What do New York City, Boston and South Gujarat, India all have in common?
Ask Megha Desai, president of the Desai Foundation. Desai and her team have been pioneering efforts to bring education, healthcare, vocational training and more to people in need in these three regions for 20 years. In the last two decades alone, the organization has touched the lives of more than 331,000 individuals through projects that empower, enrich and support families in countless communities.
The Desai Foundation’s main objective is broad: improve the livelihood of women and children in India through public health projects and other initiatives while creating educational programs that promote Indian culture in the U.S. This breadth gives the organization space to pursue a wide range of projects that target issues ranging from teaching women to sew to running a highly successful secondary school in India to hosting Indian heritage events in major U.S. cities.
One notable project is the Desai Foundation Sanitary Napkin Program, featured in Glamour Magazine this past May. The program employs local women to manufacture and distribute menstrual products for the Desai Foundation’s very own sanitary napkin brand, Asani Sanitary Napkins. The resulting sanitary napkins are high quality, low-cost and available to women in communities across Gujarat.
The accessibility of Asani’s pads not only ensures that women can purchase affordable menstrual hygiene products, but also normalizes and de-stigmatizes menstruation. Glamour compares the products to lip gloss due to the Asani employees’ door-to-door, community-centered vending style. (“Think Avon, but for pads.”) Asani combats the taboo of menstruation that is so entrenched in many rural Indian communities — 70 percent of Indian girls do not even know what menstruation is before they get their first period.
The Desai Foundation is expanding its Sanitary Napkin Program and opened another Asani manufacturing center in Gujarat on May 28, 2017–Menstrual Hygiene Day. The community-wide involvement of women in Gujarat in the Sanitary Napkin Program exemplifies the Desai Foundation’s lasting commitment to long-term, community-based solutions to social and economic problems. The organization works in villages and towns it knows well and involves local leaders in its initiatives. This guarantees that each of its projects is specifically tailored to the needs of the community and encourages villagers’ confidence in and commitment to the organization’s work.
“There are many ways to help people in need but what’s more important and what really transforms a community is teaching people how to help themselves,” says Anu Ashok, health advisor and leadership council member at the Desai Foundation.
Additionally, when villagers engage in the foundation’s programs, they invest in their communities. The women employed by Asani, for example, will contribute to their towns’ and villages’ success, as women are likely to invest their earnings into the community. Such investments have significant ramifications for reducing poverty in the targeted areas.
The foundation’s dedication to the community also manifests in its upcoming Mobile Health Van project. The mobile van will act as a medical center to-go and will bring healthcare services to 17 rural villages in the Valsad area of South Gujarat, providing vital medical services to otherwise isolated villagers. The foundation describes the 17 targeted communities as “medically disenfranchised,” hence the need for high-quality, accessible care.
Like the Sanitary Napkin Program, the Mobile Health Van project is being built around the needs of the people it hopes to serve. Yunfai Ng, who is working with the Desai Foundation and NGO Mama Hope to cultivate the project, explains this attentiveness in the 2016 Desai Foundation report.
“Human connection is an extremely powerful asset in collaboration and partnership, and it has given my team and I immense insight into some of the rural villages’ most urgent health needs, which will help guide our work moving forward,” Ng says.
Looking ahead, the Desai Foundation aims to impact one million people by 2030. Through continued implementation of its projects and new innovations, this goal, while ambitious, seems plausible.
– Sabine Poux