Mera PadBank is a non-profit organisation, which provides sanitary products to young underprivileged girls in Jaipur. They aim to expand their operations throughout the country and aim to educate these young girls about proper sanitation needs. We at MTTN, sat down with Ms. Poorvi Mittal, the founder of this NGO, to know more about her journey and her experiences.
MTTN: What influenced you to start this organisation, and who was your inspiration?
Poorvi: So, back in December 2017, the trailer of this movie called Pad Man came out. As soon as I saw it, I ran up to my mom and asked her to check it out because the trailer got me thinking, why hadn’t I given it a thought about how rural women or underprivileged women deal with periods? It’s not like periods only happen to the urban population, right. I did some research and found out a lot of disturbing things. So my mom suggested, you know, why don’t you head out and ask them on your own? Basically, get a first-hand experience of what happens, and that’s exactly what I ended up doing. Well, that is how all of this started.
So in all, my biggest inspiration has been my mom and Arunachalam Muruganantham, the man who inspired the movie, Pad Man.
MTTN: What was the most challenging part of creating an organisation like yours? What makes it different from similar organisations?
Poorvi: I think one of the most challenging aspects of creating this organisation was my inner conflict because I wasn’t very open and initially refused to talk about this in front of many people. Secondly, I was very young when I started it; I was only 17. It was almost three years ago. So that also posed a challenge.
In terms of what sets us apart, is that in the day, there were hardly any such organisations. In fact, Padbank initially got a lot of media attention because of its originality. But these days, I see many people take up this project in different parts of the country. And, that is honestly amazing. I really support all these organisations. People are talking about periods, and working towards eradicating period poverty, which is great. But I think the thing that sets us apart is that along with supporting women’s hygiene needs, we are also conscious of other external factors.
A lot of people don’t realise this, but the alternatives that women in rural India or urban slums use make them immobile. Be it menstrual huts, or old rags, or cloth. And due to this factor, many young girls end up missing 10-20 percent of their school days. This is one of the biggest reasons that girls drop out of school. Secondly, sanitary napkins are way more hygienic than other menstrual products. So we try distributing sanitary pads to girls through schools so that we also help them out in their education by making them more mobile, as well as helping them develop the right sanitary practices at a very early age.
In all, we focus more on providing these pads to young girls rather than older women.
MTTN: Who is the target audience from whom you expect to get support?
Poorvi: Apart from family and friends, we have a lot of support from women-run and women-centric organisations. There are many in Jaipur, and in other places like Mumbai, Gujarat, which have frequently been donating pads to us: from FICCI FLO to Project Udaan, just to name a few.
Secondly, our individual donors also support us a lot. I’m glad to say that a lot of donors are actually men and not just women, especially people from our generation. But if I had to answer this question in a line, it would be that we target those who know or see how difficult menstruating can be, especially from women in slums and rural areas. We seek support from people who genuinely want to help these women out.
MTTN: How do you think underprivileged girls have different experiences growing up, and in the case of periods, than us? Any specific examples you’ve come across?
Poorvi: Underprivileged girls do have a lot of different experiences— from monetary problems to lack of education. I am not too educated about these things to be commenting on them. But in terms of menstruation, one of the most glaring differences is obviously the difference in menstrual practices and the knowledge they have about menstruation. Talking in terms of the knowledge women have, women in the urban population are relatively better informed. Many schools conduct classes on sex education and educate girls about menstruation. Even if that’s not the case, most of us still go home, talk to our parents, or google things up. If not anything, the bare minimum we do know is the right menstrual practices. We do have basic knowledge through ads or television.
But girls in urban slums or rural villages, they don’t have access to this knowledge. They learn about these things from their mothers, who, in turn, have learnt from their own mothers. So, what happens is, this information is extremely outdated, and in most cases, incorrect. Now, even if a girl wants to practice good menstrual hygiene, she can’t because she doesn’t know what is right for her, how to go about it, and where to find this information from. They prefer not to talk about it, and that is where we differ. The lack of knowledge and money causes them to make such blunders.
