At first, Megha Desai thought there was no way girls and women would take to social media to tell stories about their first periods. But as education, dignity, and confidence grew in a small town in India, the local women and girls surprised her.
Four years ago, the Desai Foundation held an awareness campaign about menstrual health and hygiene in the small town of Untdi, Gujarat–the village Desai’s father grew up in.
“We had all these signs laid out on tables, saying things like ‘Happy to Bleed,’ ‘Proud to be a Woman,’ and ‘Proud of my Womanhood,” remembers Desai, President of the Desai Foundation. “I looked at those signs and I thought, ‘Nobody is going to hold these signs up. We’re in a tiny little village where no woman would talk about her period. But by the end of the campaign, the women and girls were so confident and proud that they posed for pictures with these signs. It blew me away. I thought to myself, if these girls in this little village can hold these signs and pledge their periods, then we ought to be able to do that, too.”
#PledgeYourPeriod is a month-long initiative sponsored by the Desai Foundation. This awareness and fundraising campaign strips away the stigma surrounding periods by encouraging people around the world to post pictures and videos on social media, telling stories of encouragement and shared experiences, and “pledging their periods” by donating to the Foundation’s Asani Sanitary Napkin Program.
Making Periods Easy
“The word ‘asani’ means ‘with ease,'” says Desai. “We feel like periods should be easy, not hard.”
This mentality forms the backbone of the Asani program, which connects women and girls in rural India with sanitary products. Doing so helps build their confidence to understand and safely care for their bodies during menstruation.
Asani works through three main avenues: education, production, and distribution, and is in the process of building out a wholesale program in various parts of the country (with the intention of expanding to the United States in the future). The program provides highly subsidized, low cost sanitary napkins to communities that may otherwise have difficulty getting access to products of retail quality.
It starts with education, through workshops about periods and women’s bodies. These workshops give girls and women the opportunity to ask questions about their menstrual cycle, safety and disease prevention, and other healthcare topics in a safe and encouraging environment.
Boosting Production of Sanitary Products
Asani also boosts production of low-cost sanitary products with customized manufacturing machines that can turn out retail-quality pads in places where the only alternatives are handmade and ineffective. Women across hundreds of villages in India then go door to door, selling these disposable pads at radically subsidized rates.
“The program breaks down so many different barriers,” Desai says. “You no longer have to interact with a man at a bodega to buy pads.”
Before the COVID-19 crisis hit, the Foundation had plans to expand the Asani program to the United States prison system, providing machines to manufacture sanitary products for inmates at a subsidized cost. In most states, incarcerated women must pay for their sanitary products, and in the six states where pads are provided for free, the situation is not much improved.
Desai recounted a story from a women’s prison in the United States where sanitary products are provided for free. Although these products are not charged to prisoners, distribution rests in the hands of correctional officers–and abuse of this system is common. An inmate suffering from endometriosis told Desai about her lengthy periods, which can sometimes last nine days or more.
“The officers used pads as a leverage tool,” Desai says. “In order to get pads, this woman would have to do things for her assigned correctional officer. It’s really a crime, that women are being leveraged in this way for something they can’t control.”
The pandemic has forced the Foundation to rearrange its resources, temporarily calling a halt to forward motion on the prison system partnership.
“First and foremost, we have been working very closely on the ground in India, distributing pads for free,” Desai says. “We need to make sure people have access to this product. We’ve also been working a bit in the US—if you can’t afford food, you certainly can’t afford pads. We made a significant donation to the New York Food Bank and earmarked that money specifically for the distribution of pads and tampons. We’re not a grantmaking institution, but we just felt it was the right thing to do.”
Working Closely with Local Governments
In addition to these efforts, the Desai Foundation has been working closely with local governments to bring pad production units to New York City and Jaipur, Rajasthan–the cities hardest hit by COVID-19 in the US and India, respectively. These units can easily be converted from producing sanitary napkins to producing three-ply surgical masks, which can then be distributed at nominal cost to residents.
