get water, it was supposed to make her take rest, not that she was a contaminant. Whatever the reason, patriarchy or colonialism, it has all been twisted to hold women down.
Q: How do you approach the women in the village you want to work in?
A: Before we gallivant into a village, we do research. We identify leaders and try to understand their lifestyle as much as we can. We are in 568 villages and we have done this 568 times. We understand that Nanded in Maharashtra is going to be different from the tribal village in Rajasthan, which will be different from the farming community in Gujarat. We ensure buy-in before we go in. Once in, we bring multigenerational women together. This works effectively as younger ones are bolder and ask questions; the older ones have knowledge. We distribute the pads that we produce, and if some say they want to continue to use rags, we say okay, but we will provide you with tools to use it safely, and talk about washing with soap and drying in sunlight.
Q: Are pads sustainable in a nation where even bathrooms are a challenge?
A: For us disposal is part of use. Our pads are 90% bio-degradable. We teach burning and other methods relevant to local conditions. I am personally very attached to environmental issues but the 10% of the pads that is not bio-degradable…for now the trade-off of a woman’s health is worth it. Once we get to a level in terms of volume of sales and production, our pads will become 100% bio-degradable. If we did it right now, it would be unaffordable.
Q: What is the reaction of the men in the villages?
A: It depends. Conservative ones wait and watch. In a tribal area, we had created a female space where they can talk openly. A self-proclaimed leader just wouldn’t leave. He told me not to corrupt the minds of the women. I told him I was going to and I was going to empower them! But for every village that there is resistance, there is another where men are psyched and help us. We have 400 women in the villages who distribute these pads and they tell us that their husbands, uncles, sons are proud of them. We are here for the long game so it’s okay to get this done one at a time.
Q: These 400 women, are they local?
A: Always local and we pay them.
Q: How do you pick the geographic area to function?
A: So we started in Talangpur and Untdi in Gujarat. We spent a lot of time there, changing and tweaking our models over several years. Then we expanded with friends and NGOs we were working with. Over the past two years the growth has accelerated as women began to hear about us. Going to Nanded was a shock to us! They approached us and it’s been a success. Lot of it has been pull demand, not push demand.
Q: How do you determine success?
A: Personally, qualitative is important but with quantitative metrics you see the impact. We have three verticals. Awareness – is it impacting behavior, are they more informed about menstrual health. Production – we have four production units making retail quality pads with wings, fast absorbency; not the handmade “Padman” kind. Local women work in the units and we pay them. The third is distribution. Women go door to door and sell them at radically subsidized rates. At the door, a dialog happens which cannot be asked of a man when you go to a store – what does it mean if I have missed my period; how often do I need to change my pads. This has revolutionized women’s health.
Q: Do NGOs compete when working on the same cause?
A: Everyone has a different approach. There are many aspects to the issue, like laws that tax pads. Changes have to be made, so if someone wants to work on it, it’s great. In the spirit of problem solving, I say let’s try it all.
Q: Is there a need for similar work in the U.S.?
A: Yes! It is less about education and more about accessibility. There are three vulnerable communities; the homeless, women in the juvenile system, and the incarcerated. In jail you have to pay for pads. Only five states don’t charge inmates. It’s a crime. Because of the pandemic things are on hold but we are working to bring our machine to America.
Q: As a public non-profit, how have you dealt with fundraising?
A: Ugh. That’s the least fun part. Some people have the knack for it, I don’t. It has been hard these past three years. When you have kids in cages and other manufactured problems that we shouldn’t have to be solving, it’s hard to go to friends and ask for a check.
Q: Have there been moments at work when you have had to assert yourself?
A: Of course. Especially when dealing with Indian men. It’s very subtle. They make you feel little and you have to constantly reset the right to be in the room. I have flown across the world to talk to businessmen and they won’t give you their full attention for 20 minutes, taking four calls in that time. I have walked out. I am not begging for their money, I am giving them an opportunity.
Q: Other than good intentions and money, what do you need to take to this job?
A: Follow through. It doesn’t matter if you build schools, have you changed minds? Next, understanding metrics – what are your inputs and what are your outputs. Good intentions can lead to radical consequences, as we have seen with the lockdown in India. Poor people are suffering at an exponential rate, good intentions don’t matter then.
Q: What have you been able to do during the Covid lockdown?
A: We are tremendously impacted and have postponed 110 camps and classes. We are distributing surplus pads for free. We have turned many of our units to making masks and have distributed over 50,000 for free. In Jaipur we will soon be making surgical masks. In the U.S. we have tried to contribute with checks to food banks in New York and Boston.
In an Ideal World:
A woman would have… enough dignity to dream beyond her circumstances.
India would be… the diverse tapestry that it truly is with equal access to opportunity and health for all.
The U.S. would…represent the words that have been written on Lady Liberty.
There would be…the word equality would mean something.