Through her social enterprise Red is the New Green, Mumbai-based Deane De Menezes aims to create a framework for sustainable menstrual hygiene management. The recipient of the Queen’s Young Leader Award and Forbes 30 Under 30 honouree, she speaks with
NT KURIOCITY about her work and journey
MARIA FERNANDES|NT KURIOCITY
Growing up in Mumbai, Deane De Menezes who has Goan roots was taught the importance of giving back to society early on. Since then she has made it her life mission to help in every which way she can. In 2019, she gave up her well-paid research analyst job at one of India’s top policy advisory and rating companies, to pursue her mission to break the taboo around menstruation in Mumbai.
How do unprivileged women deal with menstruation, was a question that set her on the path to making a difference in the lives of thousands of girls and women in the country. “My research made me realise that all women do not have the luxury of a sanitary napkin. Many still use cloth during their periods, they lack privacy, do not have a place to change and also dispose off their pads. And to top all this there is also the deep-rooted stigma around menstruation,” she states. Initially, the company that she was working for gave her Corporate Social Responsibility) CSR funds to work in the community but in 2016 she founded Red is the New Green (RING) which utilises education, menstrual product access, and waste disposal solutions to create an appropriate framework.
Her initial plan was to educate students across Mumbai and with the help of a few friends and colleagues she began conducting workshops to talk about menstruation, the importance of maintaining cleanliness, precautions to avoid infections, etc. The reception she received was far from welcoming as not everyone was open to the idea of discussing a topic that was so far taboo. “We were often turned away by the school administration themselves but we did not give up and kept at it. We knew it was going to be a tough task trying to convince them of the importance of the talks and finally we succeeded.”
The open dialogue about menstrual health that she encouraged among students through her awareness sessions was the start to a campaign that has today reached far and wide. “Even though menstruation is such a normal and a healthy part of our life, menstruators in India go through extreme struggles to manage their period every month. Menstruation is still looked at in a negative light by a large section of the population and many still believe that menstruation is a curse, it is something impure, dirty, not to be discussed openly,” she shares.
She also highlights the lack of knowledge girls still have about menstruation and adds: “In a 2016 study involving nearly 100,000 girls in India, it was found that almost half of the girls did not know about menstruation until the first time they got their period. As high as 23 million girls in India drop out of school annually, because of lack of menstrual hygiene management facilities like availability of clean toilets with water and lack of availability of sanitary napkins.” Unhygienic period health and disposal practices, she stresses, can have major consequences on the health of women giving rise to diseases like cervical cancer, reproductive tract infections, hepatitis B infection, various types of yeast infections, and urinary tract infections.
Apart from discussing myths and fears associated with menstruation and creating awareness about safe menstrual hygiene practices, she and her team of six are also reaching out to underprivileged women by making affordable menstrual hygiene products accessible to them, by creating and broadcasting information on sustainable alternatives and solutions. Her collaboration with Hindustan Life Care and a few donors has helped set up sanitary pad vending machines and incinerators in 50 schools. “The vending machines ensured immediate access to pads and the incinerators put an end to open disposal by burning used pads and converting them to residual ash. These benefits not only infused a sense of confidence among school-going girls, but also reduced dropout rates to a considerable extent,” she says.
In the recent pandemic, Menezes with her team has partnered with other NGOs like ASHA, Pratham, and Sneha and has been working round -the-clock distributing sanitary pads to the underprivileged across various slums in Mumbai.“The lockdown triggered a menstrual hygiene supply crisis and medical stores started experiencing an increase in sanitary napkin sales as people were anticipating a shortage in the future. When the lockdown was imposed on March 25, sanitary napkins were not included in the essentials list until the Addendum Order issued on March 29. The taboo attached to menstruation too made families stay tight-lipped even during these testing times,” she rues.
Along with UNICEF, she has also catered to the menstrual needs of female migrant workers as a partner in their latest initiative called Jeevan Rath. The initiative included setting up mobile stations to provide relief material and menstrual hygiene kits to women for their safe travel back home. “The stigma and shame generated by stereotypes around menstruation mean many women and girls don’t get basic human rights. A collective approach is imperative to root this out,” she states.
Besides working with women and NGOs, Menezes has also roped in the government and has previously worked with the state governments of Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir to spread the message of menstrual hygiene. “We are looking forward to collaborating with many more in the future,” she says. The online fundraiser #PassOnThePad she has initiated on Impact Guru helps her to expand her efforts towards safe and healthy periods for women across the country and they have raised over `17 lakhs in a short span of 40 days.
Asked what steps need to be taken in the future to handle a situation like the present, she answers: “The government should acknowledge and communicate clearly that menstrual hygiene is an essential aspect of maintaining personal hygiene among women during times of crisis or natural disasters. Priority should be given to menstrual health awareness, sanitary napkin manufacturing and subsidisation of these goods.”
Menezes’ hard work and dogged persistence to make the world a period-positive place has not gone unnoticed and in 2018, she was awarded The Queen’s Young Leader Award by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. In fact she was the youngest recipient from India that year. The award whose partners include the Royal Commonwealth Society, Comic Relief, and the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, involved a one-year leadership development course designed by the University of Cambridge, which she eventually completed with top honours. She is currently an Associate Fellow of the Royal Commonwealth Society and has featured in the Forbes Asia 30 Under 30 list for 2019 for her work in the menstrual hygiene space in Asia.
As an inspiration to many across the country, especially the youth, Menezes’ message is clear and simple. “If I can do it, so can you,” she says. “Even a small step towards working for a cause you are passionate has the potential to create a huge difference. You just have to give it a shot and believe in yourself because nobody else can do it like you can.”