“We’ve been hard at work bringing this to life, and we’re so, so grateful to have the support from so many organizations and individuals, as well as the government of Rajasthan,” Desai says.
These units are designed to produce masks for the first six to eighteen months, or however long the production is needed. Then they can be converted in as little as three days to create sanitary pads.
Desai adds, “On the US side, we’re also making sure to involve our friends in the justice department, so that when we’re ready to make the pivot from masks to pads, we can do it with the prison system in mind.”
The #PledgeYourPeriod campaign is designed to support every aspect of the Asani Sanitary Napkin program, which has become even more critical in the face of the pandemic.
“PledgeYourPeriod is one of my favorite things we do all year,” Desai says. “It has a special place in my heart for why we do all of this. The #PledgeYourPeriod campaign is a place for us to celebrate Menstrual Health Day, and raise our voices for those who can’t. 71% of girls in India don’t know what their periods are, or why they get them—and that can be incredibly traumatic. The onus is on those of us who can raise our voices in honor of those who can’t.”
Participating in #PledgeYourPeriod follows a three-step process: participants share their stories on social media, then pledge their periods by donating to the campaign. Finally, they share the campaign with three other individuals, challenging them to take part, too.
The Foundation takes the #PledgeYourPeriod campaign a step further–Every dollar donated by an individual or a foundation is immediately matched by the Desai family.
“This is us really putting our money where our mouth is, and believing deeply in our model and our impact,” Desai says. “That is what #PledgeYourPeriod is all about.”
Today through May 28th, every donation dollar will be matched with one dollar from the Desai Foundation and one dollar from the skincare company Ranavat, a partner organization closely associated with the Foundation.
“We’re tripling every donation that comes through,” Desai says. “If there’s ever been a time to donate, it’s now.”
The campaign culminates in a celebration of Menstrual Health Day, held on May 28. The Foundation will host a livestream celebration with influencer and celebrity partners. Past partners include Palak Patel, Arianna Afsar, and Kirk Douglas of The Roots. This year, Poorna Jagannathan of Never Have I Ever, best-selling author and entrepreneur Miss Malini, personality and activist Sasha Grey, and Arianna Afsar of Hamilton and American Idol have all pledged their period!
Desai encourages women and men around the world to participate. Whether they are individuals or acting on behalf of foundations and NGOs, she wants to see more people truly investing in the mission behind the program.
“Every factor of our organization is about elevating dignity for the women and girls we serve. It is ultimately about dignity,” Desai explains. “One of the ways people can support us is by supporting an individual program or by buying into our mission. At the end of the day, when you look at our track record and the number of people we’re able to impact for every dollar, it’s pretty remarkable. I invite the community to do this. Do it not just with our organization, but with every organization—because it really helps a nonprofit do their work when you buy into the entire mission.”
“Periods don’t stop for pandemics,” she adds. “Our focus is to highlight this program, especially as we are about to expand it to the US. Our programs are implementable in many different regions, so if there are communities that you feel need our program, let us know. We would love to find a way to help our program come to you.”
About the Desai Foundation: The Desai Foundation was born in 1997 as a family foundation started by Samir A. Desai and Nilima Desai. The Foundation had one simple goal: to serve the communities that had served them. In order to keep up with the pace of its growing organization, the Desai Foundation became a public foundation, and refocused its mission. The Desai Foundation is now a robust public and programmatic organization working to empower women and children through health and livelihood in India and the U.S. The Foundation believes that empowering local community members to run projects leads to the best results. And that restoring dignity is at the center of helping people to dream beyond their circumstances.
About #PledgeYourPeriod: #PledgeYourPeriod is an awareness campaign created by the Desai Foundation to strip away the shame around periods and raise funds for the Asani Sanitary Napkin program, which provides menstrual health education and products to women and girls in rural India who might not otherwise have it. In honor of Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28th, participants are encouraged to stand with women around the world to #fightthestigma and show that they are #proudtobleed by pledging your period during the month of May. This is a gender inclusive campaign, and the Foundation encourages everyone to participate, regardless of whether or not they menstruate!