The Coronavirus pandemic, and the subsequent lockdowns in India, were not just a public health crisis but also an economic crisis - taking away the livelihoods of migrants, daily labourers, and other vulnerable groups. And women are the major sufferers during this coronavirus, especially during menstruation with a lack of access to health amenities to their reach.
Unfortunately, to date, the world still looks at menstruation in the same fashion, as a taboo, with continuous changes and expectations in society from women. Although schools taught us mensuration is natural and biological, the mindsets of the people remained the same.
Despite misconceptions and stigma around mensuration, Suhani Jalota, founder of Myna Mahila Foundation is combating those challenges and making menstrual hygiene reach every doorstep in the slums of Mumbai.
Family Roots and Inspiration
Coming from a government family, Suhani’s father is an Indian civil servant who has worked on water and sanitation for the city, whereas her mom works with underprivileged girl children, and her brother creates water filters for the same slum community. Looking at Suhani’s family roots, all are dedicated to serving society in manifold ways.
Suhani carried the family attributes and incorporated them into her daily life by starting Myna Mahila Foundation, an organisation that is making sanitation reachable to women, creating awareness on menstrual hygiene, and providing employment opportunities to women in the indigent groups.
In 2011, Suhani met Dr. Jockin Arputham, who spent 40 years working in the slums of Mumbai as the founder of Slum Dwellers International and single-handedly improved the lives of millions of women. When asked about the inspiration behind the idea, she said, Dr. Jockin’s works inspired me so much. “He became my inspiration, my idol and my mentor”, added Suhani.
The Idea Of Myna Mahila Foundation
Currently pursuing her Ph.D. in health policy at Stanford School of Medicine and an MBA at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Suhani started spending time with women in the slum communities. They told her appalling stories about living on the railway tracks, children dying in front of them, and not being able to walk the public toilets without being sexually harassed.
Even some were taking pills to constipate themselves just so they did not have to go to the public toilet. Others would tell Suhani how they had been married off at 12 and were still living with drunk husbands who beat them every day. Women were ignoring their health and it struck Suhani as how this would lead to the wasted potential for the women, and for India.
After witnessing a similar set of horrifying cases of women, Suhani decided it was high time to work closely with them. In 2015, Suhani and a group of community leaders co-founded the Myna Mahila Foundation. An organisation that is run and managed by its beneficiaries in slums. The foundation has three operational units: Myna Health, Myna Employ, and Myna Research.
“Myna Health” has been providing women with health education and access to affordable sanitary pads at their doorstep. With its core beliefs around providing women with financial independence to truly empower them to make decisions.
“Myna Employ” generates employment opportunities and employability skills for girls and women in urban slums. “Myna Research” focuses on Myna’s data-driven approach which helps us make strategic decisions, based on data interpretation.
Overall, Myna creates a behaviour and mindset change among the community women around age-old taboos and provides financial stability. When asked about how they identify women of a kind, they said that they’ll onboard them during their education sessions such as Teach Menses India and other Sponsor A Girl events.
The organisation talks to them about training opportunities and vacancies available and asks them if they would like to join us. The second way is through a door-to-door approach in the communities.
How Myna Health is helping women?
As the organisation is focusing on empowering women in assorted ways, we dived a bit deep into the subject to know more. “Our women have as much potential as women around the world, but it is unrealised. What we need to do first, is bring these poor, and these women with incredible potential at par with others in their generation around the world” stated Suhani.
Suhani also added, “We need to support them to be at a fair game – that is first providing them with the basic amenities they need to grow. The tools to understand how to learn, and how the technology works. But teaching girls in slums about technology when they don’t have access to it and are falling sick all the time and don’t have a teacher or school to go to, or toilets to relieve themselves, or pads to use, we are not playing fairly with them. We need to first provide them with these basic amenities. This is the power Myna Health brings”.
Additionally, Myna also opens doors to new opportunities to women by providing them employment through Myna Employ. They are directed towards generating employment opportunities and developing entrepreneurial skills for 1 lakh women in the next 5 years.
Despite COVID-19 and the ubiquity of job losses, Myna has hired a liaison tailor and a few other women to manufacture & stitch face masks to support their family financially during the lockdown period. In the past 5 years, the organisation has been able to benefit more than 500,000 women across more than 15 slum communities.
“Azmati, a shy young girl living in the slums of Govandi had previously attended one of the organization’s education sessions, where she was hopeful to learn more about menstrual health and expressed her willingness to join Myna in some way. Unfortunately, she had to drop post her 11th grade, as her parents believed that the world outside is bad and she needs to be protected. Later, she was allowed by her parents to join Myna as it’s an organization run by women and her parents felt it safe” narrates Suhani.
Through Myna Health and their on-going campaign Pledge a Period Myna, they are providing women with door-step access to sanitary pads, face mask, sanitisers, MHM education sessions, online education through Myna Health Application, and providing them with healthcare services.
Moving forward, Myna hires women to be changemakers and take ownership of their work. “Our women are the most important assets, so we invest in their personal and professional development by providing them health education, life skills, and basic communication skills to foster their confidence and to bridge the gaps by empowering women through employment, improving menstrual health, and building women’s networks” stated Suhani.
Challenges Faced, Happy Moments:
Amid all the hard work put into running Myna Mahila, Suhani has faced several hurdles in between. “It’s been about building credibility and making people take us and our work seriously. Two years into the organization, some of our biggest community leaders and supporters all turned against us in a coordinated effort. We refused to give large financial commissions to the middlemen and directly paid women in need” claims Suhani.
Since the organization is working on contentious issues like menstrual hygiene, they did not want to take on the risk anymore. But the direction of air traveled the opposite way for Suhani and her team. Sometimes, they had to compromise on their values by pleasing community leaders to get their work done swiftly.
We are so happy to announce our new range of sanitary pads! pic.twitter.com/B81ZlJlcXK
— Myna Mahila Foundation (@MynaMahila) January 11, 2021
As the subject itself is a delicate matter, Suhani didn’t take the easy route. Instead, she changed the culture within the organization and decided to show the leaders how intended they are to build everything sustainably.
On the flip side, there are better instances to share as well. “I think my favorite one is probably when I see young girls like Azmati, empowered and living up to their potential. These girls who were once afraid of leaving their door-step, who couldn't even muster the courage to say their names aloud are now working professionally at Myna, speaking confidently, interacting in English, participating in our Pad Parades, discussing periods aloud, and training other young girls and women in their communities” shares Suhani on some of her favorite moments.
Well, the organization has some big plans ahead and Suhani has shared a few with us. Their mission is to improve doorstep access to women’s health & hygiene products and services to shift health behavior.
The organization also aims to move its flagship educational initiative “Sponsor A Girl'' to the Myna mobile health application and SMSes. By doing so, any woman or girl across India with a basic phone or a smartphone receives education on Health and Nutrition, Gender Attitudes, Menstrual Health and Domestic Violence.
Plus, the App will be a one-stop access point for women for health products and can home-order sanitary pads directly from the App itself. Over the next five years, Myna intends to expand on a national scale and the organization is now aiming to shift health behaviours for 2 million women by 2025.
All the images are sourced with permission from the Myna Mahila team.