Desai Foundation Trust is a nonprofit organization that works for children's and women's development and has been in the development sector for the last 25 years. The Desai Foundation is currently working in eight states of India, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Rajasthan, and UP.
The foundation has a set of 30 programs and ASANI- menstrual equity and sanitary napkin program is one of the flagship programs. The Foundation’s main focus is empowering women and children through community programming to elevate health, livelihood, and menstrual equity.
Yati Desai, Director of Advanced and special programs at The Desai Foundation, Desai Foundation Trust comes armed with a master’s degree in pharmacy with seven years of industry experience. She followed her passion and chose to step into the development sector. “Desai Foundation’s goal to impact more than 1.5 million women with menstrual health and hygiene inspired me and I decided to join the organization to forward its cause seven years ago,” she says.
In February this year, Secretary Clinton’s India tour included her visiting Palaj village in Gujrat’s Gandhinagar District. She met the Desai Foundation’s Heroes for Humanity Heroes. She also visited the Desai Foundation’s flagship Asani Sanitary Napkin Program by observing one of the rural Menstrual Health & Hygiene awareness sessions and engaging with the Asani Rural Saleswomen (sangini).
The Women Entrepreneur India team had the opportunity to speak to Yati Desai, Director of Advanced and special programs at The Desai Foundation, at Desai Foundation Trust to know more about the Asani project. Here are choice excerpts from the conversation.
Rachita Sharma: Speaking of Indian women’s menstrual health, there still exist various taboos and myths around menstrual health and menstrual hygiene. People also find these conversations uncomfortable. As someone who works in this field extensively, how do you think this taboo is associated with conversations about menstruation, and how do you think it impacts the lives of young Indian women?
Yati Desai: There still exist a host of myths and taboos that we are all too familiar with. We are also aware that owing to the taboo nature of menstruation, thousands of young Indian girls are affected. Girls have to drop out of school, they lack basic awareness about menstrual hygiene, girls are also unable to have access to menstrual hygiene products, etc.
While these larger problems do exist, women have to face several micro-aggressions and challenges due to taboos. Recently, former US Secretary, Hillary Clinton visited the ASANI program. During one of the live awareness sessions about myths and taboos prevalent in participants’ lives, one of the beneficiaries mentioned something bizarre; some people believe that if a menstruating girl comes across a snake, the reptile goes blind.
There are other common myths and practices such as keeping menstruating women out of the kitchen, worship areas, etc. in some places menstruating girls aren’t allowed to touch drinking water. So, there are several myths and taboos in Indian communities that differ based on the region, however, they exist everywhere.
These taboos and practices create a significant impact on young women in India because it creates a sense of shame, silence, and secrecy around menstruation. This in turn leads to various negative consequences. I believe the lack of conversation and information leads to a lack of awareness. And because of the lack of awareness, one cannot know more about one’s body, hygiene practices to be followed during menstruation, etc.
secondly, the silence and stigma around menstruation contribute to a sense of embarrassment, which means one avoids speaking about it openly. You cannot seek help whenever you want or you face any challenge regarding menstruation. I believe these taboos and myths must stop since it restricts the empowerment of young Indian woman.
Rachita Sharma: The Asani program talks about menstrual equity, a term that has entered common discourse lately. Can you explain to us what's the concept of menstrual equity and how vast or how expansive you think this problem or this challenge is in the Indian context?
Yati Desai: Menstrual equity means that all individuals who menstruate have a right to access information, menstrual hygiene products, and everything else that they require to manage periods with dignity and protection.
Menstrual equity recognizes that menstruation is a natural and essential part of many individuals’ lives. It is a commonly occurring phenomenon that nearly half of the world’s population experiences during their lives. So why should we feel shame about it? According to me, Menstrual equity entails unrestricted access and the full realization of rights for individuals to avail everything they need.
By promoting menstrual equity, the Asani sanitary napkin program works towards ending period poverty. Menstrual equity is the route to ending period poverty.
Rachita Sharma: Introduce us to the Asani Sanitary Napkin program. What sort of an impact does the program aim to bring about in the lives of participants?
