New Delhi: May 28 is marked as Menstrual Hygiene Day around the world. This year, the day will be marked with the theme ‘Making menstruation a normal fact of life by 2030’. To celebrate the day, team Banega Swasth India speaks exclusively with Navya Naveli Nanda, Founder, Project Naveli and Co-Founder Aara Health about why we must care for and invest in women’s health. Navya Naveli Nanda’s Project Naveli is an initiative to fight the issue of gender inequality in our country, India. The four areas in which Project Naveli will fight gender inequality are Education, Domestic Violence, Economic Independence, and Mental and Physical health.
Her second project Aara Health is a women’s health platform aiming to build awareness and services around feminine health in India. Here’s what she discussed:
NDTV: Menstruation is still a taboo in our country. How do you think we can normlaise this conversation and why do you think in our culture we don’t talk about period or the way we talk about periods, it’s a stigma or shame?
Navya Naveli Nanda: Thank you for having me here today. I just wanna really say how grateful I am and impressed by how you and NDTV are actually taking that opportunity to have these uncomfortable conversations. I think that in itself is the answer. The more responsible citizens like the two of us and organisations that we work for come forward and actually make these conversations available on platforms like NDTV, I think that itself is a great step forward. I really appreciate you doing that.
To answer your question, obviously, menstruation has been a topic that we have shied away from for a very very long time. And maybe we don’t feel it as much; we have grown up and have been privileged enough to grow up in an environment that has allowed us to have these conversations a lot easier but it’s not the same for a lot of people out there. I think I was fortunate enough to grow up in a home and surrounded by a family that was very open with me about it from the beginning and I really hope that I can come out and create that kind of an environment for every other girl in India today. To normalise it, definitely, the first step would be, I personally believe that change begins at home. There is so much we can do as a society, as organisation, and as entrepreneurs but I think that change always begins at home. What we pick up from our household is what we carry forward with us for the rest of our lives and it also has a really big impact on the attitude that we carry forward, and the things that we believe in. I would say that it starts there. It starts in being comfortable enough to have these conversations about menstruation at home with your mothers, your grandmothers but also with your fathers and men in your lives. The normalisation of it will not only happen if women are confident enough to talk about it but it’s also when men are more sensitive and empathetic towards these conversations. It begins at home, at the dining table, in the living room, when you get your first period, when you are not feeling your best when you are on your period, being open about it. That trickles down then into the society, into the different roles that we play in our lives – whether it’s at school, or at work – I think it automatically has an impact in those different areas that we go into.
NDTV: You have been working on menstruation for a couple of years now and then you started Project Naveli. How did you think of a topic like that? What really motivated you?
Navya Naveli Nanda: I think that I have always wanted to do something for women because I have been honestly very very privileged in everything that I have gotten in life. I sometimes look at my life and say that you know, I get to do what I love doing, every day. I have a beautiful family. I have honestly been given everything that I have ever wanted and sadly, that is not the situation and status for a lot of people in India, not just women. But I felt that with the resources that I have, with the platform and the opportunities that I have been given, it actually makes me more responsible to take that forward and use it in a very positive manner, in a responsible manner and to give it back. It’s about sharing.
NDTV: You also started Aara Health which is again women-centric. Tell us about the platform.
Navya Naveli Nanda: Aara Health was something I started two years ago during the pandemic and it’s a women’s healthcare platform in India. We actually began this because we realised that even though we come from very privileged settings in India, it has still been difficult for us to get access to women’s healthcare and information about feminine hygiene which is also a topic that we shy from. Whether it is menopause or sexual health, these are things that women experience every day and yet we still have this inaccessibility to them. So, we wanted to create a platform for women, by women that allowed our audience to come on, and get access in a very transparent and more importantly, a judgment-free manner. We also have our e-commerce platform through which we will be developing more products for women’s wellness and hygiene. Our goal is to really be a best friend to women and a platform where you can come with any and every question, a place where you can come and talk to us about your body without feeling judged, without feeling stigmatised about anything. We want to be a trustworthy friend that can help you through every stage of your life. And that’s really what Aara means to me and everybody else who is a part of the community today. I think that’s our goal. We will keep working towards that.
NDTV: When we talk about access to menstrual products, again, it’s a huge challenge in our country. You have also spoken about, it’s your dream to make period products free in the country. Unfortunately, period poverty is a huge issue in our country. How do you think as individuals or through government schemes we can break through this?
Navya Naveli Nanda: When we talk about period poverty, the first thing that people think is that it’s the inaccessibility to products but it’s actually also the inaccessibility to information and that’s something which we don’t often realise. It’s a dream of mine to make period products free for all women in India because I feel a sanitary pad is almost like a human right. It’s something that we didn’t choose biologically but it’s something that all women experience and should have access to sanitary pads, it’s a right. A way in which we can do that is through education, if we integrate menstrual hygiene education and awareness formally in our education system. I don’t think growing up in schools we ever had conversations, classes or courses about sexual health and menstruation. It’s important for kids of that age to understand it because a lot of girls actually drop out of schools or aren’t able to go to school because of their periods. If these things are taught to us in a formal education system, I think that goes a long way. With the inaccessibility to products, I think definitely making it more available to women. I know that there are a lot of rural areas where they are not able to access sanitary pads. We, personally, through Aara Health have done a lot of sanitary pad drives where we have gone out and given sanitary pads to those who were not able to access them during Covid. Things like that would definitely help and lastly when we talk about menstruation, we also miss out the entire environmental piece of it which is the disposal of sanitary pads, it’s actually very harmful for the environment. Having sanitary pads disposal units that can safely and in an eco-friendly manner dispose sanitary products and education and awareness about it is equally important also. Though it’s a biological process, we need to play our part in protecting the environment and be responsible for that.
