Last month, following in the footsteps of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge—Prince William and Kate Middleton, whose 2011 nuptials raised $1.7 million for 21 organizations across the U.K.—Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced seven organizations that they hoped members of the public and guests would donate to in lieu of purchasing them a gift. Among them was the Myna Mahila foundation, a Mumbai based non-profit that helps to distribute affordable menstrual hygiene products to women in the city’s slums.
“It’s unusual [to have someone from the royal family supporting a charity like this] if you look at the royals broadly.” Arianne Chernock, an associate professor of history at Boston University whose research focuses on gender, culture and the British monarchy, told Ms. “But if you look at this generation, specifically, William and Harry and Meghan and Kate, it doesn’t seem that unusual. They’ve already begun to push the envelope in terms of the kinds of causes that they’re advocating and directly supporting. We’ve seen that around mental health [and] support for gay youth.”
Britain has also seen its own growing menstrual equity movement. “I think in [the United States] there…isn’t as much discussion around period poverty as there is in Britain,” Chernock says, pointing out that recent years have seen women in Britain take up highly visible protests against the tampon tax, free bleeding in white pants in front of Parliament in London. “There have been a number of headlines in recent years, some really shocking headlines that were published fairly recently, about the number of women who are dealing with period poverty. I think it’s on Britain’s mind.”
It’s also long been on Markle’s mind. “If you look at her advocacy, this is clearly an issue she cares about,” Chernock noted, adding that Markle’s passion is reminiscent of the legacy of another much-beloved social justice-oriented royal. “This kind of work really feeds on [the kind of work] Princess Diana was doing. We sometimes forget just how much she helped change the public conversation about AIDS by being willing to shake hands with early AIDS victims. She showed that the royal family could really help change the public dialogue and channel goodwill towards really important causes.”
As an 11-year old in 1993, Markle wrote to former First Lady Hillary Clinton and to Proctor & Gamble to protest a sexist detergent ad, suggesting the company change the language in their ad from “women all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans” to “people all over America.” The company later changed their commercial according to Markle’s suggestion. In 2015, in her role as a United Nations Women’s Advocate for Political Participation and Leadership, Markle began her remarks at a UN Women conference with a bold declaration: “I am proud to be a woman and a feminist.”
The humanitarian and now former actor traveled to India with World Vision Canada, the Canadian Arm of international Christian charity World Vision, in January 2017 and shadowed women working at Myna Mahila. Later that year, Markle authored an essay for Time detailing the wide ranging effects shame around menstruation can pose for girls—including a lack of access to proper supplies due to culturally-imposed silences around menstruation that sometimes becomes an end to their education.
Currently, 40 percent of women in India do not have access to sanitary products, placing staggering barriers on their ability to attend school. Menstruation is still considered taboo in India, and women are forbidden from entering temples or preparing certain foods while menstruating. (“Myna” from the group’s name is a reference to the “chatty” myna bird, while “mahila” means women in Hindi; underscoring the organization’s focus on “empowering women to speak about issues they are most afraid to discuss aloud.”)
Myna Mahila is only organization from outside of the U.K. among the seven the couple chose to highlight to receive donations from their wedding. In addition to distributing menstrual hygiene products to women, Mynha Mahila also conducts research about women’s menstrual hygiene and health and educates women about topics ranging from financial literacy to business skills and English language. The organization employs 15 women from the local area to work on production, operations, sales and education and 50 more to distribute the products door to door; some of their employees will go on to form franchises of their own.
Speaking at the foundation’s first annual forum in February, Markle told audience members: “Women don’t need to find a voice. They have a voice. They need to be empowered to use it and people need to be encouraged to listen.” Markle will announce her formal patronages in the coming weeks, and women’s rights will likely play a prominent role in her global platform. She’ll likely also take on a role in the Royal Foundation, the philanthropy organization currently run by Prince William, the Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry.
Markle’s encouragement for royal guests and British communities alike to support Myna Mahila is a direct indication that she intends to continue her advocacy for women as she steps into a new role on the global stage. Should she decide to use it to further shatter silence and challenge stigma, women and girls around the world could also continue to reap the benefits.