Yati Desai: The Asani Program is a comprehensive menstrual equity program which is designed by women for woman. So, the whole project is about woman. Our aim with this project is to empower woman through improving health and livelihood. Through our integrated approach, we not only create accessibility and affordability for menstrual products but also improve health and livelihood opportunities through the Asani project.
Under the project, we produce high-quality, low-cost sanitary napkins with the help of machines. These machines are run solely by woman and taking a step further, sanitary napkins are sold and distributed by woman only at the rural level.
Currently, we have a three thousand-plus active women workforce working on distribution. We call them ‘sangini’ (companions). These women and our distribution model break all barriers related to accessibility and affordability. At the same time, women take control of their health and livelihood. So, this is a unique model and we are proud of it.
Rachita Sharma: How does your team go about creating awareness and spreading education among the target group of the program?
Yati Desai: We work towards awareness in multiple ways. The direct approach is through awareness sessions at schools, colleges, and communities directly. The second approach is arranging gynecology camps where doctors address the community about the right practices, rights, etc. The message given by these talks is that prevention is better than cure. Women get to learn things they have to keep in mind while menstruating and managing their period with dignity.
We also run mass media campaigns such as social campaigns where we invite influencers to talk about menstruation. This normalizes conversations around periods.
Rachita Sharma: Stigma and shame make it hard for young individuals to have open conversations about women’s health and hygiene. How do you work around these challenges to remove the stigma attached to such conversations?
Yati Desai: During our community awareness sessions, we try to break all the taboos and myths surrounding menstruation. We provide proper justifications and scientific explanations to help women learn and understand more about periods.
We also believe that every woman has the right to select whatever means or whatever medium she wants to manage her period. So, during our awareness session, we allow and give exposure to every available means to manage her period. The only condition is she should know how to use the menstrual hygiene product and its correct disposal. We talk about cloth pads, tampons, and menstrual cups as well.
During our awareness sessions, we target all generations of women together in community sessions. Mother-daughter, sister-sister, and sister-aunty can come together for the awareness session. This approach helps them to have open conversations about menstruation with their family member as well as in their community. This is how we try to break all the stigmas around menstruation.
Rachita Sharma: Tell us about how the program includes the local communities in the initiative. How does this manifest in the overall impact created by the Asani Program?
Yati Desai: As you know we are community developers and work for the community. So, community involvement is a must. Based on our experience, we know the value of involvement of the community in any initiative because we work closely with community leaders, local organizations, health workers, and volunteers from within the community.
This ensures the reach and impact of the program because they know and understand the actual needs and challenges faced by menstruators. And based on the need, challenges, and knowledge of that challenge, we can design the program in a way that creates more impact.
Our program is designed in a way that provides livelihood opportunities as well. So that opportunity itself warrants the involvement of the women from the community in the production, distribution activity. So, we truly believe in involving the community in our program.
Rachita Sharma: Can you tell me what impact the program has created on a larger scale so far and if you can help me with certain numbers in terms of that impact?
Yati Desai: Currently, we have 5 production Units in 3 different states till now we have produced more than 5 million sanitary napkins, and more than 3 thousand women are actively working and getting livelihood through these projects. We have done more than 11 thousand awareness campaigns that have impacted 5.5 lakh women and girls directly. Through gynac camps and mass media, those numbers are even more. So, these are the overall impact of the Asani.
Rachita Sharma: What is next for the Asani program or how do you intend to take the program forward so that can impact even more people in India?
Yati Desai: We want to expand Asani and we want to move forward to all those areas needed. We want to end period poverty through our awareness programs. These are our long-term goals with Asani.
We also believe that when we keep girls in schools and women in workplaces, we break all the stereotypes about menstruation and create a dignified life for women. We can also definitely increase the GDP of India by providing more educational facilities and also giving more livelihood. That is our ultimate aim for the future.
We are not entrepreneurs but we use the entrepreneur’s spirit and principles in our Asani project to create more impact. We believe in innovation, experimentation, and achieving fast results just like an entrepreneur.
(To watch the video interview follow the link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D4lsej5fck4&t=1075s)