According to Unicef data, 71 percent adolescent girls in India remain unaware of menstruation till menarche. Advaitesha Birla, the youngest daughter of industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla, was not one of them. Now 18 years old, the young girl is making strides to spread menstrual health and hygiene awareness through significant ways, in the hope to see India free of period shaming one fine day.
Advaitesha has just stepped out of school and is waiting to take flight into the more independent and competitive university world. She calls Ujaas, an initiative launched under the Aditya Birla Education Trust, her “first baby”.
“I’ve always been very passionate about women empowerment, and women’s health and menstrual hygiene are a very big part of it. Besides, it’s a part we don’t give enough attention to. I was reading an article about it, and the facts and stats really threw me off. Of course, I knew about the menstrual health landscape in India, but I just never knew how bad it was. That’s when I knew this is a space I really want to work in,” Advaitesha tells Health Shots in an interview.
The gap between the social media chatter around menstrual health or the ad world with new-age period products, and the horrors of the ground reality, can be mind-numbing. And it was “heartbreaking” for Advaitesha.
“When I started off and we began going to the field for awareness sessions, we learnt that because a lot of women don’t have access to sanitary pads, they resort to use of mud, leaves and anything that they can find. A lot of the myths that we thought were not so prevalent in today’s day and age, are very much still there in many parts of India,” she shares.
She was also privy to women who were asked to stay outside their homes, in a dark and dingy hut during their periods all by themselves.
“That goes to show that menstruation myths still exist, and we need to work very hard to break the taboos that come with menstrual health,” asserts Advaitesha, younger sister of singer Ananya Birla and cricketer Aryaman Birla.
In hindsight, she calls herself lucky for two reasons – for being pre-informed about the science behind periods at an appropriate age, and for having an environment that continues to support the right conversations about menstrual health.
“Being aware and educated about menstruation is so important,” adds Advaitesha, who is spearheading work across seven districts in Maharashtra through a three-pronged model of awareness, distribution and sustainability.
Awareness entails creation of age-appropriate, fun and interactive modules which educate people about menstruation. As part of the distribution vertical, Ujaas distributes free sanitary pads, and the sustainability wing is aimed at looking for different ways of sustainable interventions such as training women to make cloth pads or installing sanitary napkin vending machines.
There’s one project in the pipeline that she’s most proud of. “We are starting sessions with boys, and it’s a very important step in the right direction. Boys and men need menstrual health education too!”
On that note, we ask her about how period talks with her dad have been, and here’s what she says! “I don’t think there has ever been a time where I’ve felt embarrassed. There are many times when I am on my period, not having a great day and I can tell him easily without feeling ashamed or embarrassed. Conversations about it are very easy. I am very lucky.”
Watch Advaitesha Birla’s candid conversation on menstrual health awareness on Health Shots!
Awareness and normalizing conversations – these are the two cornerstones of working on creating an environment which is free of period shaming. And if you look carefully, it’s not even about the rural-urban divide when it comes to menstrual health.
“Even in my friends circle, people still feel very shy to talk about it. They can’t say ‘I’m on my period’. So yes, the stigma is still very prevalent today. The first step is creating awareness and then normalizing conversations around it, whether it’s at home or at the workplace. At the individual level, one has to be more accepting of it, and feel more open to talk about it in different scenarios, instead of feeling ashamed of it. The more we talk about it, we can break the stigma and taboo!”
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Apart from menstrual health, Advaitesha also has a soft corner for mental health issues – which her mother Neerja Birla also actively advocates.
As someone so young and aware of her calling, it was worth taking a piece of advice from Advaitesha for people her age.
She says, “Finding a cause you are passionate about and feeling close to is important. You shouldn’t be afraid of following a passion that may be good for the society. It’s not easy at all, but taking that jump is important. As long as it is in the right direction, you’ll always find your way through it!”
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