Aanya Patel is just like any other high school sophomore. She is a member of her school band, is part of the volleyball team and loves arts and crafts. Unlike most other high schoolers, however, this 15-year-old from Tampa, Florida, is on a mission. She’s looking to fix ‘period poverty’.
Period poverty refers to the lack of access to sanitary products especially for those from from low socio-economic backgrounds.
Even during the best of times, menstrual products have been hard to access for women and girls who live in poverty. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation has worsened, says the United Nations. Supply chain disruptions have hampered access to menstrual hygiene products for communities.
“I attended a global virtual forum in the summer. During the global forum one of the topics they had discussed was menstrual hygiene and during that I learned that even in a developed country like America one in five students still struggle to afford pads and other products,” said Patel. “I wanted to do something about that.”
She started a not-for-profit called the Global Girls Initiative. The goal, according to her, is to uplift girls and give them a platform to voice their opinions. Patel’s first project as part of the initiative is to source and provide menstrual hygiene products to those in need.
The project called “Periods During the Pandemic: No Girl Left Behind” was initially started with a Go Fund Me campaign to source donations to buy 5,000 to 10,000 sanitary pads. The goal was to provide sanitary pads to a couple of middle and high schools in Hillsborough County – Aanya’s school district – and to the Spring of Tampa Bay – a local domestic violence shelter near her. But, the campaign garnered more interest than she had anticipated. Today her goal is to source and provide 50,000 sanitary pads across her school district.
“This started off initially as a small project. I did spread word about it through social media, my friends and my family to get them to donate. Then I figured I could grow this bigger to have a bigger impact and involve other people,” said Patel.
She contacted and partnered with the University of Tampa to increase the level of distribution. Together, they conducted a week-long, period product drive in October 2020. She also collaborated with them to host a sustainable menstrual hygiene conference.
Patel also had her sights set on other schools in her school district to distribute pads. She contacted the principal of her school and her district superintendent in order to find more homes for the sanitary pads. The superintendent, who was impressed with the idea, then contacted every school in the district to inform them of the initiative.
“The superintendent helped guide me. She showed me that our schools are actually based on poverty levels. So, I ended up distributing it to Title 1 middle and high schools,” said Patel. Title 1 schools are those where at least 40% of enrollment is of children from low-income families.
Patel accepts donations of sanitary pads themselves and also donations of money to buy sanitary pads. Once she collects the pads, she approaches the school closest to her and from there, the pads are taken and distributed via the school district’s interschool mail route, she adds.
While Patel does have a few friends chipping in to help her source and distribute pads, most of the times she’s the sole volunteer running operations.
“It has been a bit of a struggle because I do have school and I do have extracurricular activities – so I try to find the best time and try to have good time management skills. Usually, I find the weekends are when my time is completely dedicated to this project,” adds Patel.
It has been tough for her to find volunteers to spread the word about the initiative because most of them are busy with their homework as well. The other challenge for her has been in finding individuals and businesses willing to support the cause, especially because of the pandemic.
“Finally, one of my biggest challenges was learning all the legalities related to creating a new nonprofit and a new organization,” said Patel.
But, she’s not letting any of the constraints stop her.
Soon, she will be distributing pads to six villages in Gujarat, India. She’s partnered with a school there to help educate girls on the concept of menstrual hygiene and also to donate pads. The drive to provide the pads will last for six months and help out at least 100 girls in the villages.
“I was very happy because these villages were in the state of Gujarat which is where my mom and grandparents are from. So, it was good to give back to our roots,” added Patel.
By Lakshmi Sivadas