YOUth In Power - Ziyaan Virji

Image:    Ziyaan Virji

Image: Ziyaan Virji

I believe that the youth are leaders of not only tomorrow but leaders of today. I feel
fortunate to be living in this space and time, and to share all this power with the youth
around the world.
— Ziyaan Virji

17-year-old Ziyaan Virji is the founder of Affordable and Accessible Sanitation for Women, AASW, with a goal of eradicating period poverty and stigma. With his passion and drive for change, he has ensured that menstruators have access to period products, free from unjustifiable shame and stigma.

I am Ziyaan Virji, a 17-year old student at The Aga Khan Academy, Mombasa and an advocate of what I call “The Generation of Change”. Back in 2017, as part of the IB curriculum, I was required to start up a Personal Project, to explore my various skills and passion. During the same period of time, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and I came across a very inspiring documentary titled “India’s Menstruation man”. With little knowledge about the menstrual cycle, I had a short conversation with my mum which was probably the turning point of my life, because I found out that when she was small, just like 500 million girls around the world, didn’t have access to menstrual hygiene. Keeping this in mind, and blending in my altruistic character, my skills, my values and the guidance I received from my mentors, all lead me to launch Affordable and Accessible Sanitation for Women (AASW), an initiative that produces and distributes reusable sanitary packages, equips girls with the necessary skills and knowledge to give themselves and their communities access to menstrual hygiene and breaks the taboo and stigma surrounding menstruation as a topic.

AASW addresses the vast and unthinkable issues that menstruators face across the world - from a lack of access to hygiene products, to the stigma that still exists around the topic of periods. With ZIyaan’s leadership, AASW tackles these issues head-on and creates sustainable and long-term solutions to evoke change in often impoverished communities.

Image:    Ziyaan Virji

Image: Ziyaan Virji

An average of 1 in 10 Menstruators does not have proper access to menstrual hygiene. They use old rags, cloth, blankets, leaves, tissues and many other unsanitary materials when they are on their reproductive cycle. Some of them miss school, don’t carry out their daily activities, and even lock themselves up in a room when they are on their period. What is worse is that there is a taboo and stigma associated with periods, causing this basic need to turn into a problem because whenever it is mentioned everyone goes Period. And if no one talks about this basic need that is turned into a problem, there will never be a solution, because we don’t even have an idea that it is a problem. Sadly, the taboo, stigma, not having access and missing school/not carrying out their daily activities has lead menstruators to be trapped in a vicious poverty cycle that is passed on from generations to generations.

So what have we done about this Period Problem? In collaboration with Tunaweza Women with Disabilities, AASW produces and distributes sanitary packages that are reusable, environmental friendly, embarrassment- free and cost effective. These packages last for up to 3 years, costs between $5 to $8, are 100% biodegradable and the best part is that they don’t even look like an ideal sanitary pad! AASW also applies a unique sustainable approach with our target groups that consists of 4 phases;  first one being the needs assessment and relationship building sessions, then sessions for the Educational Workshop to teach them a basic on reproductive health (since there are a lot of misconceptions on periods and in most of the areas we work with it is not part of their school curriculum), we then have stitching workshops that entails teaching them how to use, wash and stitch their own reusable sanitary packages (which has an exponential effect, as they can self-produce and also teach others in their community and give them access), and lastly we finish with the Celebration and Review Phase, that focuses on reflecting and assessing the impact of our work over time. In the longer run, AASW aims to create entrepreneurial opportunities for our target groups by blending in the skill of stitching and other skills, to create revenue and make the project self-sustaining. Menstruators will produce more sanitary packages in bulk to be sold, from revenue generated, proportion will go to help them uplift their economic situation and proportionate will go for initiative to be self sustaining. To date, AASW has helped over 350 girls in 7 different team, 6 different countries, namely; India, Pakistan, UAE, Tanzania, Kenya and Nigeria. Through our social media, we have had over 50, 000 engagements to spread awareness and break the stigma and taboo surrounding menstruation. We believe in the power of youth, and hence, our teams are made up over of 100 youth volunteers in total. We have also been able to raise over $3000 in funding for our projects.

