Ujaas means light, and for Advaitesha Birla, the meaning of the word is more deep-rooted than that. It goes on to mean providing the light of knowledge for a sustainable change. As the founder of Ujaas – an initiative by the Aditya Birla Education Trust, Birla hopes to reach as many women and girls she can to empower them with knowledge and resources on menstruation. Ujaas, launched on World Human Rights Day, December 10, 2021, is a social endeavour working on deep-rooted problems, stigmas, taboos and challenges associated with menstruation.
As a person who has always been passionate about helping others, Birla knew she wanted to keep up with the ethos across generations of her family – giving back to society. “I’ve grown up seeing the implementation of these projects at closer quarters, and the impact they’ve had on the lives of one’s fellow human beings,” she says. Inspired by her mother – Neerja Birla’s – work, she took the plunge into social entrepreneurship with Ujaas.
Focusing on sustainable change, Ujaas aims to start with setting up vending machines to ensure easy access to sanitary napkins. “We’re also training groups of girls who can take the training forward and be ambassadors for change in their own communities,” Birla informs. So far, the project has reached over 7,000 beneficiaries and has distributed over two lakh sanitary napkins.
The youngster who prefers having some quiet time to reflect on the things happening in her life, knows that this is one initiative that is bringing eye-opening instances as well as oodles of work satisfaction. And while she is not thinking of work, she enjoys playing with her dogs, being grateful for the amount of joy they bring to her day. In between it all, she finds the time to paint, dance and of course, watch content on OTT platforms to unwind! Over to her.
What made you think on the lines of launching something to remove the taboos on menstruation?
It started with my observations over the years, of the experiences that girls around me were going through. Even in urban educated families, many girls have to deal with stigma, misconceptions and outdated attitudes towards menstrual health and hygiene. In rural pockets, the lack of access to regular menstrual health awareness and hygiene management has a direct impact on the quality of life. Millions drop out of school when they start menstruating and a lot develop health issues. The taboos and misinformation around the topic eventually hold them back from higher education and better opportunities. I thought I could make a difference by spreading awareness and enable these girls and women empower themselves.
How do you plan on doing this on the field, at the grassroots level?
We’re focusing on launching our campaigns and interventions in 16 villages and 13 tribal padas in four districts of Maharashtra – Thane, Amravati, Gadchiroli and Ahmednagar. We’re collaborating with grassroots level organisations to implement our project and offer workshops.
These efforts are focused around three verticals – creating awareness, ensuring distribution of menstrual hygiene products, and identifying and promoting sustainable measures to make menstrual hygiene a routine. We’re also working with schools in the area to offer workshops to students so that we can provide age-appropriate information and guidance to adolescent girls and boys.
Considering you are battling years of ingrained thought processes in both men and women who believe that they deserve to be treated (or have to behave) a certain way during ‘those days’ what is your approach going to be?
Even in the most progressive circles, girls still encounter various forms of stigma. These are very deeply ingrained ideas that have been passed down across generations. They have become internalised to a point where girls spend their entire lives believing that a natural bodily process is something ‘impure’ or something to be ashamed of. Creating generational change is certainly a tall order, but I believe that with consistent effort we will be able to effect a change. I’m aware that the change won’t happen overnight. Even though it may be incremental, it’s already making a big difference in the lives of the girls and women we’re engaging with. Hopefully, with each coming generation, we’ll be able to see the stigma and misconceptions reducing exponentially.
Can you share with us an instance or two from your field research that deeply impacted you?
One of the most heartening things is seeing the transformation in the girls and women who attend the sessions. Initially, the girls were very reserved, but as they begin to trust that they are in a safe space, they open up to the trainers and ask questions. For most, these sessions would be the first time where they could open up about these topics and receive support. In one session, a few women specifically asked if they could also have a gynaecologist present so they could get help for specific concerns.
Many of us believe that the solutions to these issues lie in education. Is there a plan there?
At the heart of all our efforts is a belief that education can truly be a tool to change the world. A recent study showed that 50 per cent of girls have no idea about menstruation until they get their first period. Being unprepared or not having proper information and hygiene practices makes these adolescents vulnerable. Currently, we’re working with around 75 schools to provide age-appropriate, interactive sessions to students from grades 8 to 10. These sessions include both girls and boys, which is very important as it helps normalise and de-mystify menstruation, and the female anatomy.
Can you share a few examples of change during your initial work in the Gadchiroli, Amravati, Sangli and Ahmednagar districts of Maharashtra?
There is something from our early sessions that went on to influence the overall strategy of Ujaas. We came across a lot of girls who shared that their families are against the idea of attending such menstrual health workshops, and especially against using sanitary napkins. The reason behind this turned out to be the non-existent sanitation infrastructure in these communities that did not have any facilities for the disposal of sanitary napkins. In other cases, girls faced issues in having access to affordable sanitary napkins in their communities which were quite remote. These instances bring to light how multiple factors (lack of awareness, infrastructure, and social support) intertwine to create a situation that takes such a toll on the health and quality of life of millions of girls and women in India. Today, keeping this in mind, we work across three verticals – awareness, distribution and sustainability.
What kinds of long-term change do you envision for the future with Ujaas?
We hope to expand our footprint to under-served communities in every part of India. Ultimately, we want to reach out to as many people as possible, till every girl and woman can have the basic right to a safe, comfortable and dignified experience with menstrual health. To achieve this, we endeavour to create a generational shift in mind-set across our society – replacing outdated attitudes, taboos and practices with safe and scientific ones.
All images courtesy: Ujaas
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