“Cultivating the dignity of one woman is what continues to drive me,” said Megha Desai, president of the Desai Foundation, which leverages menstrual education for the empowerment of women in India.
A 12-year-old girl in Ulhasnagar, India, was tortured and killed by her 30-year-old brother recently because she had blood on her clothing and he assumed she was having a sexual affair. In reality, she had just gotten her first period, and neither of them knew what menstruation was.
Megha Desai said this horrific incident is a grave example of menstrual miseducation and discrimination. Desai is the director of the Desai Foundation, which provides menstrual education in India. Founded in 1997, the Desai Foundation seeks to show the value of women’s lives and dignity and educate Indian communities on periods through workshops for women.
In response to COVID-19, the foundation started a program called Heroes for Humanity, which aims to train and deploy 500 individuals, mostly women, “to work as agents of change in their community“—bringing COVID care and vaccine information, food and other supplies, health and hygiene information to seven states in rural India. The program has impacted nearly 3 million lives in India since its beginning in the spring of 2021.
Desai spoke to Ms. reporter, Clara Scholl, about the long-term effects of a lack of menstrual education in India and how organizations like the Desai Foundation help to spread awareness and decrease stigma.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Clara Scholl: Help our readers understand the importance of menstrual education.
Megha Desai: During a seminar in the middle of a small farming village, there was a woman there who told us that her period was white. She was a wheat farmer, and did not realize that she developed a yeast infection from her interaction with the wheat. The infection was so bad, and lasted so long, that she stopped getting her period. This is why she believed that her period was white.
The reason we are so passionate about menstrual health and equity is because, if I don’t know anything about my period and I can’t understand how the menstrual cycle is a part of my health journey. I am not using it to judge whether I’m healthy or not. I am not talking about it. I am feeling ashamed because I am not allowed to go into the kitchen, not allowed to go to school, not allowed to be at the office. What does that do to the overall dignity, the mental, and physical health of a woman long term?
A lot of people say [menstrual equity is] a ‘cute issue’ that affects some people a couple of times a year but it’s really not. It’s an issue that can have a long-term, and debilitating impact, on the education, rights, dignity and economic income of a country.
Scholl: What is a common misconception about the work that you do?
Desai: I don’t think people quite get the depth of the work that we do, or how repetitive that work is. We go to the same community, over and over, to make sure that we are really taking care of that community. Our sewing program is three months long. It is not a one-week workshop—we teach sewing, banking and finance. I wish people understood the depth of the work that we do, and that we impact each individual person. We’ve impacted 5 million lives.
It’s amazing to overhear conversations about periods, which never would have been the case four years ago.Megha Desai
Scholl: How did you find out what makes the most impact within your classes and what does not?
Desai: We talk to the women. They have the answers. We ask them what worked and what didn’t every time we hold a class. The best way to improve anything on the ground in India is to ask people on the ground.
There is a girl, we’ll call her Swati, who took our beautician class—a three-month, hands-on class which teaches cosmetology, which requires working three or four days a month for weddings and special occasions.
Six months later, Swati told us that we aren’t training women fast enough. She’d been poaching all the women that we’d been training after they finished the program so she could start her own business. She told me she was about to open her own, physical shop.
I have been able to go and see her shop, which is no bigger than a New York City apartment bathroom, but let me tell you, it has a hair chair, a makeup chair, treading, eyebrows and full makeup.
I asked her how we could train people faster, and she asked if she could train them. Now, she is training her own workers. She now has four full-time employees and has a thriving small business.
Scholl: What changes have you seen in India since you began working?
Desai: There’s a small town that we’ve been in for a couple of years now, and it’s amazing to overhear conversations about periods, which never would have been the case four years ago. It’s amazing to see so many girls in school, it’s amazing to see women holding their heads high. The change is palatable.
A girl that we work with became the head of her household after her mom died during COVID. She was 16 years old and raising her two siblings alone. Her dream was to become a nurse, and she was not able to pursue that dream and take care of her family simultaneously. She joined our Heroes of Humanity program and took care of her entire community during COVID. After two years, everyone in the community knew who she was and wanted to support her. Now, she’s on her way back to nursing school.
Still, the change is not happening fast enough. There needs to be a much bigger emphasis on women in the workplace. Right now, women are being educated and are starting to work, but the second they get married, they have to sit at home or move to the town their husband’s family tells them to move to. That has to change.
The best way to improve anything on the ground in India is to ask people on the ground.Megha Desai
Scholl: How can people get involved in the work that you’re doing?
Desai: Dig into what we do. We have so many beautiful documentaries about individual women and about programming. Become an advocate for menstrual equity. I think that every single person that can be added to the chorus of menstrual equity around the world will shift the narrative, leaders and nonreaders alike. And I would be remiss if I didn’t say donate.
Also, if you’re in the New York City area, come to Diwali on the Hudson on Nov. 2.
Scholl: What motivates you to continue this work?
Desai: My first career was actually in corporate advertising. After that, I started my own branding shop, where I focused on impact brands and startups. The Desai Foundation was a family foundation to begin with, which was converted to a public foundation. When they were in that transition they came to me and asked me to re-organize their branding and focus their programming,
Originally I thought the Desai Foundation was going to be a client. I didn’t think I was going to fall so head over heels in love with the work and the people that we serve.
After a couple of years of visiting the work and speaking to the women and girls that these programs were impacting, I just didn’t want to do anything else. I felt so drawn to my homeland and to the people of the country. I could talk about the size of the impact, but truthfully cultivating the dignity of one woman is what continues to drive me.
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