Implementing an idea requires hard work and diligence. But driving a change requires leadership and conviction, by standing through the challenges, perceptions and biases.
Sanjana Dixit, young changemaker, addresses stereotypical discrimination of menstruating women through her social initiative, RutuChakra.
Sanjana, tell us about your background
I am Sanjana Dixit, a high school graduate from National Public School HSR Layout in Bangalore, where I studied PCMB as my primary subjects. From a young age, I have always been fascinated by biology, specifically medicine. Upon taking advanced-level biology in high school and participating in business events, I recognised my passion for Molecular Medicine and Business. I look forward to studying this in college and making an impact using the skill set I gain.
Both my parents are engineers and my mother is also the founder of an NGO. Coming from a family that places a lot of emphasis on community service and giving back to society, I have been actively involved in social service since the age of 7.
I enjoyed participating in a multitude of extracurricular activities from a young age. Aside from social service, I am very passionate about sports, and have held leadership positions in the same as the School Sports Vice-Captain and the Captain of the U-18 Basketball and Football team. Holding a leadership position and working hard towards achieving goals is always something that I enjoyed, and I was also elected as the Head of the Student Council at school. Additionally, I am a Taekwondo Black Belt 2, a Trinity Grade 7 Keyboard Player, and a trained Bharatnatyam dancer.
Why did you choose to work on a social initiative?
I come from a family that values and places a strong emphasis on the importance of community service and helping society. My grandparents started their own organization and my mother too founded an NGO ‘Tejomay Charitable Trust’ which empowers women and children through education. As a result, I have been actively involved in social service (donation drives, teaching kids, volunteering at different organizations, etc) from a young age (7 years old). Growing up in such a household played a fundamental role in shaping my thought process, enabling me to view society through an empathetic lens. Sharing these values and beliefs, I was inherently very aware of how privileged I was, which acted as a catalyst to recognising my role in society as a responsible citizen.
Understanding that having an ability to help others is a blessing and watching my parents and grandparents running their NGOs from the grassroot level, I feel empowered and prompted me to work towards the cause I believe in. With their invaluable knowledge and experience, my family proved to be a great system of support and guidance when I did start RutuChakra.
Tell us about RutuChakra –
It is our family tradition to celebrate special occasions (birthdays, festivals, etc.) with individuals at various organizations. It was during one such visit, that the idea behind RutuChakra was born. It was my 16th birthday and we had gone to an orphanage (ThayiMane) to celebrate. Here, I happened to use their washroom, and although it was decently maintained, it immediately set off some questions – ‘How do these children maintain their hygiene in a place that lacked adequate sanitation? How do they manage their menstruation?’ I discussed my thoughts with my family, did some research and called the founder.
She told me that while several people would come forward to donate books, toys, stationery, almost nobody came forward to donate/ fund something as important as menstrual products. Moreover, a majority of their funding went into administration and education, with limited funds towards healthcare. The girls, in the absence of resources, would resort to using unhygienic alternatives. That really struck a nerve! As a girl myself, I can’t imagine having my periods without the right resources or information on how to manage them.
I believe that every individual has the right to manage their period with dignity, and thus, to tackle this issue I started an initiative on menstruation which became ‘RutuChakra’ in the coming months – an organization promoting personal and menstrual hygiene amongst menstruators of all ages and backgrounds. In fact, the word RutuChakra literally stands for the words ‘menstrual cycle’ in Sanskrit.
How did you feel when you just started off working on your initiative? Did you face any resistance from society/ parents/ friends/ family/ teachers ?
Historically, Menstruation is considered as a taboo topic; something society has defined based on several myths, stigmas and stereotypes which further propagates menstrual discrimination in various shapes and forms. Starting RutuChakra meant going against this conventional societal narrative. So, I definitely faced a lot of resistance from society as I questioned the existing flawed belief system that a large section of society has adapted from multiple generations. Even within my immediate circles, I initially faced some resistance which faded away as we began to normalise the topic.
On the other hand, my family and school were extremely supportive. Although I decided to start RutuChakra a few weeks before my 10th grade board exams, my family always encouraged me and supported my desire to stand up for what I believed in. During the initial stages of RutuChakra, my entire family (males and females) would come to my every workshop to help me. My mother played an integral role in guiding me through the process of starting an organization. In general, I come from a feminist household where topics such as ‘menstruation’ are openly discussed and normalized; so I was very confident and empowered by my Periods from the get go, which enabled me to take up this topic so that I could empower others. School gave me a platform to talk about RutuChakra and the menstrual movement.
