Vrinda Varnekar interviews Dr Sagarika Nityanand about her experience empowering women from migrant and low-income communities in Mysore by spreading awareness about menstrual hygiene and health!

They say not all heroes wear capes. Take this hero, for example. She wears a lab coat, a mask, and saves the world in her way. Meet Dr Sagarika Nityanand, doctor, social worker, and overall star.

An alumna of the KS Hegde Medical Academy, Mangalore, Dr Sagarika is currently in Mysore, her hometown. A candid conversation about her, her regular work, and her current contribution towards spreading menstrual hygiene awareness in slums ensues.

“I think being a doctor was in my DNA.” Dr Sagarika laughs and continues, “Both my parents are doctors, and growing up, what they did greatly influenced me. I always wanted to follow in their footsteps.” And follow she did- beginning from medical school in Mangalore, a short stint in Bangalore, then onwards to New York City, and back.

She is currently working at the Asha Kirana Charitable Hospital, Mysore, exclusively with HIV patients, TB patients, and other infections exclusive to HIV-positive patients. Delving deeper into her work, Dr Sagarika says, “Most of my patients are women who have contracted HIV through no fault of theirs- most get it from their husbands. No matter what their socio-economic status is, the stigma these women face is the same.” Dr Sagarika strives to counsel her patients with the right kind of education to help overturn the stigma, for good.

Moving on to her collaboration with Reachout India and the drive to spread menstrual hygiene awareness amongst women, Dr Sagarika takes us through the challenges she faces on a regular basis. “I’ve known Manasa Rao for a few years, and we have a few mutual friends since we’re both from Mysore. I’ve followed the organization’s work  and always wanted to be a part of it in one way or the other. But somehow, it never happened. As fate would have it, we both ended up in Mysore around the time the pandemic broke out. One evening during a random phone call, Manasa asked me if I would like to join the menstrual hygiene distribution drive, and of course, I jumped at the opportunity!”

So, what was her very first menstrual hygiene distribution drive like, we ask her. “Very eye-opening, to be honest. We went to the top of Chamundi Hills, to the Sweepers Colony, in Mysore. Manasa and I spoke to a lot of women and found out how many of them chose to use coconut husks or washing and reusing old sanitary pads during their menstrual cycle. The reason for using these things was very eye-opening too, it was not that they didn’t want to spend Rs. 25 on sanitary napkins, but it was that they hesitated before spending any money on themselves rather than using it for their families.” she says.

After this drive, Dr Sagarika realized it was imperative to spread menstrual hygiene awareness on a much larger scale. The distribution drives that followed included a small awareness conversation with the women about the correct way to use and dispose sanitary pads, as well as the dos and don’ts of menstrual hygiene. “Especially in the current state of the world, using and disposing sanitary napkins correctly has become even more important.” says Dr Sagarika. Her being a doctor made it easier for women to talk to her, she believes. She educated them about different infections and their symptoms and held counselling sessions for women who had doubts as well.

Since menstrual health and hygiene are still treated as ‘taboo’ topics  across the country, was there any resistance the team faced on their awareness drives? “Not really,” says Dr Sagarika. “People were open to listening and learning and making themselves aware. In most places, the men were welcoming and gave us our space to talk to the women of these areas and address various issues and help spread awareness. A lot of volunteers who helped us on these drives were men- and their help was so invaluable! The best part was that they were very open about the issue and didn’t shy away from helping us with things as basic as packing sanitary pads in the menstrual hygiene kits.”

Dr Sagarika and her team distributed over 10,000 menstrual hygiene kits in Mysore over the last few months, despite the challenges thrown to them by the current situation. “We had to ensure that we followed every safety protocol on these drives, not only for our sake, but especially for that  of the women whom we were interacting with. We had to make sure we didn’t attract crowds, didn’t go into containment zones, and still reach as many women as possible.” Dr Sagarika explains. She plans to keep the drives going, and possibly take the initiative to more towns in the country.

Given that the current situation in the world is risky in general, does she worry about her personal safety at all? “I am cautious, but not hesitant. I don’t ever throw caution to the wind when I am doing something, but neither do I hesitate before taking the leap. Being a doctor who works with HIV patients, I am used to being responsible when I am doing what I am doing, but also allowing my passion to take over every single day. It’s the same for me with the drives as well.” she affirms.

Her first drive with Reachout India remains a strong memory etched in her mind, which encourages her every day to do more, contribute more, and help as many women as possible. As she signs off, she has a motivating message for all the women out there, “We just have to look out for each other. It’s so important to put yourself in another woman’s shoes so that you can help out every single woman you come across.”

Dr Sagarika is an inspiration to young women everywhere, and we wish her the very best in all her endeavors!