“MENSTRUAL health and hygiene automatically take a back seat during a crisis and nobody even takes notice,” says Arun Gupta of Pinkishe Foundation. The NGO is currently fighting the sanitary pad crisis triggered by the pandemic by helping thousands of young girls and women get access to clean and sustainable sanitary products across India – through a community of over 1.5 lakh women volunteers.
On the call of his 16-year-old daughter, Khyati, to work for menstrual health, hygiene and women empowerment, Arun decided to bid adieu to his 25-year long career in engineering to start the foundation. Relying on his passion, and the inner urge to work for nation-building, as Founder and President of Pinkishe, he called upon the women of India to support him and work for menstrual hygiene.
Being the only male in the all-women organisation, he is often seen avoiding the limelight or entering the frame by keeping the women of his team at the forefront.
Our conversation with him in this Lead Read series gives insights on the tremendous relief work that Pinkishe is doing during the pandemic, breaking the taboo associated with the subject of menstruation and much more.
Q. Being a man, with no prior social work experience, how challenging was it to bring 150,000+ inspiring women to support your work on menstrual health?
A: The first one was when I approached a few women friends and told them about what I was planning and asked if they would join and become co-founders. Some kicked me out of their homes, others wondered why I wanted to do this and what’s in it for me. Finally, I met Shalini Gupta Ji, and she came as a blessing. And Pinkishe began, all thanks to her.
Shalini Ji took the lead from the front, and I kept supporting her. She was a homemaker till that time with some social work experience and I came with extensive corporate experience. She did not know how to open Facebook, and computers drove my life. We made a tremendous complementary pair. It worked!
The real challenge was that I was a product of a patriarchal society, and over time those beliefs seep deep inside that you are the superior gender. Working with so many women wholly shattered that part of me. I don’t think any man could ever do the kind of multi-tasking, have the emotional strength, or manage an array of responsibilities that a woman can handle. Balancing between work, kids, love, family, society and herself… I still wonder, when do they relax?
So, to get down from your pedestal of self-pride was a challenge. But as soon as I did, the team of women took everything in their hands. They are running Pinkishe. I am merely a facilitator, a guide. Pinkishe is not successful because of me; instead, it is flourishing despite me!
Q. What is one of Padbanks biggest achievements in breaking the taboo around menstruation?
A. The most heartening achievement is that the women, at least those who work closely with Pinkishe Foundation, now have opened up to men in their families, especially their sons. I have my own experiences. I kept wondering what menstruation is and what all these sanitary pads are about till very late in my life.
I remember a couple of instances in my adolescent years when I asked my mother and female cousins hesitatingly, but they shooed me away. Nobody told me. We are changing that. And that is one of Pinkishe’s most heartening and satisfying achievements.
Q. When India entered its first nationwide lockdown, sanitary napkins did not make it to the list of ‘essentials’ – how did Pinkishe fight that crisis?
A. Without wasting any time, we started collecting sanitary pads in kind and started a campaign to raise funds. And we started distributing those pads in our various localities across the nation. I think through our work in this area of menstrual health and hygiene, and that of other NGOs and individuals who did the same, helped to get widespread support started in this area too. Perhaps not to the same extent as food and medicines, but sanitary pads too started being a part of many essential kits.
In a few cases we had to approach police stations to seek permission to distribute sanitary pads. Remember, it was a lockdown! To our surprise, the officer sent his staff to support us. Imagine male police officers driving down with us to slums and going home to home distributing sanitary pads. In another case, a few girls in a village in Bengal could not find sanitary pads. They tweeted to the local IPS officer who found us on the internet, called and asked if we could help. We were in Delhi. These guys were in remote Bengal. We did help. We delivered those pads within a day.
Q. When was the last time you did something for the first time? What was it?
A. It may sound clichéd, but I do something new every day. I am 48, but my quest for learning is insatiable. I need a challenge a day to survive. The latest thing I did was that I shot a tiny, basic documentary all by myself. From scripting, filming to colour-grading I did the whole project. And I am so very proud of it. However small the output. I am not bragging here. I am simply sharing my happiness that I could manage to do it.
Q. Working on-ground during a pandemic can be physically and mentally taxing for your team – how do you manage it?
A. Well we are trying our best to not go out and increase the burden for the authorities and endanger the volunteers themselves. So we are trying to provide maximum support online, but that’s only possible to a certain extent. Our volunteers have to work on the ground but the leaders ensure that they go out following maximum caution.
In our team one great thing is that we keep in touch with each other. Everybody keeps calling each other and keeps a check. That keeps our people motivated too. The ‘team’ feeling is exceptionally strong in Pinkishe. The sense of celebrating and thanking seemingly small efforts and small contributions is strong and that keeps us intact…and rolling!
Interviewed by Sruthy Natarajan
Team GiveIndia is guided by the vision to alleviate poverty by enabling the world to give, following the values of: Integrity in everything we do; to serve with Passion; have Empathy for all; and keep focused on Scale.