I can share a few examples as well. So essentially, rural women use ashes, cloth, or menstrual huts, like pad alternatives, and we take them to be harmful. But in reality, a cloth can prove to be a better alternative than a sanitary pad if, if, that is very big if, used correctly. If you think about it, sanitary napkins have toxic chemicals that can cause a lot of problems. They put these chemicals to block odours. Pads aren’t biodegradable and take a very long time to decompose. However, if you wash your cloth, keep replacing it, it is excellent for the environment. It is good for your body because it is natural. But what happens is that these women don’t know how to use it correctly. If we give them the right education and tell them how to use it, they can do it on their own. If a woman is using a cloth, she keeps it on for hours and hours, when she has to replace it every three hours otherwise the bacteria would accumulate. Then next she washes it with water but not with soap. And then when they have to dry it, instead of putting it out in the sun, which can help get rid of the bacteria, they’ll put it under a saree or kurta because the rag can’t be seen in public. These are some of the major blunders that they end up making because they don’t know what is right for them, and, if you think about it, in today’s day and age, these women don’t even have that patch of sunlight to call their own.
Even people in urban slums, who are more educated than their rural counterparts, witness cases of domestic violence. The husband beats up the wife for buying or wasting the money on sanitary products. I have seen mothers-in-law encourage their daughters-in-law to use dirty old rags, which are used to clean the floor because buying pads is a waste of money. But the good part is that I have had many women come to me and say that we do know that this is wrong and we want what is best for our children now.
MTTN: Since your donation proceedings are offered to schools, your organisation’s functioning must have been affected as schools are not open. How are you operating in this situation? What are you doing differently in this pandemic to ensure that you still create an impact?
Poorvi: In the past few months, COVID-19 has affected everyone, including our organisation. For the first one, one and a half months, we had stopped donating sanitary products. That is when we realised that it was more important than ever to provide these supplies. People were losing their jobs; they had to migrate. If they didn’t have access to these essential products, it would significantly impact their lives. In fact, for a period of seven days, sanitary pads weren’t even counted as essential commodities by the government. They weren’t made available. This was just at the start of the lockdown. One of the schools had a staff member living on the property. We decided to distribute our sanitary products from that school.
Now what we do is every cycle, we donate sanitary products worth three months. We did this at the beginning of May, and then again in August. Of course, we mandated the use of masks and gloves, and we have also been providing everyone with soaps and sanitizers.
To ensure that our impact is created, we are not only focussing on young girls but we’re providing products to anyone who comes to us for help. We are providing pads to around 400 women, and proudly so. Apart from that, we have been approaching different organisations, which hold fundraisers and donate biodegradable sanitary products and asking them for donations.
MTTN: We heard your organisation got funding from Akshay Kumar. How has that worked out for Mera Padbank? Are you looking forward to more such fundings?
Poorvi: That was definitely one of the biggest fundings we have ever gotten, and it was an incredible milestone for us because Akshay Kumar’s movie is what inspired us to start Padbank in the first place. Over the years, we have used that money for several different causes.
Firstly, whenever a girl registers with us for the first time, we provide her with undergarments, soaps, and pads, essentially a mini menstruation care kit. We use money donated by Akshay Kumar to buy this. We keep replacing the undergarments and keep providing new ones frequently. Secondly, we have also been providing medical assistance in terms of money to women who have things like Cervical Cancer or PCOS, women who need medical attention. We recently sponsored a woman who had Cervical Cancer, but unfortunately, she passed away because it was in the later stages. But we tried providing her with all the medical assistance we could, in terms of her hospital bills, medical bills, things like that.
The last thing we do is to provide that money to organisations similar to ours or those working for different causes, such as the Assam Floods. We donated money over there. Over the years, we have been donating money in several different things and not just menstruation-related projects. There is a very close bond among NGOs; they support you a lot, no matter what the cause.
