Myna Mahila Foundation: Ending the taboo on women’s health
The Myna Mahila Foundation provides employment to women and improves menstrual hygiene by producing and distributing high quality, affordable feminine products across India. It aims to increase adoption of safer menstrual hygiene management practices in areas where traditional societal taboos have resulted in a lack of awareness of positive feminine hygiene. Through their work, Myna is not only tackling social stigma around female reproductive health, but is also creating a network of young female entrepreneurs, working in conjunction with the women of Mumbai’s slums to provide sustainable employment opportunities.
Lack of awareness and education of positive menstrual health practices
320 million women in India do not have access to sanitary products. Social stigma in Indian society has resulted in a lack of education on safe feminine hygiene practices including personal care, safe period management and knowledge of how to access necessary support systems.
With limited formal education, the majority of girls learn about menstruation from their mothers, sisters and friends, passing down cultural taboos and misguided information. This causes women to use cloth rags, which are rarely disinfected sufficiently and can lead to an increased risk of contracting blood-borne diseases such as HIV. These risks are further exacerbated when shared with other female family members - a common practice in poorer areas of the country.
The ingrained taboos around periods and the menstrual cycle often lead to women finding themselves shunned from the workplace, as they are seen as ‘unclean’. For women living in slum conditions in particular, these restrictions keep them locked in a cycle of poverty with no means of earning a living and bettering the lives of themselves and their families.
Local manufacturing of products, enabling job opportunities and increased awareness
Myna Mahila manufactures low cost, high quality sanitary napkins, which are more affordable than products already on the market. They employ local women to work in the factory, who then go out and sell these sanitary items through door-to-door schemes, creating further opportunities for sustainable employment and skill-sharing. This style of distribution allows Myna to reach women who would usually not step out of their house during their period, providing them with a safe space to buy affordable protection. It also enables Myna employees to start conversations about menstruation practices in general, helping to break the stigma.
Myna Mahila also runs a number of education programmes, designed to help break the cycle of misinformation around periods. For example, the ‘Sponsor A Girl’ programme trains local women to run workshops for younger girls in their community, providing bespoke kits which include underwear, newspaper bags for pad disposal, sanitary pads, soap, period tracking calendars and booklets.
From unhygenic cloth to sustainable, safer alternatives
Since its launch, Myna Mahila has produced over 700,000 pads and has reached more than 170,000 women through their ‘doorstep’ distribution service, a number which continues to grow, on average, by 10,000 a month. Of those who purchase Myna pads, 90% go on to be repeat customers. Through its outreach and education programmes, Myna has successfully converted more than 50,000 women across 15 different slum communities to using their sanitary pads or to use cloth more hygienically. The Sponsor A Girl programme has now reached more than 2,300 girls, empowering a new generation to make the decisions that are right for them and their bodies.
Myna Mahila has also empowered 20 women to become businesswomen in their own right - providing them with the necessary leadership and business skills to run their own franchises and work towards independence. This network of women is a powerful community for driving positive social change, educating and empowering those around them to have the confidence to speak out and make the right decisions for themselves.
Founder of Myna Mahila Foundation
How did it all start?
In 2011, at the age of 15, I met Dr. Jockin Arputham, President of Slum Dwellers International, for an Economics research project about sanitation and public toilets that I was working on. On my first day there, I met Parvin, Meena, and Ambre, who were community leaders in their own slum communities. After listening to and watching their stories unfold, which were filled with suffering, disrespect and shame, we all knew that we had to do something together.
It was then that I met a girl named Kajal, who was also 15. Kajal expressed her frustrations growing up as part of an ‘invisible’ female community, where traditions and stigmas dictated an inability for women to voice themselves, pursue their own dreams and careers, and speak openly about ‘taboo’ subjects such as menstrual health. Why should she not be allowed to work, when it should be her decision to make? Why should she hide her periods when it is only natural that she has them? Why should women in slum communities remain invisible?
Listening to Kajal made me realise that there could be a solution to help combat all of these troubles that women in slum communities faced. During “that” time of the month, Kajal needed the right product, but she also really needed a voice. A shared and powerful voice. A voice that makes her confident to talk about her body, menstruation and sanitation, and anything else that a woman is afraid to discuss aloud.
