DOWNINGTOWN, Pennsylvania — Period poverty is a global problem, spanning across borders. It is often described as a lack of access to sanitary products due to financial or cultural burdens. In India, nearly 71% of adolescent girls do not know what menstruation is, until it occurs for them. Period poverty in India has detrimental effects on women and girls. According to a study conducted by Dasra, a charity that works on adolescent health, every year, nearly 23 million girls in India drop out of school once they start their period. Many of them face acute health issues afterward. Women who don’t have access to proper sanitary equipment are more likely to suffer from UTIs or other reproductive issues. There are several organizations tackling period poverty in India.
When Juhi Patel grew up in India, she experienced stigmas surrounding menstrual health and saw period poverty firsthand. “I just felt so incomplete without having done something about this,” she said in an interview with The Borgen Project. Patel went on to found Project Stree in 2019 with Ria Soni. Projet Stree is a non-profit dedicated to breaking stigmas surrounding periods and tackling period poverty in India.
The organization hosts workshops in communities to spread awareness and education about menstruation as well as distribute eco-friendly pads. For Patel, fighting period poverty in India isn’t just about providing free menstrual products, “it’s also for those women who don’t have a voice and don’t feel confident in their body to be able to stand up for themselves,” she said.
The lack of access to sanitary equipment can also be attributed to taboo. Many women in India often feel uncomfortable buying sanitary pads when they can afford to and are often shamed. In rural villages, girls and women are not allowed in places of worship when menstruating. They are sometimes forced to spend nights in menstruation huts. To combat this fear, Project Stree began to personally deliver pads to villages and households. Since its establishment in 2019, Project Stree has served nearly 2,020 people and donated 6,965 pads, helping to alleviate period poverty in India.
Breaking period stigma is only one aspect of tackling period poverty in India. In many cases, girls living below the poverty line cannot gain access to safe and affordable menstrual hygiene products. As a result of poverty, their families choose between food or these products. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this issue. In an interview with The Borgen Project, Tirukurungudi Santhanam Padmapriya, the chief executive of Sanitation First, said that for many families in India “the first focus is to get food with whatever money is available for the family. Then, and only then, can we think about getting menstrual supplies.”
Sanitation First is a non-profit hoping to end period poverty in India by providing sanitary napkins, teacher training and educating students. Sanitation First provides anti micro bacterial napkins called Safepads, which repel infectious bacteria. The organization additionally built areas and facilities within schools to dispose of the napkins safely. However, Padmapriya said that wasn’t the “end-all solution.” “We started working on hygiene training.
The hygiene training is not just with the girls because we felt the girls are only one part of the population, so we address everybody together” she said. The education programs have been used to break the stigma surrounding periods. About 92% of boys and 91% of girls believed that periods should not be kept a secret after implementing the training programs in their schools.
The Humanify Foundation
Echoing Padmapriya’s philosophy, activist Niraj Gera of the Humanify Foundation also holds seminars and workshops where he speaks to both boys and girls. The Humanify Foundation is a nonprofit based in India. It launched a national campaign in 2019 dedicated to speaking and spreading awareness about menstruation in rural India. The organization hosts workshops in villages and schools as well as provides sanitary napkins to underprivileged women.
Gera is a motivational speaker who advocates for a plethora of causes. A friend came to him, asking him to advocate on periods and menstruation to help break the taboo. At first, he did not know what the issue was. However, upon further research, he learned some disturbing figures. “I was really shocked. I didn’t know what to say because the problem was much bigger than what I was thinking,” Gera said in an interview with The Borgen Project.
Since then, Gera has hosted numerous workshops and speeches in villages and schools. He has even met with government officials. The Humanify Foundation published a photography series showing the taboo and the issues that women face while menstruating. Gera was “impressed” by the response he was getting from girls. As a male, talking about these issues inspired young girls to become empowered and speak more often about their periods with their families.
Tackling period poverty in India has multiple dimensions, stemming from cultural barriers to financial barriers. Amidst the pandemic, there are many different aspects to it, which require creative and collaborative solutions, which is what these three organizations are hoping to achieve. “It is a problem where the solution is holistic. It is not just that government is responsible, not just media is responsible; I am responsible; you are responsible.” Gera said.
– Lalitha Shanmugasundaram