What are the challenges? How do you address them?
- The biggest challenge is definitely changing the societal narrative surrounding menstruation, the irrational myths and the flawed belief system. At RutuChakra we do our best to overcome this challenge through our multiple workshops and follow up sessions targeting a diverse audience, promoting awareness through social media and campaigns. We are also constantly brainstorming, researching and coming up with new methods to tackle this issue.
- Second challenge was age. Being a teenager, I was often not taken seriously and as a result denied potential opportunities/ collaborations because I was ‘too young’. I believe that ‘your work should speak for itself’. So when people start to work with us and understand that we are professional and passionate about what we do, we are able to change that belief and become trustworthy partners.
- Moreover, I was a school going teenager. So, it was challenging to balance academics, extracurriculars and RutuChakra. But, I believe that with effective time management and good organization, anything is possible.
- Another big challenge and big lesson was accounting for something potentially going wrong. On several occasions, manufacturers would cancel their delivery of products or the doctor would back out of conducting the workshop on the evening of the previous day, etc. Initially this used to be a problem, but now we have a more systematic function to ensure we have a Plan B, C and D in place beforehand.
I think facing such challenges, although inconvenient, gives us the opportunity to learn and grow. Every time a challenge is thrown at us, I constantly remind myself why I do what I do, and it gives me the strength to continue fighting against this stigma.
Tell us more about your work –
What problems do you solve?
RutuChakra’s mission is to ensure that every menstruating woman is able to menstruate with dignity. Historically, periods and those experiencing them, have been viewed as unclean and dirty, resulting in a stereotypical discrimination of menstruating women in various shapes and forms. When such topics are off the table, or are misrepresented, it highlights that the access to relevant education, choice and proper healthcare is too. Right now, there are people all over the world who are too afraid to talk to their doctor, who do not have access to safe and hygienic period products, who are putting their bodies in dangerous situations because of the stigma and lack of education.
In India alone, over 88% (360 million) menstruating women don’t have access to hygienic menstrual products, in the absence of which they resort to using several unhygienic alternatives such as hay, mud, clay, etc. 45% still believe that menstruation is a curse/disease; 1 in every 5 menstruating women drops out of school on getting their period.
RutuChakra aims to change that! We aim to build a society where menstruation is not thought of as a curse, nor a disease but rather as a welcoming change in an individual’s body. We do this in three main things:
- Provide a regular supply of menstrual products to areas and individuals in need
- Empower individuals through knowledge: through workshops and follow up sessions (in all sectors of society)
- We have a very inclusive model with special workshops designed to cater to the needs of menstruating women with disabilities, down syndrome, blind, etc. along with their families.
- Promote better awareness amongst all genders to overcome embarrassment, cultural practices, taboos around this topic
What skills are needed for the job? How did you acquire the skills?
I think there are three basic skills required to make an impact – empathy, hard work, and a problem-solving attitude. When it comes to starting an initiative or running an organization, I believe that some degree of leadership and organisational skills are also required to ensure an effective model and an efficient work environment. But all of these can be learnt or acquired. In my opinion, it is most important to have passion and perseverance; because it is passion that fuels one’s purpose to achieve these goals. Perseverance because when you start, you could face a thousand failures; but as you assess and work hard with each set back, you come closer and closer to achieving what you started out for.
What is a typical day like?
A typical day starts with going to school from 7AM – 3PM. Then I have food and make some ‘me’ time to relax. From 4PM-6PM, I study and then go downstairs to play basketball for an hour. From 8PM-10PM, I work on RutuChakra – having meetings with my team, communicating with partners, answering emails, developing new strategies, etc. depending on the course of action planned for that particular day. Post this, I study for sometime again, and go to sleep around 1 AM. When we have campaigns or a big event coming up, RutuChakra work can extend for multiple hours, even taking up the whole day in some cases.
On the days of the workshop, our team gathers early morning (depending on the time of the workshop, and how far the location is), makes sure everything is set, travels and conducts the workshop. This usually takes around half a day. Post this, we sometimes go out for some food or ice cream to treat ourselves after a strenuous day.
