(January 13, 2022) We don’t talk about stigmas and taboos. Swara Patel does, and with immense conviction – Be it reproductive health, menstruation or sexual health. Founder and president of The Period Society, the undergraduate pre-medical student has made overcoming stigmas, and busting myths her raison de etre. And the outspoken straight talker does it impressively. The winner of the Diana Award 2021 for her resolve to further the cause of reproductive health and healthcare, she is also the Global Teen Youth Leader 2021. The Indian teen was just 16 when she started her society, and today, she has added the Talk Project to encourage open discussions on sexual and reproductive health. Right now busy in tomes of medical textbooks, Swara hopes to emulate her healthcare professional parents even as she breaks cultural barriers.
Since The Period Society began in 2018, “It has served over a million periods, met monthly menstrual hygiene needs of over 30,000 menstruators for the next three years, and reached out to over 25,000 people through interactive sessions,” Swara Patel tells Global Indian. It has 20 youth-led chapters and four global initiatives today.
From home to heart, what mattered most
The Mumbai girl who moved to the US in the fall of 2018 is a freshman at the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College.
Indian teen studied at Bombay Scottish School (Mahim) where she made incredible friends and had amazing teachers who challenged her, and instilled a deep sense of respect for hard work and discipline. And being in a family of healthcare professionals had added an insightful edge to her musings. “My parents are the most open and supportive people I know, though they might take some convincing. My mother is a role model as a healthcare professional who was always busier than dad, and never gave into the societal guilt of being a bad mother. It was primarily dad who parented me and showed me that women can truly have it all. My father is an extremely compassionate physician and seeing him go out of the way for his patients, especially pro bono has set a standard. I am an outspoken person, and feel comfortable thinking independently,” smiles Swara.
Her grandfather Dr Shanti Patel, a freedom fighter and leader for labour rights for ship workers, was “an extremely important influence growing up.”
Migrating from India to the US, the Indian teen studied at Herricks High School, (New York) at 16, where she faced a huge cultural change. Overwhelmed, the kindness of her new surrounds made her realise, “It’s okay to take your time, and feel anxious when making such shifts. I also realised that while there might be cultural differences, your work ethic and ambition can shine through.” Today, Swara’s philosophy has been strengthened by her mentor-teachers and professors.
“As a student of the humanities and biological sciences on a pre-med track, I am deeply invested in furthering reproductive rights and bridging healthcare accessibility gaps in low-income communities by combining my skills of leadership, knowledge of global health inequities, and passion for change making,” says the Diana awardee.
The Period Society is a huge step to help break stigmas. It conducts menstrual hygiene education sessions across India, distributes eco-friendly reusable menstrual hygiene products, and dispels cultural taboos, many of which Swara herself experienced in Mumbai.
The change was palpable
The Indian teen’s “modern progressive” upbringing apart, Swara had to first tackle her parents’ menstrual taboo influences. “Changemaking begins at home – it was difficult to convince my parents that this was a cause that could be spoken openly about. I was exposed to period poverty as a volunteer in a paediatric oncology ward when the mother of a patient confided that she was struggling to live with dignity as the cost of treatment left her family unable to purchase ‘luxuries’ like period products. I remember bitterly arguing with my mother every Ganesh Chaturthi about being forced to stay home while my parents visited relatives as I was on my periods. Or my father asking me to speak about ‘girl things’ to mom. It took persistence, perseverance, and grit to change the attitudes within my house before I stepped out to change ideas within my world. By repeatedly reminding my father (a physician) that menstrual blood was not ‘dirty blood,’ and that he couldn’t choose to shy away from speaking about female reproductive health when he did rotations in the OB-GYN department, I eased him into speaking about periods,” smiles the daughter who managed (over two years) to change her father’s view so much so that he would drive her to the sessions, and even distribute kits.
Patel has personally conducted menstrual hygiene education sessions in red-light districts, at municipal schools, with urban slum communities, and in collaboration with NGOs since she started. In fact, Patel wants other like-minded youth to begin a chapter or a global initiative or even remotely join the team to help too.
The youth leader and progressive med student
Passionate about setting wrongs right, Swara also addressed the taboos surrounding sexual health with the Talk Project in 2018. “It was started to drive conversations surrounding sexual health and amplify access to reproductive health resources via youth led advocacy programmes,” says the Indian teen whose passion for public health, STEM, gender equality, and social justice is aimed at an intersectional social-centered trajectory. She is also deeply involved in Model United Nations, and has won accolades and chaired conferences by Harvard and UPenn in the US, China and India.
For a mere student to juggle diverse ideologies and social endeavours is what spurs Swara on. “I intend to use my skills, coursework, and genuine passion to translate my interests into measurable social impact to make a tangible difference in the lives of real people,” she adds.
Her volunteer work earlier with the Impact Foundation at the Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai opened her mind, as she helped children in paediatric oncology engage in arts and crafts or even with their homework!
The pre-med student has been exposed to healthcare across two very different countries and feels her understanding of health transcends borders. “I love biology and learning about clinical applications of biological concepts and at the same time I aspire to become an advocate for my patients and play a role in eliminating these disparities,” says the double major in the biological sciences as well as women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.
In fact, she chose Hunter for its close proximity to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre, Rockefeller Laboratories and Weill Cornell – which she hopes will be great resources as she furthers her medical studies.
The outspoken straight talker now wants to be a physician who goes beyond treatment plans and advocates for the elimination of real-world disparities. Busy in college, Swara has the mindfulness to explore and understand medicine to realistically understand how to be a compassionate and effective physician.
In her free time, apart from juggling pre-med classes, she learns Bharatanatyam, loves to dive into a good book, and often takes a breather from the work she has set out to do to catch up with friends and just be an ordinary girl.
As the medical student is on her way to becoming the kind of physician she dreams of, Swara also sees herself integrating medicine with public health to care for marginalised communities and influence health policy.