In India, a nationwide lockdown was announced in mid-March because of the pandemic. A lot of Myna Mahila’s regular activities had to be paused, but being based in the heart of the epidemic in some of Mumbai’s densest slums, we had a responsibility to provide relief to families there.
It’s very challenging for the government and most external organizations to support vulnerable populations in the slums, since diseases spread quickly in these hotspots. And now that they’re sealed off, with no travel allowed to or from them, it’s become very difficult to gain access.
So we created an eight-point plan to tackle COVID-19. We provide sanitary napkins and food and ration relief, reaching more than 8,000 girls and providing these essential food kits to more than 60,000 people (and counting). We have also repurposed our sanitary napkin manufacturing to produce face masks for people in the slums by empowering unemployed women at home to use their stitching machines. We’ve manufactured and distributed more than 7,500 face masks in less than a month.
Myna Mahila also launched a mobile health application for women that provides digital content about the disease and menstrual hygiene management — information they might not have access to otherwise.
I’ve been working in slum communities since I was 15 years old, with many of the same women who went on to help found our organization in 2015, so we’ve been able to do these activities and reach scale because we’d already established trust in the community. We had a simple goal of giving women agency and giving them a voice to talk about difficult subjects. We have conversations around menstrual hygiene, unemployment, sanitation, sexual assaults, domestic violence — all of the issues that hold women back here.
Growing up, I watched my father work hands-on with local communities. He provided relief programs to families affected by earthquakes and made social development policies with the government. My mother works with an organization providing scholarships to underprivileged girls to attend school. Seeing their dedication and passion had a profound impact on me, so working in the development sector was only natural — and immensely purposeful.
At Myna Mahila, when we first started educating college-age girls and boys about menstrual hygiene, it was shocking to hear how many of them have no idea that menstrual cycles are linked to pregnancy. They consider menstrual blood to be impure blood, and women are treated as polluted and dirty during their periods. There are many misconceptions and taboos around the subject.
Surprisingly, men have become huge advocates of our programs and are helping to break the taboo for girls around menstruation. We launched a program for brothers to give gifts to their sisters on Raksha Bandhan, which is a Hindu holiday celebrating the brother-sister bond. Brothers attended our menstrual hygiene workshop and were gifted menstrual management kits that they passed on to their sisters — including sanitary napkin packets, underwear, disposal bags, and more — while also vowing to protect and support them even during their period.
Since COVID-19 hit, we’ve expanded as an organization, hiring more people. Not because we have more money. We don’t. But because there’s such an alarming need for our support and reach in slum pockets. Our team is working now more than ever, selflessly supporting local communities in this time of need. It’s been heartwarming to see how everyone has stepped up to the challenge. We’ve never been closer to each other or to those we serve.
— Told to Steve Goldbloom