NDTV: In Assam, Maa Kamakhya temple celebrates menstruation whereas, in some part of our country, unfortunately, women are banned from entering temples. You have worked in rural Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli with the Period Homes. Tell us about that and what differences you see between rural and urban India.
Navya Naveli Nanda: Some of the issues we see happening in rural India do still exist in a lot of urban cities and metros as well. It’s not that you just find that in rural areas but I think, yes, it’s a little bit more different in rural areas like the Gadchiroli project that you are talking about that was based on a custom. These are the things that we carry forward as rituals or as things that we practice. This particular custom was something that they had been practicing for over 30 years so it’s difficult to go in there and change a mindset overnight. It is something that happens slowly and it begins with education and awareness. How we can play part is that we live in open areas and we want to change the world but we end up reaching out to only 10 or 20 people in our immediate bubble. It’s our responsibility to take what we have in terms of resources and learnings and go into the areas we wouldn’t necessary meet people like yourself or myself and share our knowledge and experiences with them. It does rely on us actually having to go out of our comfort zones, going into those areas, and sharing what we have. That’s why there is that disconnect.
NDTV: You did say, awareness starts at an early age and at home. How important is it that the men and boys are involved in handling menstruation?
Navya Naveli Nanda: It’s extremely important. I think not just you know for menstruation but I think even when we talk about gender equality overall as a topic. I think it’s important because the young boys who will be the future fathers, leaders, CEOs, and teachers, are growing up at home and their role models are men in the house so, I think, it’s important to see the way men in the house talk to women in the house. Whether it’s about menstruation or their opinion on things, or women’s rights, I think that’s what they pick up and learn from their fathers, brothers, and uncles. It’s actually a big responsibility and a big role that they play in shaping a generation of men that will have A more positive attitude towards women and have more equal expectations of what they want in a society where both genders are equal.
NDTV: In the 21st century, when there is so much science and technology and advancement in all spheres of life, why are women still always put behind?
Navya Nanda Naveli: Yes, there has been a lot of development and there always will be – whether it’s in technology or policy or whatever that may be – but at the end of the day, it comes down to society and behaviour. Though infrastructure and technology might always change, our mindset is not something that always follows. It actually stays. I think it actually has not got anything to do with technology. It’s about the mindset. It’s about the behavior and I do see that changing with this generation that’s coming. I find a lot of young people are very vocal about what they want, their rights, and a lot of different things. I feel that the generation before us has started taking that a bit more seriously, started listening to us, hearing what we have to say because they have realised that we may be younger and we may not have life experience but we have ideas, thoughts and we are very determined about the kind of world that we live in. I think they are becoming more open to hearing us and listening to what we have to say, giving us a platform such as this to come and talk about it which I think is great. I think that’s what will allow us not just as women but as a society to move forward and be more broad-minded about a lot of things.
NDTV: This month the campaign Banega Swasth India is focusing on self care and you also work very closely with women. We see women prioritise everyone else before themselves. How important is self care?
Navya Nanda Naveli: It’s very important and we forget to do that a lot, especially in this world. I think we live in a very hyper-competitive world, there are so many things going on, you have to work, you have to have a social life, you have family commitments, and we often forget to take time out for ourselves and this is something that both my parents actually keep telling me is that it’s so important to have time for yourself. Take out time for self care because you can’t pour from an empty cup, you can’t help your family, you can’t change the world, and you can’t take care of your children if you are not healthy first. It’s the same logic as in a plane, when you have the oxygen mask, it comes down and they say, you have to put it on yourself before you put it on to anyone else. You can’t do what you have set out to do if you are not healthy and I don’t just mean physically healthy but mentally and emotionally healthy as well.
NDTV: Do you also feel menopause is something that we don’t speak about? Are we lacking the conversation on menopause?
Navya Nanda Naveli: Definitely, it has been so difficult for us to even talk about menstruation that I think, often, we forget that menopause is even something that women experience in their lives because it’s not talked about at all. We grow up in households where we see our mothers and grandmothers, going through that and I think it’s also a personal mistake that we make that we don’t try to understand what they are experiencing. We don’t ever ask them what this means and we don’t try to support them through that. We need to take that responsibility to educate ourselves. That’s something we have tried to do through Aara is to have a conversation about menopause because the conversation around that topic is very limited. You don’t have a lot of medical information about it and I think not just for women but like I said, for sons to understand that this is the phase of their mother’s life that they will have to experience and as a family what can we do to help support women through that time. I see my mother experiencing that and she often talks to me about how she is unable to get a lot of information about it or how she feels about that. That’s also why I like to have these conversations through Aara because I see my mom at home and I want her to feel comfortable. I have tried to educate myself about it as much as I can but I would hope that other children and other husbands can also do the same so that they can actually help the women in the families through it.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.