This is a guest blog post by student Ritika Dey, volunteer and entrepreneur with Aarogya menstrual health project in Delhi.
When I signed up to volunteer with Connecting Dreams Foundation, I had no idea what I was getting myself in to. I am a student studying Economics in a college in Delhi, and up to that point in my life I had ridden through life quite easily, without many existential crises. I had never been confronted by the realities that the “other half” of Indian society has to face, even the people right on my doorstep here in the city.
I had always been interested in social entrepreneurship. Through Connecting Dreams Foundation my fellow students and I felt empowered to help solve problems in our own communities. They offered us support at every step of the way, through workshops on collecting challenges from communities, brainstorming ideas to address those challenges, and implementing these solutions on the ground.
After our interaction with the community and understanding their challenges, we identified menstrual hygiene as one of the key challenges in the urban slum areas of Delhi, and initiated a project called “Aarogya”. After some research and development on the issue and more interactions with community members, I found out about menstrual hygiene conditions in the urban slums of India.
It is estimated that about 43 percent women in India do not have access to sanitary napkins. Several women, who cannot afford these pads, opt for handmade cloth pads, that are often unsanitary and lead to several health-related issues. On an average, 120 million menstruating adolescents in India experience menstrual dysfunctions, affecting their daily chores. Nearly 60,000 cases of cervical cancer deaths are reported every year from India, two-third of which are due to poor menstrual hygiene.
I was always aware that these issues existed, but through interacting directly with communities, I gained a broader perspective of the challenges faced by community members. I started to see that providing solutions for these problems was not going to be easy. All the fours barriers that we learn about in entrepreneurship classes were there: availability, accessibility, affordability and acceptability. To counter them, Aarogya not only raised awareness about menstruation and menstrual hygiene-related issues, but also collaborated with several women from within the community to procure low-cost sanitary pads.
To make the change sustainable and embedded in the community, my colleagues and I first had to find ways of building trust among the community members. At first we decided to engage and work with a few women in the community. Aarogya designed a system where those women could sell sanitary napkins at a price 30-40 percent less than that of the market price. This made it affordable for the community members and empowered that group of women to become entrepreneurs. Then those women had the mammoth task of convincing other women in the community to participate in the initiative.
The work we did with the female entrepreneurs was probably the biggest reason for the success of the project – the fact that it didn’t rely on outsiders being present but community members who were already known and trusted. One of the women we worked with, Ayesha Di, said this to us: “Working for this project has given me an identity of my own. I am financially independent and people know me by my name and my work.” I am really proud of this aspect of the project, I think this is a true example of empowerment. Through my involvement in this initiative I have been able to transform myself from a believer into a changemaker, and enable others to do the same.
The pan-India lockdown imposed by the Indian Government to avoid the transfer of the deadly coronavirus brought about many additional challenges among various communities in the country. Marginalised women were made exceptionally vulnerable as many of them were in dire need of menstrual-related products. Aarogya ensured that no compromises were made, pandemic or no pandemic, and provided over 2000 sanitary pads to community women.
On reflection when I think about the power of domestic volunteering, I think it lies in the ability to be available in real time when a crisis occurs and in having an innate knowledge of the resources available and a robust knowledge of the culture. Having said that, I do believe that there is space for international volunteering to make changes as well. There are advantages such as cultural exchange and the cross-pollination of thoughts, viewpoints and approaches that are possible with international volunteering. These factors directly impact not only relations between countries but also helps us work together as ‘one’ and solve challenges that impact us all, such as climate change, poverty, COVID-19 and human trafficking. However, I really believe the sweet spot lies in domestic and international volunteers working together to address these issues.
The beauty of Connecting Dreams Foundation is that it does not provide communities with one-time resources, it inculcates within communities the ability to work towards solving their own challenges through unique models of entrepreneurship and build sustainable livelihoods for themselves with accessible solutions. They not only connect the dreams of the community members but also the dreams of youth changemakers like us, and help us develop our changemaking skills.
Ritika is an undergraduate student from the University of Delhi, Shri Ram College of Commerce. She is studying Economics Honours and is passionate about start-ups and social entrepreneurship. She has been volunteering for initiatives on social causes since she began her college journey. Now she is working on Aarogya – an initiative of her college chapter of Connecting Dreams Foundation – which looks at the challenges in the underprivileged women around menstruation. The main photo shows Ritika in the research phase of the project.