Suhani Jalota, 26, is the founder of the Myna Mahila Foundation (MMF). Established in 2015, the menstrual-hygiene company, based in Mumbai, India, has a three-pillar mission: to transform the lives of women living in Mumbai’s slum communities by employing them, improving their menstrual hygiene, and building women’s networks to discuss stigmatized topics and break down the fears associated with speaking out. Under its landmark doorstep-access program, MMF has already produced over 1 million eco-friendly sanitary pads and distributed them to over 550,000 women across various slum neighbourhoods in Mumbai.
“I was 15 when I met the women who really changed my life,” says Suhani. These women, with whom she continues to work with today, were from Dharvi, the largest slum in Asia. Suhani’s school was near the slum, so she began visiting with these women through school projects and realized that the amenities the slum offered were not enough to combat the hardships that women faced.
Suhani chose to learn more about the intersection between community development and health at Duke University in the USA. While there, not forgetting what she had seen in the Dharvi slum, Suhani created a sanitation council to construct public toilets through the Duke Engage program (funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation).
Suhani also connected with a group of women from an informal self-help group called Mahila Milan with a large presence in Mumbai. It was from these women that she came to understand the struggles they faced in their daily lives. “In many and most cases, women were doing a lot of the grunt work at home, no recognition for it, had no agency, no decision making behind it, and they constantly deprioritized themselves. Their health, their priorities were just not important. I had seen the themes time and time again,” explains Suhani.
“If you’re in India, and if you’re poor, this is what your life will look like. And the poor just accept it. I just couldn’t get that,” she says. Without safe spaces to discuss the issues impacting them, the women would go on accepting that this was their norm. Suhani saw how these women were being treated and wondered why more people were not speaking out, so she did something about it.
“I never intended to start an organization,” she says. In 2015, at the age of 20, Suhani was awarded a Melissa and Doug Entrepreneurship Fellowship by her university. Suhani was provided with $5,000, which she used to formally start the Myna Mahila Foundation. “Growing up I was constantly told to be silent and talk softer and slower,” says Suhani, “The women would tell me I was like the myna, a loud bird.” She adds, “All of us should be talking like the myna. It’s because we aren’t speaking up that we aren’t being heard.”
Pairing myna with mahila (the Hindi word for women), the foundation officially had its name. Myna Mahila would stand for women speaking up, perfectly reflecting Suhani’s vision for the future of these women who had previously only known how to be quiet.
Through the Melissa and Doug Entrepreneurship Fellow, Suhani received not only the financial means necessary to support her vision, but also essential guidance in starting a formal foundation. Suhani attributes a great deal of MMF’s success to having the trust of the communities it serves, and the support of Duke University’s networks. “Duke Global Health Institute really supported us. In fact, Duke has gone on to create a grant on menstrual health with UNICEF for four million dollars,” says Suhani.
However, it was not an easy path for MMF as the Foundation initially struggled to gain the trust of the communities. Suhani desperately wanted to prove that despite her young age, she had the capability of running a legitimate organization. “People find it very difficult to distinguish what are legitimate organizations and what are not, so the credibility boosts from institutions abroad is really helpful,” she says. Suhani worked hard to establish herself by taking every opportunity to speak about her cause, building outreach and connections.
Being in the United States during this period was beneficial, as “it forced the organization to build leadership on the ground,” she says. Suhani had conversations with the women in the slums who were seen as leaders, asking them what made them feel proud, important and heard. They said, “Something we make. So, if we cook food and are recognized for that, we feel proud of that.”
As a group, they began brainstorming on what kind of products they could make that would help women speak up. “Sanitary napkins were a unanimous decision as a project that will start conversations, were extremely needed, and connect women to other women in their communities,” says Suhani, “Agency could be harnessed through these pad products.” The production of menstrual and maternity pads would have exponential benefits by filling a pre-existing gap in healthcare, aid in starting conversations amongst women, and offer employment to provide financial stability.
With the trust of the communities she wanted to help, and the credibility from the support of Duke University and its network, Suhani was able to find a space in Mumbai where MMF could begin manufacturing both menstrual and maternity napkins.
Within a few months her idea became a reality. MMF began manufacturing the sanitary napkins in July of 2015, and by May 2016, over 1500 women had received these hygiene products from the factory. Not only did MMF fill a dangerous gap in women’s health in the slums of Mumbai, but it also provided many women with jobs in manufacturing and distribution.
One of the many reasons the MMF has been successful is due to the collaborative approach it takes. Mr. Jockin Arputhan, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee who continuously fought for the rights of the people of the Indian slums for over 40 years, was an important mentor to Suhani. “He was the biggest mentor. I mean he really taught me what it means to have this participatory approach,” says Suhani. She learned that an organization could not be founder-driven if it were to succeed, as Arputhan’s own organization had collapsed after his passing in 2018. Suhani has worked hard to build a strong team that can make decisions and survive without her. She says, “It’s not about me, it should never be about me.”
via: Instagram. Myna Mahila team.
Suhani encourages young people to get involved in making change but suggests they must go further than activism and gain much-needed technical skills. “Talent is hugely missing in the non-profit sector,” says Suhani, “That talent comes from young people with a lot of expertise and technical skills.”
Suhani has earned accolades for her ground-breaking work in women’s menstrual health. She was awarded the prestigious Queen’s Young Leader Award in 2017, and in 2018 was honoured with Forbes 30 Under 30 (Asia) Award.
The Foundation’s goals for the future are to reach two million women though its ‘doorstep’ method, focus on sexual reproductive health, nutrition, and overall health, and provide job opportunities for 1,000,000 women by 2025. MMF is working towards moving away from short-term, one-time donations and moving towards building long-term partnerships of three or four years. The Foundation also continues to use technology and data to develop a better understanding of delivering effective programs.
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