A huge obstacle that stands in the way of reducing period poverty is the stigmas and taboos that exist, preventing and silencing people from speaking out due to the illogical shame associated with doing so. Luckily, ZIyaan is working towards breaking down such barriers to ensure more open dialogue and progress.

We realize, that period stigma is prevalent in all types of communities, not only those that are affected by period poverty. In response to this, AASW uses social media as an effective tool to make social impact. We run awareness campaigns such as #myperiodstory or #aaswfactoftheweek to break the stigma surrounding menstruation. Through these campaigns, we have had over 50, 000 engagaments on our social media platforms. AASW also various events that blend in arts, music, speeches that are open to people of all backgrounds to creatively break the the taboo and stigma by starting up conversation surrounding periods. These events include; AASW Community Circle, AASW Dinner Gala, Menstrual Talks, AASW’s Photo Booth ‘7 days a month. Period.’, etc.

Eradicating period poverty is a fight that each and every one of us should be involved in, regardless of your identity. You can work with AASW and help end period poverty and stigma together!

I believe that period poverty should be a fight for the whole of humanity because no matter what age, race, background we come from, none of us would be here if it was not for periods. There are many ways you can fight period poverty and period stigma with AASW. You can start your own AASW Chapter in your neighborhood/city/country, you can set up fundraisers or directly donate to the organization, you can be a leader and apply to join our executive team. Period Poverty is of great magnitude, and it requires so many stakeholders, you included. To the females, we will have to be more open, accepting and start conversations about our periods. To the males, we majorly contribute towards period stigmatization, we will have to be accepting, open but most of all use our differences as an opportunity rather than a challenge to combat period poverty and stigma. Let’s talk about it. Period.

Our YOUth In Power campaign highlights the fact that young people are catalysts of change, and have the ability to change societal norms, break glass ceilings, and challenge stigmas. Ziyaan believes in the power of young people to evoke massive and much-needed change - no matter how big challenge.

I believe that the youth are leaders of not only tomorrow but leaders of today. I feel fortunate to be living in this space and time, and to share all this power with the youth around the world. Firstly, the biggest power we have is that we are living in a time and age where we are so interconnected and hence interdependent, be it through technology or social media, and no other generation has ever had that privilege. The interdependency and interconnectedness truly allows us to connect, network, come together, join forces and make impact on a local and global scale. Another thing that makes us so powerful is that we are gifted with a voice, to stand and fight for issues we believe in, to be activists and make the positive social change that truly matters.

Lastly, what makes us so powerful is the data, information, knowledge as well as resources we have access to in this age and time, and it is up to us on how we use these to do what’s best for us and humanity. One may argue, that all of the above things could easily lead us to a very negative path, and that is completely true. So we need to keep in mind how do we harvest the fruits from this huge garden we have as privileges, how do we filter out positive information, how do we use social media to make social impact, how do use technology to solve problems that could have never been solved before.

A quote from one of my favorite movies growing up; Spiderman, says “With great power, comes great responsibility”, and it is now on our shoulders as youth, as what I call the “The Generation of Change”, as leaders of today and tomorrow to use this power that we are gifted with to truly make this world a better place then we found it!

In order to create change, you must defy what’s expected of you. ZIyaan Virji is a defiant changemaker - defying stigmas, barriers, rejections, and the premise that periods are something to be ashamed of.

Image:    Ziyaan Virji

Image: Ziyaan Virji

I have been defiant in many aspects of my life. When I started AASW, I faced a lot of challenges in terms of language barrier, funding, rejections, etc. But instead of just giving up, I refused to give up and continued fighting for what I believed in. As a male fighting for a so-called “female’s issue” has always brought to me criticism, disparagement and disapproval from society. But I have been able to defy all theodds, the social constructs to continue fighting for period poverty and stigma becauseI believe that it is an issue that affects each one of us and it should be seen as something normal, menstrual hygiene also being a basic need. Instead, I have been able to use being a male as a prospect and opportunity to inspire other males and females to fight period poverty and normalizing the normal.

Additionally, as a social entrepreneur, I have been defiant in terms of how I run AASW on a global level. Although AASW has a well established basis and uniformity, I have defied the idea of taking full charge and making all decision as a leader. Instead, what I have done with my teams on a global level, is empower them, equip them with the skills, knowledge andproduct and then give them the space to make decisions and execute based on context and target groups.