On May 28, 2019, World Menstrual Health Day, at the age of 16, Swara Patel started a youth-driven non-profit organisation called ‘The Period Society’ (TPS), an initiative of the registered charitable trust, Dr Shanti Patel Memorial Trust. TPS works towards ending menstrual taboo in India through education, distribution and advocacy.
Although Patel comes from a family of healthcare professionals, her parents, she said, believed in menstrual taboos. She reminisces the time when she got her first period – her mother simply handed her a pad along with a set of instructions to be followed for the next few days. There was no sort of menstrual education whatsoever, she said.
“I remember when I got my first period, my mom introduced me to a whole bunch of rules related to menstruation such as – ‘you can’t go to the temples during periods’, ‘ do not touch other people while on your period’, ‘period blood makes you dirty’ and many more,” said Patel.
Moreover, while volunteering at a paediatric oncology ward in Mumbai, she learnt about period poverty. Patel came across a woman on her period who had to go around the city for her son’s chemotherapy without a sanitary napkin – all because she couldn’t afford to purchase one.
“On researching more about period poverty I learnt that there are thousands of people across the country who can’t afford sanitary napkins and resort to using harmful alternatives ranging from leaves to mud, polythene bags, unhygienic cloth etc. I also learnt that till 2018, sanitary pads and tampons were considered as luxury items and were taxed at 12% under India’s Goods and Services Tax (GST),” she added.
The lack of menstrual health education, awareness, healthy conversations about periods, prevailing myths and taboos and inappropriate period laws were some of the motivating factors for Patel to launch TPS.
According to Patel, their team of more than 300 people across India conduct live sessions with menstrual health and sex educators who educate people on menstruation. They also regularly hold free-of-cost webinars to impart menstrual knowledge. In addition, they have chapters (branches) all across India under which they set up pad distribution camps and conduct menstrual health education sessions to explain the novel biological process behind periods and challenge the myths and taboos associated with it.
They also advocate for sustainable menstruation which means people having access to a stable water supply along with biodegradable and affordable sanitary products such as reusable cloth pads, menstrual cups that have minimum or no impact on the environment.
The Period Society started off in Mumbai and now has over 30 chapters across the country and multiple global chapters in Singapore, Dubai, UK and the USA. According to Patel, their ‘chapter program’ primarily includes pad distribution camps wherein they distribute sustainable and eco-friendly sanitary products; setting up fundraisers and conducting educational sessions.
As an organisation, she added, TPS through its various chapters has catered to over 400,000 periods so far. With the help of doctor (OBGYN) verified content, they educate every menstruator on menstrual health management.
Anyone can begin a chapter in their area, she said, and in order to do so, they can approach TPS who guide them with their educational modules and help them set up fundraisers and train them in the kind of work TPS does in general. “It’s basically just young people coming together and using TPS as a platform to change menstrual equity in their surrounding communities.”
Under one of their chapters, they gave menstrual health education sessions along with free sanitary pads to the sex workers of Kamathipura with the help of an NGO called Apne Aap Women’s Collective (AAWC). “In addition to setting up a fundraiser to help the sex workers, we even shipped free disposable pads to AAWC to deliver them to the sex workers during the pandemic in order to help them as much as we can,” said Patel.
‘Periods don’t stop for pandemics’
Covid-19 has severely impacted menstruators across the country, so through virtual educational sessions and distributing sanitary products, TPS has been working towards covid relief for menstruating communities during the pandemic.
“We couldn’t set up on-ground pad distribution camps or give on-ground educational sessions. So, since March 2020, they have turned to social media and the internet to give virtual educational sessions for the time being,” said Patel. However, she added, there is a lot of technological equity across the country due to which they haven’t been able to reach out to more people. So, they usually leave it to their NGO partners to educate people on the subject. Similarly, for sanitary pad distribution, they have been shipping them to their NGO partners in the area who further distribute them to menstruators.
According to Patel, they have also been raising funds since March 2020 and creating kits with menstrual products to help the severely impacted have access to period products and menstrual education in these times of distress.
“One of the fundraisers was for a school with children with developmental disabilities, another one was for the sex workers, and we are also planning to partner with an NGO to help people in Kutch, Bihar and Bengal who have been deprived of their homes during the pandemic or the migrant workers get access to free period products,” she said.
She added that they are planning to collaborate with an organisation that works for the transgender community to provide them with period products and educating them on menstrual hygiene.
“A lot of people think that only women menstruate, but that’s not true as a lot of people across the spectrum including trans people, non-binary individuals, and people of other gender identities menstruate. So, we try and stay as gender-inclusive as possible and try to normalise menstruation beyond the binary,” says Patel.
They have received an overwhelming response from both menstruators and others and their work has been supported by Shaira Ahmed Khan, Aranya Johar, Helly Shah, Varun Inamdar, Nadia Jagessar, Rohan Joshi, Akansha Vora, Harshul Dhingra, Dr Tanaya Narendra and many others.
“This could take a lifetime worth of work but I really wish that one day the huge government organisations recognise the period products as a basic need and make them free of cost so that there is no need for the NGOs to fill in this gap that ideally shouldn’t exist. As no one menstruates by choice. In addition, I wish that our country is free from the stigmas surrounding not just menstrual but also sexual and reproductive health. Besides, conversations about menstruation become more gender-inclusive,” said Patel.
Featured image: Pad distribution camp set up by TPS at Dahisar, Mumbai.
All images are provided by Anisha Bhatia, Head of Communications at The Period Society.