71% of girls in India don’t know what their period is before they get it. When I first heard that statistic, I couldn’t believe it was true. I spoke to the women I knew who were born in India — my mother, cousins, friends — it was shocking to me that they followed that statistic nearly perfectly. About 75% of the Indian-born women in my life hadn’t known what their period was before they got it. They told me incredible stories about getting it in the schoolyard, thinking they were going to die.
Several years ago, I was in India while on my period and had a strange experience buying pads, which made this otherwise-unflappable woman very uncomfortable. In an upscale neighborhood in Mumbai, I went into a small shop near my grandmother’s house to buy pads. The pads were kept behind the counter, so I had to ask the shop keeper, who then proceeded to wait until the two other men shopping in the store had completed their transactions before he slipped the pads into one plastic bag, and then a dark brown paper bag. I thought to myself, Why does this feel like a drug deal? The experience made me think, If I feel uncomfortable, I can’t imagine how most girls in villages must feel. Just buying the pads was yet another barrier to menstrual health. Later that day, my grandmother scolded me for going to temple while menstruating. It was then that I knew we had to dedicate our focus to this work in India.
When we looked closely at women’s health access, hygiene education, and livelihood opportunities, menstruation was a recurring barrier in rural India. Stigmas prevent girls from going to school, holding a job, and having agency over their own health, and it was damaging to their dignity at home when they were not allowed to cook, pray or enter their kitchens while menstruating. If we were serious about uplifting women through health and livelihood opportunities, we had to start with menstrual inequity, one of the root causes of these systemic inequalities.
As we entered this work in the U.S. as well, I was surprised by how uncomfortable even my most-confident friends were with talking about periods. Women who were public personalities, who usually weren’t afraid to be their authentic selves, were shy when it came to menstruation. But if we’re serious about health equity, it’s a topic that can’t be ignored. Two years ago we discovered the horrific realities inside American prisons and jails when it comes to bleeders; just as we had in rural Gujarat, Rajasthan and Mahastra, we knew it was time to change the story for these women in the United States.
The Desai Foundation has always been more like a startup than your standard nonprofit. Through vocational training, hygiene classes, entrepreneurship classes, and our comprehensive menstrual hygiene program, we have impacted over 700,000 lives. We have tested and adapted our 25 programs so that they are holistic, implementable, repeatable, sustainable, and, most importantly, serve the needs of our beneficiaries. When COVID-19 hit, the whole world tried to find its footing, but we leaned further into our work. Some of the particulars of our project have had to change, but our mission to elevate health and livelihood has not, because periods don’t stop for pandemics!
There have been many challenges around getting this work done. The lockdown in India is severe, with movement and business significantly more restricted than in the U.S. Through no small effort, we were able to mobilize over 100 incredible women that have been working with us for years, and within weeks we pivoted to producing hand-sewn masks. We have already distributed nearly 50,000 of them throughout rural India.
This project has taken many partners, supporters, donors and friends to bring to life. Lots of pieces are still coming together, but the agility of our team, our partners and our donors has been awe-inspiring. We made a commitment to our team that no one in India or the United States would be laid off due to COVID-19, and we are so grateful to be able to do this work.
Pre-COVID, we had big plans to roll out our Asani Sanitary Napkin program in the United States this year. Though our plans had to change, we still wanted to make an immediate impact on the ground. We made donations to the New York Food Bank, earmarked for personal care products for women, and to About Fresh, a food truck organization in Boston distributing meals to food-insecure neighborhoods. We are typically not in the business of grant-giving, but at the end of the day, we believed that this was simply the right thing to do — and in the spirit of our ability to pivot when necessary.
If I could speak directly to leadership at other startups, nonprofits and other organizations, I’d hope to inspire them to adopt a similarly-nimble approach. There are many barriers right now to the old way of doing things, and it won’t always be easy to see a clear path forward. But forget about business as usual — focus on your mission. The world needs entrepreneurial, holistic initiatives now more than ever, and you have an important part to play.
This month is Menstrual Health Hygiene Month, and we are so proud to raise our voices — now, more than ever — because of course, periods don’t stop for pandemics! So if you want to join us and support us – visit www.pledgeyourperiod.com.
Megha Desai is president of the Desai Foundation, a public nonprofit organization that aims to elevate the health and livelihood of women and children through community programs in the U.S. and India. Megha currently sits on the advisory boards of several start-ups and non-profits, including NPR’s Generation Listen, TakeTwo Film Academy and TiE NY. Megha enjoys cooking, podcasts and her nephews, and is a member of the Resistance Revival Chorus. She is also a contributor to Fast Company, The Huffington Post and Entrepreneur Magazine.