So, I started the Myna Mahila Foundation in 2015 with the mission to provide a voice to women in marginalized communities all over the world, by creating a network of young female entrepreneurs. We first started to make sanitary pads because we wanted every woman to have access to them. And because Myna was started by the same community members that it was intended for, the producers are also our consumers.
What was your greatest challenge?
We have had, and still continue to have, numerous challenges. It was immensely difficult for local women to start talking about a taboo topic in their own communities. People would shut their doors on us constantly. But, committed to making a difference, we went back to these very houses and called them for focus group discussions and explained to them what Myna Mahila was about, offering them support and guidance along the way. Now, we see a wave of menstrual hygiene movements in India, so although it’s definitely becoming a more talked about issue, there is still a long way to go.
Internally, we don’t have a team experienced in business or running an organization as a social enterprise, so working out how to encourage donations and managing revenue is very challenging. It also took us a while to understand how to go about breaking down the problems and select the biggest ‘pain point’ to tackle. These pain points also differ between communities. So, we decided to tailor what we could offer to coincide with the biggest needs. Where access to products was a problem, we started delivering at the doorstep, but where affordability was a problem, we started to incentivize saving schemes that could help them save for pads and invest in their own health.
What’s been your greatest achievement?
The Myna Mahila Foundation is a network of women, who are bold and inspirational, and whose stories have the power to transform lives around them. It is their sheer dedication and headstrong attitude that has enabled Myna to touch the lives of over 10,000 women every month, and will equip Myna to fly to newer heights as we march ahead.
Our biggest achievement comes from our women, and how their own network continues to help one another grow - creating a safe space which has never previously existed for them. Myna understands that when women trust each other, they open up about their problems, most often for the first time in their lives. This gives them confidence: a kind of confidence that encourages a woman who would never normally step out of her house to give a speech about the importance of pads.
We take great pride in what our women have been able to achieve through Myna and are overwhelmed to have had the opportunity to facilitate life changing moments for them. We have seen women such as Mumtaaz send her son to a drug rehab centre following advice from the network, Sapna successfully getting her children placed in a school, and Sunita safely have her baby delivered in a hospital.
What’s next for your project?
We want to reach 1 million women at the doorstep by 2022 either through our menstrual hygiene products or via our education programmes.
We are working on a skill building incubator to make more women employable and connect them to job opportunities inside and outside slum communities. We also plan to develop a day-care centre to allow women to leave their children in a safe space while they go out to work, as this is one of the most common barriers to employment. We are also developing new products for our Myna Boutique, including new pads and cloth items, as well as innovating new disposal methods for menstrual waste.
What top three things helped your venture succeed?
1. Gain community trust. We started working with the community leaders (with whom I had been working and researching since 2011) who they led the door-to-door schemes, making it very relatable and trustworthy amongst even the most sceptical members of the community.
2. Set a focus. We focused on helping women help themselves – we gave them tools and resources, but they needed to step up themselves. This helps us create permanent behaviour change. We do not just give out free pads to all the women but help them understand why they should prioritise them.
3. Ignore the negativity and tread forward. We are not scared or bogged down by criticism. We receive a lot of it as we are working on a taboo topic and are a young group of women. People also assume that they know about the problems we work on because of the recent press and attention on menstrual hygiene management. However, the scope of the problem is so massive and entangled in a web of other problems that we just have to keep going. We don’t stop or pause, just keep going, with more assertion and passion than before, in our quest to reach as many women as possible.
What and who were your inspirations?
Melinda Gates and Michelle Obama are two of my biggest inspirations. They are powerhouse women who run big agendas in the world today, setting the stage for gender equity.
I am motivated on a daily basis, by interacting with young girls and boys in the slum community and seeing the potential they represent. We can’t lose this ray of hope - their immense potential to change their own life trajectory and improve their standards of living. We need to help them meet their potential – and that keeps me inspired every day.
Working together to make a difference
The Queen’s Commonwealth Trust works closely with Myna Mahila to champion their work and spread their story across the globe, whilst also providing mentoring services to young founder and Queen’s Young Leader Suhani Jalota. We are proud to be supporting Myna’s vital work empowering women to speak up about the subject of women’s health and use the power of education to tackle the stigma surrounding menstrual hygiene.
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