AN INDIAN activist fighting to end period poverty has revealed the inspiration behind her charity, revealing her own experiences with the taboo surrounding menstruation.
Suhani Jalota, 26, is the founder and CEO of the Myna Mahila Foundation. The organisation aims to erase the stigma of menstruation in India and empowers women by encouraging discussions relating to the subject. Women employed by the charity make and sell feminine hygiene products, door to door.
In an interview with Eastern Eye on Monday (21), Jalota reflected on her own experiences of menstruation and her vision for the future. “We want to be a support system for women all over India,” she said. “We don’t want women to have any issues accessing products and information, or having a lack of awareness around their health and their bodies.”
Growing up, Jalota said she had her own experiences with “period shame”. When she was a teenager, she had her first period while on a school trip in north India. The school had organised for the students to visit various places of worship in the area. Having never experienced menstruation before, she admitted she was “freaking out”. When she told her teacher, Jalota said she was instructed not to enter the temple.
“I was made to stand outside and I felt ridiculed,” she recalled. Upset, she called her mother who told her to ignore the teacher and go inside. “When I (entered the temple), the teacher was furious and it became a massive deal,” Jalota said. “And everybody found out about my period – the men, the boys, the girls in the group, everybody. But then, a few of the girls said they were on their periods also, and the teacher kicked all of us out together.”
The incident led to the girls starting a small community in which they could discuss issues relating to menstruation and the stigma surrounding it. It was a moment of realisation for Jalota. “I started to realise that it had actually been happening with these girls for a long time and it happens to everyone in different households in different ways,” she explained.
In fact, it was a bigger issue than Jalota had ever realised. In India, it is estimated that 320 million women have no access to feminine hygiene products. The stigma, shame and cost can all be factors behind this.
The issue was never far from Jalota’s mind and while studying in the United States in 2015, she founded Myna Mahila. In less than a year, the charity had reached more than 1,500 women across five slums in Mumbai.
Myna Mahila has some famous supporters, too. The charity was handpicked by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to receive donations in lieu of wedding presents, when the pair married in 2018.
Jalota first met the Duchess of Sussex in 2016 during an event in New York – Glamour’s College Woman of the Year awards saw a number of women paired up with mentors. Although Markle was assigned to another student, she said she had heard of the work that Jalota was doing in India. Impressed by the charity’s vision, Markle reached out a few months after the initial first meeting.
“(Meghan) said she would love to visit us in India, so she came to see us the following January,” Jalota explained. “She was with us for a couple of days, seeing our work in the field. That is how we have maintained that connection.”
It has also helped to employ women as manufacturers and saleswomen for the product. In 2017, Myna staff were offered English, life skills and health education-related classes.
The opportunities that have become available to the staff have been life-changing, Jalota said. One girl, who started at the charity when she was 17, was essentially living on the streets when she approached Myra for help. Her mother and father were ill, unable to earn money and medical bills were piling up. The girl had never gone to school and there was no one willing to employ her.
“When we met her, she would not say a word,” Jalota recalled. “She would not even say her name, she was too shy.”
Slowly, her confidence began to build after working with the team. When the organisation began to garner press attention due to the public support from the Duchess of Sussex, the girl was one of the charity’s spokespeople who appeared on the news.
“That was only eight months after she had joined,” Jalota said. “Now, she has saved up enough money to buy herself a phone, she pays her rent single-handedly and she has learned to speak English through our educational classes. We’ve seen her go from absolutely having nothing to now having such big dreams.”
Jalota was named as one of the finalists for the Cisco Youth Leadership Awards at this year’s Global Citizen Prize awards for her work on the frontline of period poverty. The event, which took place last Saturday (19), honours young activists working to end extreme poverty. Jalota has praised the awards for raising global awareness of important issues.
“It’s a great platform to raise awareness for the cause people are working on,” she said. “They have such a creative strategy by involving celebrities and corporations who are providing the funding for Global Citizen. I think it gives them a lot of leverage and the power to really change the issues that they’re trying to tackle.”