Please tell us about yourself
Originally from Ahmedabad, India, Palak Jalan trained in dentistry before launching her career in public health at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston (University Of Texas). Last summer, she taught menstrual hygiene to low-income Indian girls. They often miss school during their periods because of the stigma surrounding menstruation. Jalan graduates in May with plans to tackle health disparities locally and globally.
What led you to UTHealth School of Public Health? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
I enjoyed my training in public health dentistry the most during dental school. Teaching and working with various nonprofits made me more aware of the health disparities in my country. I wanted an in-depth understanding of the leadership, management and administrative perspectives on these issues, so I ended up doing my M.P.H. here.
Why did you focus on menstrual hygiene?
While working with a non-profit organization during dental school, I realized that women’s health issues, particularly those relating to the menstrual cycle, were often maligned by the larger society. In some communities, both rural and urban, menstruation is still considered a taboo. During that time, women are not allowed to do household work, attend religious functions, cook food, touch animals or interact with men. This became evident to me when I taught young women living in slum communities. Adolescent girls would suddenly stop coming to school and not return for days on end.
Tell us about your work last summer in India.
I interned with an organization called Yuva (Youth) Unstoppable in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India. I received a grant from the Houston Global Health Collaborative, funding the internship.
|Jalan teaching menstrual hygiene to low-income Indian girls. In many communities, the topic of menstruation is considered taboo.|
While there, I helped conduct a needs assessment and optimize their existing menstrual hygiene management program for adolescents in low-income schools. I helped design the questionnaire and lead a team of individuals to conduct information sessions, show interactive videos on menstruation, and procure and distribute menstrual comic information books. I also assisted the organization in creating sanitary napkin banks and implementing safe disposal methods at each of these schools.
What did you take away from the experience?
Any health behavior change in children or adolescents cannot be brought about completely without involving parents and community. They are major stakeholders, and organizations working in this direction need to find ways to involve them.
Also, the knowledge gap on menstruation was much wider than I initially assumed, having taught similar students previously. I also learned that you need to communicate regularly with local leaders and volunteers to understand how system-level changes could have an impact on the community.
How has your education at the School of Public Health prepared you to address health disparities in India?
The school has given me management and leadership tools and a highly valuable research skillset, which I did not have earlier. Now I can make strategic and operational plans, work on quality improvement and analyze whether a program indeed works or not.
What’s next for you?
If my thesis on evaluating the costs and benefits of a menstrual hygiene management program goes smoothly, I will graduate this summer. After that, I hope to work at the program management level, consulting with an international or local organization focused on improving health care access or alleviating gender-related health disparities.