Success story: Local production for women, by women
Desai Foundation has partnered with Saral Designs for increasing access to high quality and affordable sanitary napkins using Swachh machines. As Desai Foundation is increasing its impact with more production units, we had a chat with Megha Desai, to understand more about their work and their approach which makes them successful.
Shivali: Can you please share about Desai Foundation and the legacy of work in empowering communities of Gujarat?
Megha: Our organisation, The Desai Foundation Trust started its journey by providing services to rural communities that had limited access to health resources, and a lack of training for economic opportunity. We have reached over 650,000 individuals with over 25 programs such as health and hygiene camps, menstrual health programs, vocational training programs, science and entrepreneurship, and more. We empower women and children through our community programs in rural areas of Gujarat since the late 90s. We have shifted from a small family foundation to a robust public one – which has allowed us to expand. This year we are expanding to Rajasthan and Maharashtra and are so thrilled to bring our work to so many more people!
The communities we work with have limited or no access to quality healthcare services, education system and livelihood opportunities. Our projects cultivate dignity for women and children so they can dream beyond their circumstances.
We believe that a holistic approach with long term sustainability in mind is ensured only when we work in collaboration with community members, stakeholders and local organisations. Therefore, for our projects we partner with local community- based organizations, hospitals and educational institutions such as Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar (IIT-GN). – where we connect students with opportunities for volunteering and giving back to their community.
Shivali: That’s very inspiring. What made you get into the menstrual hygiene space?
Megha: We had originally started out focused only on livelihood and health – but everytime we worked closely with a new community we noticed that women and girls were missing classes, or just missing all together. We witnessed girls were dropping out of schools because they had low/no access to quality sanitary napkin. We noticed women missing part of their vocational training because of periods. So we started asking more about menstruation and its culture. We gathered from these discussions that there are perennial cultural stigma surrounding menstruation that treated women and girls as an outcaste during their cycle. Most of the women and girls used dirty rags, wet soil or used cloth instead of pads as they didn’t feel comfortable buying expensive sanitary napkins from male run chemist shops. And even more astonishing, women attending our community meetings and focus group discussions informed us that they had no prior knowledge on menstruation before their first cycle!
We realized that the root of so much we wanted to change started with periods! So we began our journey to create awareness, education, production and most importantly to break the stigma and shame around periods.
Shivali: How did you find out about Saral Designs?
Megha: Initially we were using hand machines to produce pads. In our monthly evaluation, we found out that women didn’t feel comfortable using these pads because they weren’t of good quality and were uncomfortable. After thorough research, we discovered the semi-automated machine created by Saral Design.
We found the Saral team to be extremely professional, knowledgeable and supportive. They are very accessible to the production team on the ground.
Shivali: When did you decide to buy SWACHH? How has been your experience working with Saral team during and after installation of the machine?
Megha: We decided to buy SWACHH in 2017 to produce high quality sanitary napkins for our target communities in Gujarat. The Saral team has been wonderful to work with. Their focus on manufacturing a high quality machine has helped us with our focus on our area of expertise – effective awareness programming, highly organized distribution system, and now with the help of Saral a more productive production process! They have created a great system and a well thought out support mechanism for non-profits to support their machines.
Shivali: Having set up SWACHH, what has been the impact on employment and livelihood in the area of establishment?
Megha: Initially, we had 11 women working in our production unit and over 250 women working as distribution specialist. Our project resulted in economic empowerment of women in our target areas. Women are respected by their families and are more confident. We have also witnessed that girls continue with their education, even after they start with their menstruation. Today we are setting up more production units in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra to support women and girls in these communities.
Shivali: What has been the impact of setting up SWACHH on health and hygiene of women and girls?
Megha: We’ve seen so many effects. We have seen economic empowerment opportunities that allow women to work freely in jobs on their own terms. Communities are openly discussing menstruation and its hygiene management. Women are moving out of their homes to work in different sectors. Girls are continuing with their education even after they start with their periods. The most important impact that we have seen is that cultural stigma surrounding menstruation has changed. In some areas, we have even seen the behaviour of men change when it comes to periods!
Shivali: What are other projects that you are collaborating with Saral?
Megha: We are collaborating with Saral Designs as we are expanding our menstrual hygiene project to other regions in Rajasthan and Maharashtra. And we are excited about the long term and strong partnership we have with them.
Shivali: Do you have any message for NGOs/entrepreneurs interested in the menstrual hygiene space?
Megha: Saral Designs is a great company to invest/ contribute because of their objective to create production units that create a great number of high quality sanitary napkins. Access to sanitary products is concern in many communities in India to high price, shame, perennial customs etc. Saral Designs has created a machine that will help communities to produce low price pads that can be used by anyone from low income families. And we are happy to be one of the first organizations to partner with Saral.