MTTN: Apart from menstruation’s physical effects, there are many psychological factors, such as PMS, etc. Do you think women in rural areas deal with them differently than us?
Poorvi: I have seen that it’s not just about rural women. Even urban women have to deal with a lot of things. For example, PMS is there. You hear men saying things like, “Oh! Are you PMSing? You’re getting so cranky today.” This is such an insensitive thing to say if you think of it. A woman might actually be going through a difficult time or mental health issues, which you blatantly ignore by calling it PMS.
Secondly, there are things like irregular periods, which tend to affect women a lot. If periods can affect urban women like this, imagine how the rural counterparts must be dealing with the situation. Not only do they have to deal with the primary effects of menstruation, but they also have to deal with things like family pressure, the surroundings, society as a whole. Like I mentioned before, women are either sent to menstrual huts or treated very differently when they’re on their periods. They are not allowed to go to the kitchen or the temple. They’re supposed to sit separately, and they are treated like they are very impure. In some parts of the country, women do not touch people when they are menstruating because people believe they might die young. All these things do take a toll on women’s mindset. They do not get the choice to not to go to work one day. They have to deal with insufficient and inefficient sanitary products, the health aspect, and societal pressure. They also don’t have people to talk to because they are not very open to talking about menstruation.
The first time I spoke to these women, they were all silent for almost half an hour. I kept asking them questions, and I was on the verge of tears because they weren’t talking to me. I didn’t know what to do. It took them a lot of time to open up. What ended up happening was, I was sitting in one corner, and they came to me one by one and started discussing their problems with me.
MTTN: You must know about the various up and coming sustainable sanitary products. Do you think such a breakthrough is something that affects your field of work? How long before underprivileged girls can be educated about these?
Poorvi: I have seen many of these biodegradable products such as biodegradable pads, period panties that are reusable, menstrual cups that are also reusable. I think both the health and environmental aspects of these are great. However, they are more expensive. People refuse to use menstrual cups and tampons, specifically here in India. There is a big stigma surrounding it, mostly due to the lack of education. To the urban population, reading this interview, I would strongly urge you guys to try them out. We are people who can afford these products, and we are people who can save the environment. We must try to do so. So, if you can afford these products, please go ahead and give these a try.
Our organisation does try donating biodegradable products more than the ordinary sanitary napkins. All the biodegradable products we get, we typically roll them out first, so that most of the women get those, and as and when needed, we roll out the other ones. But I think in terms of using period panties, or tampons, or menstrual cups, there is a very long way to go because these products require a lot of education and knowledge. In the urban population only, people refuse to use tampons. How do we expect the rural women to understand that these tampons aren’t going to take away their virginity? They don’t even know why they bleed. It’ll be tough for us to inculcate this change in them.
MTTN: How far have we, as a society, come along in terms of the de-stigmatisation of this issue?
Poorvi: If I compare us to the older generation, we do tend to open up more. Many many organisations are working towards the de-stigmatisation of menstruation. So, I’ll say that we have come a long way but there is still a long, long way to go. But if you think about it, I recently saw an advertisement, which showed red blood instead of the typical blue blood, featuring Radhika Apte. I have also seen highly popular social media pages talking about menstruation. In India, there are many organisations that do the same exact thing that I am doing, which is honestly something great. Even the government is providing sanitary napkins to women in the rural parts of India.
This is PCOS awareness month, right now. May is the menstrual hygiene awareness month. These are great initiatives taken to make us talk about it. The fight is very long; there is still a long way to go.
MTTN: What kind of moral and material support have you gotten from the males around you? You mentioned that you used to shy away from talking about something as essential as sanitary products. What changed in terms of confidence?
Poorvi: When I talk about older generations, I do not think that I have the support that I ideally seek, such as from family members and family friends. However, from our generation, my friends have cooperated wholeheartedly, obviously not all, but most. The ones that have, they frequently share about my NGO and donate to us. These are some things that I genuinely appreciate.
