Food is essential, so are menstrual hygiene products, believes Priyal Bhardwaj. A fashion designer cum social worker, Priyal runs an organisation called Sangini Saheli, an initiative for women, which works towards bringing a change in the lives of menstruators in our country. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, this Delhi-based entrepreneur has been distributing sanitary napkins to the needy women and girls across 12 states in the country. To date, her team has donated more than 5,67,000 sanitary napkins’ packets and has been simultaneously raising awareness towards menstrual health and hygiene.
In conversation with SheThePeople, Priyal Bhardwaj, talks about how the team is continuing with the efforts to provide relief materials and menstrual hygiene products to the ones trying to cope with the pandemic. And what more can be done to spread awareness around menstruation so that women have access to safe products with dignity. Some edited snippets from the conversation:
You have been working on a mission to ensure Menstrual Equity during the lockdown. What inspired you?
The drive for women’s health and hygiene products started when the world was badly caught with the crisis of COVID-19. Initially, I joined in relief care projects and various food distribution initiatives and we served above 8 lakh meals to underprivileged; migrant workers and their families who have been significantly affected by the crisis. During that time, I interacted with individuals from all walks of life in Noida and neighbourhoods. After talking with them, I realised the need for another important essential that was being neglected throughout the cities was Menstrual hygiene products.
So initially, I started and went to bus stands, railway stations and started distributing sanitary pads. My friends started pitching in, to contribute and volunteer, and today we are almost a team of 110 people who are actively working for the cause in all the cities.
You have been providing pads to poor women across the neighbourhoods of Delhi, Noida, Bangalore, Punjab, Vadodara. Explain how crucial it is for you to raise awareness about menstrual hygiene?
Menstrual hygiene products are as essential as food and security for a healthy and secure life of a menstruator. There are so many women in our country who are still unable to manage their periods safely due to lack of proper knowledge. The continuous discrimination like teasing, excluding women from basic activities during the time she menstruates and the shame makes it even more difficult for them to seek support and access safe products with dignity. The crisis has made it even more difficult to access or prioritise menstrual health for many women who are struggling to make the ends meet.
We found out that almost 25% of the women that we reached out to, had either no knowledge of menstruation products or it is still a hushed topic for them. So, we started with sensitizing and awareness programs along with the distribution of sanitary pads.
We covered some crucial topics like, the importance of maintaining menstrual health, how to use menstrual hygiene products and opened up a safe space for women in remotest of localities, rural and slum areas to talk about the word ‘Period’ that has been hushed under the used cloth for decades.
What is your biggest goal here?
In some places, women are using most unhygienic materials during periods. There is no relief for them in rural slum areas. Even in cities, urban slums there is hesitation in using menstrual hygiene products. My goal is to reach them, the remotest of areas, and the needy.
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In the time of a global health crisis, it is a wakeup call to realise the need for inclusive measures and policies for safe living. I think organisations and government can work together to make these changes possible.
As a designer, I’m able to express as well as weave my thoughts of equality and bringing a change in the form of creative expressions like clothing. While as an activist, I’m able to serve on the causes that feel home to me, like child education and women’s rights.
Any challenges so far?
Each day there is a new challenge, be it logistics or with the crisis, weather and calamities like Amphan in West Bengal which made it even more difficult to organise a distribution camp there, however, with the help of local volunteers we managed to reach the location on time and the distribution was made possible.
In Sangrur District Jail, we opened the conversation with women inmates and reached other remote areas in Sundarbans and Guwahati. We also felt there is a need for an equal involvement of men in this awareness initiative and to our surprise in places like Jagraon and Jammu, men came up in support to distribute or collect pads on their partner’s behalf. But that’s not enough. They also need to sit in the front row to talk about periods openly.
Even in Delhi, when the migrant workers were facing extreme distress and heading back to their hometown, we managed to reach railway stations and distribute the essentials but it was not easy to organise distribution in such sensitive areas. It’s been a challenge for all our team members, our safety and health is an equal concern when we step out. However, we make sure to take all precautions and treat it as a priority and we make sure we organise things considering the health and safety of volunteers. As well as the safety of our folks whom we are distributing the sanitary pads too.
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No matter what the difficulties, the discussion of menstrual health and hygiene is fundamental.
Girls in the villages especially are missing a support system to deal with the period talk. It is still a taboo topic and we are failing as a progressive society. What according to you is the solution here?
There is an urgent need for actionable steps like awareness programs, distribution camps and so on. Considering the low-income strata of the country, affordability is also a big issue. Poor and out of jobs, families are unable to support their girls’ menstrual needs as they are going back to unhealthy methods of using cloth or rags. We need measures to improve the understanding of menstrual equity. There has been active participation of many relief groups, however, we still need an organised support system that can help in the regular supply chain and awareness of menstruation like any other health care facility.
Feature Image Credit: Priyal Bhardwaj