Myna Mahila on addressing stigma around menstruation in India and empowering young women

The Mynha Mahila Foundation is an Indian organisation which empowers women by encouraging discussion of taboo subjects like menstruation, and by running workshops to produce low-cost sanitary protection to enable girls to stay in school.

With more than 320 million women in India without access to basic menstrual needs, compelling them to drop out of school and the labor force, Myna Mahila is on a mission to empower women to take charge of their bodies and prioritize their health so they can be confident, independent and healthy. Suhani Jalota, founder of Myna Mahila along with three slum community leaders met first in 2011 while visiting public toilets around the Dharavi slums to understand the challenges women experienced to maintain basic hygiene and dignity.

After witnessing horrifying cases of women not being able to stand up for themselves and dismissing their health and agency, they decided it was high time to work closely with the women to help them stand up for themselves and Myna Mahila Foundation was established in 2015.

Myths and taboos such as menstruating women are considered impure, have to be excluded from participating in day-to-day activities, such as education, employment, cultural and religious practices are still prevalent. Moreover, these taboos and stigmas lead to silence around the topic, create overall health problems for women and result in limited information on menstruation and menstrual hygiene.

Given the multiple challenges women and adolescent girls already face in urban slums, it is evident that promoting menstrual hygiene management (MHM) is not only a sanitation matter but also an important step towards safeguarding the dignity and overall life opportunities of women and girls.

At Myna, we hire women to be changemakers and take ownership of their work. Women that would shudder at the word ‘period’ earlier are now proud to be making sanitary pads themselves and spreading the message in their communities. We provide them with a safe space to talk openly about issues they are afraid of discussing aloud, we engage them through our education and awareness sessions as well as encourage the men in their households to join in the conversation.

Myna is a grassroots based organization, run and managed by its beneficiaries in slums and has three operational units: Myna Health, Myna Employ and Myna Research. Since it was founded in 2015, “Myna Health” has been providing women with health education and access to affordable sanitary pads at their doorstep. “Myna Employ” also generates employment opportunities and employability skills for girls and women in urban slums. “Myna Research” focuses on Myna’s data-driven approach. Myna’s overall vision is to create youth employment, entrepreneurship opportunities for women living in informal settlements and to spread health awareness and affordable hygiene products back into the community made by community women.

Our production staff has been trained to distribute the product further, creating employment opportunities and building a trusted network in the area we cater to. We have manufactured 10,00,000+ pads since 2015, and have more than a 90% return rate because of the personalised attention each woman receives.

Our flagship educational initiative - Sponsor a Girl - was kick-started in 2018 to equip underprivileged girls with proper menstrual products and to impart knowledge through training on menstrual hygiene management. Through this project, we have supported 4000+ girls, along with 500,000+ women at the doorstep. Another education initiative run by Myna is Teach Menses India, through which we have reached out to over 8500 boys and girls in schools and colleges in and around Mumbai.

Last month we also launched our very first Health ATM in the slums of Mumbai, to provide girls & women with menstrual health products, especially for those with low access to chemist shops.

As we scale, we will also make other health products available through the ATM. Additionally, since women often identify sanitary pads with colors instead of the product type, we wanted them to have a choice that suits their needs the best. With that intention, our ATM with a clear glass panel gives them a window to really assess what they need or what they would prefer and then choose the product accordingly. This is one of our many innovations to make menstrual hygiene services and products more accessible to girls and women, and reach the last-mile needs by leveraging data and technology.

India is currently in a state of medical emergency, with COVID-19's second wave hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives, while many are struggling to access even basic healthcare facilities and medical supplies. At Myna Mahila, we are currently working to address this challenge and supporting our beneficiaries in every way we possibly can. We developed a mobile health clinic through which we are monitoring the health conditions among vulnerable populations, especially women and children in urban slums to provide preventive healthcare facilities. We are also providing them with immediate and direct consultation with doctors, access to medications and health essentials such as menstrual hygiene products among others.

This year with the second wave and subsequent lockdown in Mumbai, we have been reaching our beneficiaries door-to-door and providing them with menstrual health kits. We also launched a mobile health clinic to provide vulnerable women, children and struggling families in urban slum communities with healthcare services, medical supplies and more. Since it’s launch last month, we have treated over 1,200 patients across 12 slum communities in Mumbai.

Last year when the pandemic first hit India, there was a lack of access to basic essentials and ration due to a severe countrywide lockdown. Hence we developed an 8 Point plan to meet the community’s needs of food/ration, manufactured and distributed face masks, menstrual supplies, conducted COVID research, community sensitization on the disease, developed a mobile health application to provide awareness and health education and set-up a women’s Helpline. We reached over 84,000 people with this initiative and also provided stable jobs to members of our community at Myna.

Readers can donate towards our Mobile Health Clinic here, to support us in reaching out to more people in urban slums and providing access to health services and medication. They can also join our flagship initiative “Sponsor a Girl” and sponsor a girl’s menstrual health needs for a year by donating here. Through this initiative we will provide underprivileged girls with menstrual health kits consisting of sanitary napkins, a pair of underwear, disposable paper bags, shampoo, soap, face mask and sanitizer. Another way people can support us, is by following us and sharing our work on social media and spreading awareness.