Meghan is no fairy-tale princess born and brought up in a cocoon oblivious of the realities of the world. She is an accomplished woman in her own right, who has risen by virtue of her merits
Like millions around the world, many people in Mauritius too must have watched the royal wedding of Prince Harry and his American bride Meghan Markle. The one jarring note that I found irritating about the coverage, that began even before the wedding, was the constant harping on her ‘biracial’ origin: White father, Black African-American mother. Why not simply an American?
Markle’s humanitarian engagement
However, what many here may not know is that she is no fairy-tale princess (and soon-to-be Duchess of Sussex) born and brought up in a cocoon oblivious of the realities of the world. She is an accomplished woman in her own right, who has risen by virtue of her merits and has faced hardships (including a divorce), and taken up challenges. An article she wrote in TIME magazine of March 2017, ‘How Periods Affect Potential’ presented her as ‘an actress and humanitarian who has worked with organizations such as World Vision, the United Nations, One Young World and Myna Mahila Foundation to achieve equality for women worldwide’.
No doubt it is this humanitarian engagement that has led her and her husband, according to information available online, to ditch ‘the traditional gift registry’ and ask for ‘donations to a handful of charities (seven) instead of presents for their wedding’.
One beneficiary of this appeal is Mumbai-based Myna Mahila Foundation, the only foreign organization they have picked. Meghan Markle was already familiar with Myna Mahila Foundation. In May 2016, she was one of the guests at a party, at the NoMad hotel in New York City, to honour the 10 women shortlisted by Glamour magazine’s College Women of the Year award. One of them was Suhani Jalota, who was a 21-year-old student at the Duke University in North Carolina at the time, who had won $20,000 for the Myna Mahila Foundation. As a write-up of that event notes, ‘little did she know this would be the start of a deep relationship with Hollywood star, and soon-to-be Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle’.
Responding to the donation, Jalota said, ‘What means a lot to us is that Ms Markle chose a small organization like ours when there are many large ones operating across the world. More than the donations, the spotlight on our NGO will undoubtedly benefit us in ways we can’t imagine.’ The Foundation also received invitations to the wedding, and Suhani Jalota attended along with one of the charity’s volunteers and two local women from Mumbai and, while in London, they would be hosting a fundraiser for the charity.
Travel to India: Cultural sensitivity
In fact, Markle did not stop there, at the award ceremony. She decided to travel to Delhi and Mumbai in January 2017, visited Myna Mahila Foundation amongst other things, and she penned her thoughts in that TIME magazine article. The foundation seeks to empower women by providing them with the tools and materials to manufacture their own sanitary napkins, and then sell them to their community at a fraction of the cost of regular napkins, besides spreading education about modern menstrual hygiene. Markle interacted with the women of Myna Mahila, and watched them at work making the pads. The TIME magazine article was accompanied by a photograph in which Markle, wearing a saree and with a tikka on her forehead, is seen sitting among the women.
Why would she do that? Because, from her actions, we can see that she is a sincere woman, having an open mind, empathy and acceptance, and a deep understanding of other women and how to connect with them in their cultural context. She could have stuck to her western dress if she wanted to – but she displayed a magnanimity which narrow-minded people down here could very well learn from and put into practice. That is what would make us even prouder to vaunt our diversity, and rise to the level of Markle’s cultural sensitivity and her practical demonstration of it.
She would definitely have done her homework before going over to India, and probably taken cognizance of a 2014 study by the NGO SpotOn! It had found that, in India, nearly 23 million girls drop out of school each year when they start menstruating. These girls can neither afford napkins, nor do they have someone they can speak to about their menstrual health and hygiene because of the stigma associated with menstruation in the country.
Her major concern was the education of girls, as she expressed in her article, ‘From sub-Saharan Africa to India, Iran, and several other countries, the stigma surrounding menstruation and lack of access to proper sanitation directly inhibit young women from pursuing an education.’ She was also worried that ‘shame surrounding menstruation and its direct barrier to girls education remains a hushed conversation’.
