Sanjana: Converting stigma into dignity
Sanjana strongly believes in a woman’s right to resources and education about her own health. Observing the huge lack of hygienic menstrual practices and awareness, Sanjana’s organization, RutuChakra, has a mission to celebrate and embrace womanhood. This is her story:
It was Sanjana Dixit’s sixteenth birthday. Per her family’s tradition, she celebrated by volunteering at ThayiMane, an orphanage in Bengaluru, India. While there, Sanjana excused herself to go to the restroom; upon entering it, she found that it was filthy and unkempt.
This observation led Sanjana to wonder how the girls of the orphanage were able to stay healthy in such poor conditions. “How do these children maintain their hygiene in a place that lacked adequate sanitation? How do they manage their menstruation?” she wondered.
After discussing what she saw with her parents, Sanjana decided to speak to the founder of the orphanage. She learned that while many people were donating books, clothing, and toys, no one would donate sanitary products like tampons or pads.
The majority of the orphanage’s funds went to administrative and educational costs, which left little room for healthcare products. Because of this shortfall, girls were forced to deal with their periods in whatever way they could, often resorting to using things like newspaper, leaves, or dirty clothing in place of menstrual products.
“That really struck a nerve!” exclaimed Sanjana about the lack of period supplies given to girls. “As a girl myself, I can’t imagine having my period without the right resources or information on how to manage them.”
In order to combat this problem, Sanjana launched RutuChakra. The purpose of this youth-led organization-- whose name means “menstrual cycle” in Sanskrit-- is to promote reproductive health and menstrual hygiene amongst all people with periods. To accomplish this goal, Sanjana decided to hold educational workshops to inform girls about their periods and debunk any misconceptions they may have about their health. Holding space for the conversation, Sanjana learned, was missing for most girls her age.
Sanjana conducted her first workshop with the support of a few of her family members. As she led more workshops, the team began to grow. Other young girls stepped up, asking to volunteer and play different roles in the venture. Soon, Sanjana was leading a team with several dozen young changemakers, all taking on their own activities and responsibilities for the movement.
The team realized that one workshop was educational, but not enough to change perspectives around such a historically stigmatized experience. The RutuChakra team decided to developed a model that offered a series of workshops, reinforcing the practices to change young girls’ behavior and mindset around menstruation.
However, it is not just girls that are welcome at these workshops; boys are also brought into the program to help fight the stigma and discomfort surrounding periods. A critical part of eliminating the stigma around periods, the team discussed, is ensuring sanitary products are accessible and affordable.
Together, girls and boys are combating period poverty, which is "the lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, hand washing facilities, and, or, waste management." The team began to distribute free period products to young girls and women in communities where regular access to these products to scarce. By normalizing and equalizing access to a safe and healthy period, the changemakers are not just running a social venture, they are leading a menstrual movement in their community.
Although RutuChakra has been successful, Sanjana recognizing the limitations of one organization, facing several obstacles throughout the launch. “The biggest challenge is definitely changing the societal narrative around menstruation, the irrational beliefs and the flawed belief system,” Sanjana stated.
She also experienced doubtfulness from others due to her age. Others often question her, dubious of her ability to create change because she is a teenager. Early in her journey, several adults would not take Sanjana seriously or offer her opportunities because they believed she was too young or inexperienced.
However, these setbacks did not stop Sanjana from continuing her journey. Although one organization cannot solve period poverty across India, changemakers can.
In just a few years, RutuChakra provided over one million menstrual products and reached over 7,000 people through their workshops as of 2020. Although the impact numbers are impressive, for the young changemakers, the movement is what matters – they are ensuring period dignity and pride.
Although RutuChakra blossomed into a thriving youth-led organization, it started out as an idea in the mind of a sixteen-year-old. When asked what advice she would give to young people itching to make change, Sanjana remarked that “if you feel strongly about a cause and you have an idea, take a step to turn that idea into a reality.”
While some goals may seem out of reach, Sanjana’s story shows us that even if a goal seems nearly impossible, all it takes is that first step to see what you are truly capable of.
Sometimes, it feels impossible to make impactful change as a young person. Many teens do not have the platform to enact the changes they feel are necessary in the world, but Sanjana’s ever changing path show us that age does not matter. No matter how young you are, all you need is an idea, determination, and a team to get started.
This story was written by Delaney Hammond and edited for length and clarity.