Myna Mahila Foundation is breaking taboos around menstruation and providing sustainable employment to women in Mumbai slums.
by Aisiri Amin
Suhani Jalota was about 15 years when she started engaging with people living in slums across Mumbai, India. Her school was near Dharavi, one of the world’s largest slums, so Suhani would often join Mahila Milan, the on-ground team of SPARC during their visits to the slums.
What started as casual conversations with the women in these communities, asking about their daily lives and understanding a world different from hers, soon turned into small economic projects about sanitation, health and women’s safety. “I never chose the development sector, it sort of chose me,” Suhani says.
As she learned about their lives, about sexual assault, domestic violence, and menstrual hygiene issues and about the silence that they had embraced as fate, Suhani started pitching her start-up ideas, all of them aimed at tackling issues women in India struggle with. She was still completing her undergraduate degree, when her sixth startup idea, to provide menstrual pads to women in Mumbai slums got selected by Melissa and Doug Entrepreneurs, a year-long intensive fellowship programme in which undergraduate students create their own startup.
Started in 2015, Myna Mahila Foundation aims to tackle period poverty and lack of access to menstrual hygiene products. They employ women from slums in Mumbai to make pads and also do door-to-door sales. Along with providing employment opportunities and promoting self-reliance, Suhani focuses on initiating conversations about menstruation which is still a taboo subject in India and help women speak up about their issues.
Today, Myna Mahila Foundation has received worldwide recognition for their initiatives. Suhani is the Forbes Asia under 30 recipient 2018 in the social entrepreneurs category. In 2017, Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle visited the organisation and invited them to the royal wedding.
We caught up with Suhani Jalota to talk about Myna Mahila Foundation, the problems they are addressing and the impact they hope to create.
INKLINE: The aim of your organisation is quite specific: finding solutions for menstruation hygiene problems of women in Mumbai slums. How did this idea come about?
Suhani Jalota: As a 15-year-old you are often moulded by what you hear and so I was extremely struck by the stories I heard during my visit to the slums. One such issue that they talked about was menstrual hygiene and listening to it I felt people were making a huge trade-off between dignity and health. Keeping silent about their menstrual woes and the troubles that inaccessibility to pads led to, was costing them their lives.
For the idea of ‘dignity’ imposed on them, they were letting go of their self-worth and that was very puzzling to me. I realised that it had a lot to do with self-efficacy, self-esteem and aspirations of women.
We wanted to help these women speak up about these issues. That’s why we chose the name ‘Myna’ which is a bird that talks a lot and we want these women to be Mynas.
The problem we wanted to tackle was vague and quite broad which required long term, layered solutions. So, we thought the first step is to get them to talk about something they shy away from. We wanted them to realise that they are oppressing themselves by shying away from it. That’s when we thought about menstrual hygiene. We didn’t start Myna with the thought that women in urban slums needed access to pads. It was more like women are not speaking about their issues and we wanted to help them speak up.
That’s how we measure success as well. How many women are speaking up, how many conversations we are getting started, how many women are willing to talk to men about this topic? Once you get them to talk about this, they feel confident to talk about other topics as well. It’s a trickle-down effect.
When I pitched it to the Melissa and Doug entrepreneurship fellowship programme they saw potential in this because the community trust was already built.
And honestly, menstrual hygiene is a less sensitive topic than domestic violence and sexual assault in these communities. All of these topics are extremely stigmatised but out of these three, menstrual hygiene is the least stigmatised. That’s because menstrual hygiene is the only one that is just about you and yourself. Whereas the other two involves someone else, someone they will have to stand up against and these women don’t want to get into trouble.
I: Menstruation is still stigmatised in India and it is treated as a taboo. In such circumstances, getting women from slums who probably don’t use pads to make pads would have been quite a task. How did you manage that?
S: The one advantage I had was that I had engaged with these women for many years before I started Myna. So, the community leaders trusted me and they went around telling women about the idea. If an outsider came into the slums and encouraged them to do certain practises, they would feel like that person was imposing outside phenomenon on the slums without understanding their social fabric and that would have been very difficult to tackle.
We did receive a lot of initial feedback from women and a lot of criticism from both men and women. Some husbands said we were polluting their wives’ minds, families said that we wanted to give the women the freedom they were never given. These things still come up when we go to new communities but it has definitely reduced in the communities we predominantly work in.
The women who did come to work for us needed money and wanted to work near home and Myna fitted the bill. When they first found out about the job and that they will be making pads and going door to door talking about pads and periods, it made them very uncomfortable. Some would giggle at the words, cover their faces. Some would hide whenever a man would pass by so that he couldn’t see what they were doing.
But now with time and awareness, there have been some incredible transformations. Women who were shy are now holding awareness sessions for others. We also teach them life skills and English. We believe it’s a whole package. We can’t just reduce the stigma and leave them with no other skills to do anything else.
I: Myna Mahila is also involved in educating people about menstruation. Are the programmes just for women or are the men also involved? Often in these communities, it is the lack of awareness among men that directly affects the access women have to pads and proper menstrual hygiene, especially in patriarchal households.
S: I completely agree with you that this is an important topic to get men involved in. We just started our programme for men. In August, on the occasion of Raksha Bandhan, we had our first session with boys and started the ‘Sponsor a Sister’ programme. We gave the brothers the same kind of education that we give to the girls but also explained how these boys could help girls during their periods. For instance, we showed them videos of boys helping girls, explaining why girls have the stains and boys not laughing at the stains. We also gave them kits to gift to their sisters for Raksha Bandhan.
We had no idea how they would respond but we got such a great response from boys and young men.
I also held a focus group with older men, mostly Muslim men and many of them responded to the session better than women. Recently a few men joined our organisation for the first time and now they are going door to door and selling pads to women.
Also, it’s difficult to change a woman’s mindset because often her mindset is intertwined with other members of the family. Women think they can’t change their minds until the husband says they should. And that’s different from how a man thinks. If I am telling him something, and he agrees with it, he can instantly change his mind.
Many a time, women might listen half-heartedly because they know their husband is not going to allow this.
I: Now with more awareness about the need to save the environment, many are making the switch to eco-friendly pads. What’s your take on it? Will Myna make the switch too?
S: We have created a 100% compostable pads as well. We are just testing on actual blood. The issue is that fully compostable pads are more expensive. Which means you can’t sell it to the poor because they can’t afford it. This can be done only if somebody is subsiding it which has to be a donor and that’s not a sustainable model. So, these pads can only be sold to people like you and me. Though the idea sounds great, the question is how do we implement it and where will the funding come from.
Moreover, here, people talking about menstrual hygiene problems still don’t understand the complex layers. Many think that the solution is obvious. Poor people don’t have access to pads if we give them pads that will solve everything.
Especially after the Bollywood film, Pad Man, people have assumed that the issue is already resolved so getting funding is difficult. Giving people pads without creating awareness and addressing the root of the issue isn’t sustainable solution.
I: If you could give one piece of advice to young girls aspiring to be entrepreneurs, what would that be?
S: My message to girls would be to never hold themselves back. Turning your vision into a reality will take up a lot of time and energy but stick it to it. The world is moving so fast, and there are so many problems so if you have an idea, work towards implementing it without waiting for the right opportunity.
Aisiri Amin (she/her) is an independent journalist specializing in gender, culture, and social justice. She is a struggling optimist, trying to understand the world through cinema, books, and travel.