The stigma of menstruation
In her article, she noted that, ‘One hundred and thirteen million adolescent girls between the ages of 12-14 in India alone are at risk of dropping out of school because of the stigma surrounding menstrual health. During my time in the field, many girls shared that they feel embarrassed to go to school during their periods, ill equipped with rags instead of pads, unable to participate in sports, and without bathrooms available to care for themselves, they often opt to drop out of school entirely. Furthermore,…minimal dialogue about menstrual health hygiene either at school or home due to the taboo nature of the subject…’
She wrote about the Indian government’s initiation of a ‘campaign in 2014 called “Save the Girl Child, Educate the Girl Child,” reinforcing the value of a girl’s life and her education’, but the fact remained ‘that only fifty percent of secondary schools in India have toilets, leaving roughly fifty percent of the population deterred from attending’. And to think that there are Indians who, for reasons of political demagogy, ridicule the government’s other campaign to build hundreds of thousands of toilets across India, especially in schools, instead of commending and giving concrete support to this move!
Like Markle, they should have asked, ‘Why… should her (the girl’s) education and potential to succeed, be sacrificed because of shame surrounding her period?’ But no, they prefer to play politics with the issue.
Markle’s further observations were: ‘… to remedy this problem, young girls need access to toilets, and at a most basic level, sanitary pads…During my time in the slum communities outside of Mumbai, I shadowed women who are part of a microfinance system where they manufacture sanitary napkins and sell them within the community. The namesake of the organization, Myna Mahila Foundation, refers to a chatty bird (“myna”) and “mahila” meaning woman. The name echoes the undercurrent of this issue: we need to speak about it, to be “chatty” about it. Ninety-seven percent of the employees of Myna Mahila live and work within the slums, creating a system which… is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty and allowing access to education. In addition, the women’s work opens the dialogue of menstrual hygiene in their homes, liberating them from silent suffering, and equipping their daughters to attend school.’
And moreover: ‘Beyond India, in communities all over the globe, young girls’ potential is being squandered because we are too shy to talk about the most natural thing in the world. …and within our own homes, we need to rise above our puritanical bashfulness when it comes to talking about menstruation.’
We have moved on
I got into a conversation about this issue with my elder sister once, and she reminisced about the difficulties that she had to face in the days of no sanitary pads and the bucket-type toilet in a far corner of the yard, without any running water in the toilet. And of course neither light nor heating. One can imagine the scenario during winters in Curepipe. But things had moved on for the next generation and I can recall an occasion many years ago when I dropped in at my brother’s place on a Saturday afternoon. It was my niece who greeted me at the door, and she had a drained look on her face. She was then in HSC, and I thought that perhaps she was exhausted by the tuition load on the weekend. But to my ‘how’s things Beti?’ pat came her reply, ‘aio chacha mone déréglé!’ This cannot be translated because there is a pun on ‘régle’ which cannot be rendered into English, but the meaning is ‘I’m having big trouble with my periods!’
I cannot imagine my sister having the liberty, not to speak of the courage, to speak to our chacha, why even to our father like that in our 1950s/60s days! But my niece could do so with me, and after a chat with her parents I immediately called a gynaecologist friend for an appointment. She duly saw him and was given the appropriate treatment. If we had not had this openness, she would have continued to suffer silently and who knows what adverse effect that might have had on her studies.
Those who have seen the recent film ‘Padman’ would know that it is based on the true story of a man in South India who, aware of the difficulties and inconveniences felt by poor womenfolk, went on to experiment, design, and manufacture a low cost sanitary pad. I presume that Myna Mahila is based on this model.
Myna Mahila Foundation currently employs 15 women to manufacture their low-cost pads, and another 20 saleswomen who fan out into Mumbai’s densely populated informal settlements to sell their products. The foundation claims to have about 3000 customers in all, 90% of whom buy their products on a regular basis. The foundation expects to reach 10,000 women by end 2018.
I rather like the way in which Markle ended her article with a pun on the word ‘period’: ‘When we empower girls hungry for education, we cultivate women who are emboldened to effect change within their communities and globally. If that is our dream for them, then the promise of it must begin with us. Period.’
Definitely there are certain restrictive practices associated with menstruation in India; Unfortunately lack of understanding and ignorance of deep Indian culture has given rise to a warped interpretation of these practices as superstitions, which they are not. Fundamentally it is the lack of sanitary facilities and hygiene that makes girls and women resort to potentially harmful customs. Anyone wishing to know more about the Indian perspective on menstruation may search YouTube for ‘Srijan Foundation – Talk on menstrual practices in India’ where they will come to appreciate a holistic rationale to the issue.
But Markle be thanked, because I have never heard about any similar gesture emanating from the quasi-Royal weddings held by Indians. Let us congratulate her and wish her a happy married life.
* Published in print edition on 25 May 2018