Meet Meena Mehta from Surat who, along with her husband Atul, is making an extraordinary difference to the personal hygiene and health of underprivileged girls in the city. They distribute hygiene kits and sanitary napkins to girls in their neighbourhood and in schools. This is how they go about it.
“You should see the spark in their eyes. They always tell me – ‘Dadi, this is the best gift we have ever received.’ They are so thankful and happy. Many of them hug me and share their experiences from the time when they suddenly got their periods and our kits proved useful,” says 59-year-old Meena Mehta about the numerous girls who receive hygiene kits and sanitary napkins from her every month.
Each kit contains one packet of sanitary napkins, two sets of undergarments, one bar of soap, and four shampoo sachets. She distributes these free kits once every month in 22 municipal schools, one school for deaf and mute students, and one school for the blind — all located in a radius of 6km around her house.
Meena has been doing this work since July 16, 2012.
She says she was inspired by Sudha Murthy, a social worker and the chairperson of Infosys Foundation, who sent four trucks of sanitary napkins to Chennai as relief supplies in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
“I made up my mind then that whenever I do social work in life it will involve distributing sanitary napkins among less privileged girls,” says Meena.
Meena started by distributing the kits among five girls but is today working for more than 2,000 girls and women.
First, she took permission from the Surat Municipal Corporation to distribute sanitary napkins in municipal schools, where most of the girls come to study from the slums in the city.
“I also give sports bras to differently abled girls for whom it can be difficult to use hooks, etc. To small girls and boys in the age group of 4-11 years, I provide undergarments every two months. The aim is to teach them hygiene from the very beginning,” adds Meena.
Other than school children, she also distributes these kits to women in her neighbourhood — like housemaids, vegetable sellers, daughters of the building watchmen, etc.
Meena does not believe in just leaving the kits for the school teachers to distribute. She makes it a point to deliver them to each student herself.
And the rule is that absentees don’t get any. In this way, she has also been successful in improving the attendance rate in schools.
“Children come regularly because they know that I can visit on any day. They are always very neat and clean and have increased self-confidence. The number of dropouts every year has also reduced,” she explains.
The distribution of kits takes about 2-3 hours in each school because many girls are not aware of the sizes they will need for their undergarments. Meena helps them choose their sizes. The primary concern for her is that the girls should stay clean so they don’t catch any infections. She instructs the girls to wear undergarments whenever they come to school.
“I usually put all the undergarments on the table and ask the girls to choose the colours they want. They are always really excited about choosing their favourite colours. Once, a girl told me that she is not wearing her panties because she has only one piece. That increased my belief in the importance of this work.”
The entire exercise is self-funded by the couple and they utilise their life-long savings for this purpose.
They also get some donations from friends and family members. About Rs. 70,000 to 1 lakh is spent on purchasing the kits every month. Each kit costs Rs. 50-60.
Lately, Meena has created a sanitary napkins and undergarments bank that accepts contributions from people. Her only condition is that good quality napkins and new undergarments be given.
“Initially, the girls used to hesitate to take the pads from me because they were not sure they would get them every month. They were scared that if they got into the habit of using these sanitary napkins it would be a problem if they didn’t get them later on. But I assured them that I will be regular with the distribution,” says Meena, who makes sure the girls get extra kits before the beginning of every long vacation.
“My husband is my backbone. Without him, this would not have been possible at all. We have actually grown up together. We were friends since kindergarten. He gave me Rs.25,000 to start this venture without a thought. That gave me a lot of confidence,” says Meena. Both of them are educated till Class 10 and Atul was a businessman before he retired at the age of 45. Meena is a housewife and they have two children who help them with this work.
Meena says she thinks of the girls she helps as her own daughters — she wants to work for them as long as she can.
There are others who have been influenced by the couple as well. Some people in Mumbai got in touch with her asking how they could start doing something similar.
“I tell people that they can start with one or two schools. You can start with the lady who works at your house as well.”
Her message to women is to ‘adopt’ five girls each and provide them with sanitary napkins and hygiene education. Currently, she plans to reach a total of 50 schools herself.
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