Period poverty is a global issue. It is estimated that one in five girls in America have left school early or missed school because of their period. In India, approximately 70% of all reproductive diseases are caused by poor menstrual hygiene. Three young Ismailis are working to increase awareness, change perceptions, and increase access to menstrual hygiene products.

Charities and organisations are taking up the fight all over the world to change attitudes on the menstrual cycle. Sana and Sumaira Lokhandwala founded HER Pakistan with the aim of improving access to sanitary products and correcting the myths and misconceptions that surround the menstrual cycle. Ziyaan Virij launched Affordable and Accessible Sanitation for Women (AASW) at just 17 years old to help young girls access menstrual hygiene. Their efforts have led to more women and young girls accessing menstrual hygiene and increased awareness of period poverty in the surrounding community. Both Ziyaan and Sana and Sumaira have won awards for their humanitarian efforts.

Sana and Sumaira formed HER Pakistan in May 2018. Whilst visiting a slum in Pakistan, Sumaira was shocked to see how some girls had to miss school every month and even drop out as a result. Both of them dreamt of a Pakistan where women had access to menstrual hygiene, regardless of their socio-economic background. They manage HER Pakistan alongside their full-time jobs. 

Ziyaan Virji is a student of the Aga Khan Academy Mombasa. A core part of the curriculum is learning to be a global citizen and improving the quality of life of the local community. Ziyaan was saddened to learn that 500 million girls across the world do not have access to menstrual hygiene, and rightly noted that “no-one would be alive if not for the reproductive cycle.” Ziyaan set up an organisation to provide sanitary products to women and educate people on women’s health. 

HER Pakistan and AASW work to break some of the stigmas surrounding the menstrual cycle.

“We may never know how exactly menstrual taboos were established. From my experience, it is clear that the way we view menstruation is going to change very slowly because of the deeply ingrained taboos in some cultures,” Sana said. 

In January 2019, HER Pakistan’s School Education Program was launched at The Citizens Foundation College in Karachi, Pakistan. The programme focuses on a range of subjects from body positivity to menstruation. So far, more than 1,000 students have benefitted from the programme. 

AASW works to empower women to give themselves and their community’s access to menstrual hygiene. Students from the Aga Khan Academy Mombasa produce and distribute reusable sanitary packages. The packages contain tools and instructions for women to stitch, use, and wash menstrual products. Hundreds of girls in Kenya, India, and the UAE have benefited from the package. AASW also runs educational workshops to teach both men and women the basic principles of menstruation, particularly as the menstrual cycle is often not part of the school curriculum. The organisation is run by students aged 13-18 with support from the Aga Khan Academy.

Sana recalls how her and Sumaira began their journey with trepidation and have faced bullying and harassment since the inception of HER Pakistan. However, some men have opened up about their inhibitions and preconceptions of menstruation. Ziyaan credits the success of AASW to his defiance. 

“A male fighting for a so-called ‘females issues’ has always brought me criticism, disparagement, and disapproval from society,” he said. 

The efforts of HER Pakistan and AASW have been recognised by international organisations. Earlier this year, Ziyaan received the Diana Award, set up 20 years ago in memory of Princess Diana. It is a global award which is inspired by the belief that young people can change the world. For Ziyaan, this is considered one of the highest accolades for social action or humanitarian efforts that a young person can receive.

Upon receiving the award, Ziyaan said “I would like to thank my family, my close friends, my mentors and most importantly my school for their continuous support and guidance in helping me find and achieve my purpose: to help give girls access to menstrual hygiene around the world.”  

Sana and Sumaira were awarded the Young Humanitarian Award by Oxfam in Pakistan in March 2019 for their efforts to end period poverty and improve menstrual hygiene awareness through education, advocacy, and service in Pakistan. Sumaira has been nominated for the N-Peace Award and Sana is one of the finalists for the AidEx Humanitarian Hero Award. For Sana and Sumaira, “this means that menstrual health is getting the attention that it deserves.”

HER Pakistan is expanding its activities to include breast cancer awareness workshops to teach women and girls self-examination techniques. 

AASW aims to create entrepreneurial opportunities for its target groups by teaching the skill of stitching as well as other skills, to create revenue and make the project self-sustaining. AASW also runs various events that blend in arts, music, and talks that are open to people of all backgrounds to creatively break the taboo and stigma by starting a conversation surrounding the menstrual cycle.

Sana, Sumaira, and Ziyaan are three young, spirited entrepreneurs who are working hard to change decades, if not centuries, of taboo surrounding period poverty. They have overcome their fear and the resistance of others, to make strides towards ensuring women have access to menstrual hygiene. As Sumaira says, “we aren’t there yet but change is happening.”