It is true, when I was younger, I refused to talk about my NGO. Now that I think of it, I feel bad that I acted that way. I used to send messages regarding the donation drives only to the girls in my class, we used to go to the corner of the class and they would donate pads to me. Over the years, I have learnt to talk about it more. I did not mention my organisation to any of my male friends for at least the first five to six months. Talking about it publicly has been very beneficial for us. Our organisation’s core principle is de-stigmatisation of the issue and affecting more girls in my sphere of contact, so I had to start talking about it eventually.
I realised that many women who came to me to discuss their problems faced issues from their husbands. They would say that their husbands prohibit them from using pads, but they want to do what’s right. They want their own daughters to use these products. That is when I realised if I am the one shying away from talking to men in the society, how can I tell these women to speak to their husbands? That would be hypocritical on my part. There are still many people who think it’s wrong to open up to men to talk about these issues, but I always try to talk to them and explain my point of view.
MTTN: What are the key indicators by which you measure your impact?
Poorvi: As of now, we have been providing pads to 400 women. Before the pandemic, it was 300. So, we have essentially created an impact on these women’s lives by providing them pads on a monthly basis. Over and above, we also focus on writing articles on menstruation and post such stuff on our social media. I believe that even if one person reads those articles, or even if one person donates to us and believes in us, that is enough for our organisation.
MTTN: To date, what has been the biggest challenge for your organisation?
Poorvi: Initially, the biggest challenge was talking about my organisation— getting myself to talk about it, and getting other people to talk about it. At that time, I was only 17. I was in a PCM class and was one of the three girls in it. So most of my friends were guys. But even when I mentioned it to my male friends, they were really awkward about it, they weren’t disgusted by it, but they were just like “Oh, okay.”
The second issue was that I was young at that time, and I am still very young to understand a lot of problems that women older than me go through. A lot of times, it gets difficult to sort out their problems. Women have come to me talking about domestic violence; they have come to me talking about monetary issues. I feel like I am not the right person to be sorting these issues out, especially at that time, I wasn’t. Now, obviously, I have learnt a lot. I think navigating through all these waters and understanding what is right, what is wrong was challenging.
MTTN: If someone wants to join your team, how can they do so?
Poorvi: If anyone wants to join my team, they are very much welcome to do so. Our volunteers are our biggest help and our biggest assets. If you want to join our team, you can approach us through our Instagram: @mera_padbank, or our Facebook page. You can always contact me; we have work; you’re always welcome to help out. Secondly, we’ll also be incorporating a feature on our website soon, through which volunteers will be able to apply, so it’ll be much easier.
My team is amazing. For the last three years, we have been connected to this NGO called Pratham Shiksha. They have been of utmost support; they are the ones who have provided us with a room where we can keep pads. Typically, when I am not available, they are the ones who conduct donation drives. Our concept is that women register with us, every month they come to us whenever they want, we give them the things they require and put a tick mark against their names. So, a lot of times when I am not there, whoever is there at Pratham Shiksha would cooperate and do this for us.
My team members, who have recently joined me, Suhani, Juhi, Swasti, and Rudrakshi, are of utmost help. We usually plan events together and write blogs.
MTTN: How can the people reading this interview help you and your organisation? What can we do to contribute to the de-stigmatisation of menstruation?
Poorvi: In terms of helping our organisation, we would really appreciate donations. Even if you tell people about us, that would be great. You can go to our website or our social media pages where we have provided an address and donate things like menstrual pads, sanitizers, undergarments, or soaps and bars via Amazon. We only accept donations in kind and not money.
The key to de-stigmatisation is education and knowledge. We need to keep educating ourselves. The world is constantly changing; every day, we find out new things. The next step is talking about it, sharing such things. If you see someone mentioning something that is incorrect, eventually, you’ll be able to give them the right information. Charity begins at home. You need to start talking to yourself about it and educate those around you.
Interviewed by Radhika Taneja for MTTN
Edited by Naintara Singh for MTTN
Featured Image by Tirthik Saha for MTTN