What do you love about your job?
I love being able to create an impact in something that I’m passionate about and empower individuals in a way that could change their life. Seeing the young menstruating women (post our workshops) feel confident and proud of their bodies, ready to fight the stigma and embrace this beautiful phenomenon; gives me a sense of happiness and satisfaction that I can’t describe. I truly love and am never tired of working towards menstrual equity.
- One of the youngest social entrepreneurs to win the award ‘Young Leaders Creating a Better World for All’ Award at the Women Economic Forum
- Selected by Ashoka Organization as one of the ‘Top 10 Young Changemakers in India’
- Named as one of the ‘Young Women Influencers Who Have the Power to Change’ by Shethepeople.tv alongside prominent changemakers such as Geeta Phogat and Gurmehar Kaur (2018)
- Was the youngest panellist at the ‘Golden Girls Conclave’ on the topic ‘Can a Woman Have it All?’ – an initiative by ‘Malabar Gold and Diamonds’, in association with the ‘Times of India’ and felicitated by 2017 Miss World Manushi Chillar – alongside prominent personalities from multiple fields, eg. Nisha Millet (Swimmer & Arjuna Award Winner), Nirupa Shankar (Executive Director, Brigade Group), Sruthi Hariharan (Actress & Producer), etc. This event was also broadcasted on ‘Mirror Now’ (TV Channel) on the 28th and 29th of December, 2019.
- I have been a panellist and/ or a speaker on multiple platforms such as the ‘Lead Young Forum’ by Ashoka Organization, Sociostory’s panel on the ‘Positive Impacts of Coronavirus’, Savvy Females’ interview on the ‘Opinions of Millennial Leadership on the Coronavirus Pandemic’, etc.
How does your work benefit society?
RutuChakra has so far distributed over 116,800+ menstrual products helping over 6000+ menstruating women, with over 54,800+ products distributed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. By providing menstrual products, RutuChakra is able to ensure that menstruating women have a safe and hygienic period thereby reducing the risk of infections and other detrimental effects on their health.
By ensuring access to information and knowledge and normalising the topic of ‘Menstruation’, RutuChakra has started a much-needed and more inclusive conversation surrounding Periods and Reproductive Health. This makes menstruating women feel more empowered by their periods, confident in their own bodies and ready to fight the menstrual discrimination thereby stopping the cycle of menstrual discrimination and myths from continuing. We have witnessed great success stories through our workshops, campaigns, social media, etc. and we intend to keep working hard to increase those numbers.
Through our work, we try to ensure that every menstruating woman is able to menstruate with dignity; accounting for their physical, emotional, social and mental wellbeing.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
One memorable instance was during one of the RutuChakra workshops –
At the starting of the workshop, we asked the audience of 100-150 girls, “How many of you will tell the males in your family that you came for a menstrual hygiene awareness workshop?” No one raised their hand. At the end of the workshop, we asked again. This time all 100 hands went up. Later, five girls came up to me and asked, “When are you going to have the workshop for boys also?”
This was a moment that truly made me recognise the change that we were making. It was a perfect example of how a 90-minute awareness workshop and proper resources can make such a drastic impact on young girls’ perception of menstruation
Your advice to students based on your experience?
My biggest take away from founding RutuChakra was to believe in yourself and always stand up for what you believe in. If you feel strongly about a cause and have an idea, take a step to turn that idea into a reality. By simply raising your voice, you can change a life, and even the world.
I learnt that age is just a number. If you have the passion & the drive, anything is possible. Moreover, standing up for what you believe in doesn’t necessarily mean starting a new organization ground up, it can be something as simple as writing a blog post about it or volunteering to help those five people in your community. But, it’s important to take that first step.
I felt strongly about the menstrual stigma and now, along with my team am working towards making that ideal world with menstrual equity a reality. You never know the power of change, until you start making it.
In the future, RutuChakra plans on expanding and starting more chapters in different areas to spread this movement. We also plan to work with the government on a more comprehensive policy to ensure menstrual awareness and resource accessibility for all individuals so that we can put a PERIOD to the stigma.
We are always looking for individuals passionate about menstrual equity to join us in this movement. Leadership and Volunteer positions are always open on our website https://www.rutuchakra.org/ and our Instagram page @rutu_chakra.