We’re so proud of our founder and CEO Dr Zareen Roohi Ahmed’s recent appearance on TEDxStroud in which she spoke so passionately about what led her to setting up Gift Wellness Ltd and our sister charity, The Gift Wellness Foundation. We wanted to take a closer look at what she said, expanding on certain areas that explore the key aims and approaches of our company.
In the talk, Zareen tells the moving story of plans to do charity work with her daughter Halimah, which were tragically shattered by Halimah’s death. Naturally, for some time Zareen focused on dealing with her grief, but eventually found a way to move forward and generate something positive in Halimah’s memory.
‘Like any parent if I ever heard a tragic story involving someone’s child, I would think that if that ever happened to me it would finish me… but as it turned out this test actually give me so much clarity and resilience and strength as I never thought possible. After facing my worst fear, what else could possibly scare me?’
Wanting to, in Zareen’s words, ‘do Halimah’s work’ she set about with a desire to help others, and found inspiration as to what she could specifically do whilst on her way back from Pakistan, following the successful opening of her first project, a school and college named after Halimah.
‘Sitting there in the airport lounge I picked up a magazine… it opened straight onto the article describing women in the Zaatari refugee camp and how they had to tear strips off the bottom of their clothes to fold-up into makeshift sanitary pads… how their womanhood was used against them.’
As was a big focus in her talk, Zareen acknowledged the need to do something about this issue, harnessing the love that she could no longer direct towards Halimah to the benefit of those in need, such as those she had read about, who were suffering.
‘I embarked on eighteen months of research and development to develop my own range of natural menstrual products and a strategy whereby for every pack I sold, I donated pads to women in refugee camps, homeless women, foodbanks and schools.’
Quickly Zareen realised that alongside the issue of a lack of access to sanitary products, there was a correlated problem, the lack of education on menstrual health and the stigma attached to it, partly as a result of minimal education. For all the work and strategies that Zareen developed to get the products to the people who needed them, she faced barriers because people simply didn’t understand that her work was necessary. Determined to make a difference, Zareen faced up to this challenge too.
‘I called up a local charity who I’d heard were taking a container of aid to the Zaatari Syrian refugee camp, the same one that I’d read about eighteen months before, and I called them up and asked them to come and collect a number of pallets of my stock to take with them. To my surprise the guy on the phone said ‘oh sister, actually this pallet is getting filled up with really important things like food and clothing and medicine. Maybe we’ll take some of your stuff next time.’
Zareen’s role, as seen here in her TEDx talk, often involves talking about periods and period poverty directly. She is able to speak with so much ease on these topics because, as in this situation with the charity worker, she recognises that there is a lack of understanding surrounding menstrual heath, to which discussion is the solution. The taboo surrounding period poverty enhances the suffering of those facing it. When Zareen opens up about menstrual health, whether with friends and family members, business associates, or charity partners, she is often faced with shock, but the more she talks- the more we all do- the more the taboo begins to fade away; discussion dispels darkness.
‘Ever since he’s been taking pads to women in crisis in various refugee camps around the world.’
Like him, over the years Zareen has changed minds and attitudes, engaging a world-wide audience with this world-wide issue. She acknowledges how the process, in the wake of Halimah’s death, has aided her healing, and crucially given her a way to avoid the painful act of locking up her feelings. She’s now looking in different directions and finding new avenues through which to spread the message about period poverty, conveying that most important message that it is an issue, even in countries such as the UK. One of her current areas of interest is in how workplaces could improve the experience of menstruating employees. In one of my very first conversations with Zareen, it was clear that as well as being part of the effort towards helping other organisations achieve a period positive atmosphere, Gift Wellness was leading by example.
‘What if rather than women having to fit into a system designed for men, the working structure synchronised around the natural cycles of women’s bodies? From my research I found only one organisation that actually implements, successfully, a period policy and a period friendly work place. What we need to do is inject this kind of thinking into the bloodstream of every organisation.’
To stay grounded on this issue Zareen regularly reflects back on her own life and experiences as a menstruating woman, right from being at school to experiences in the workplace. How we interact with each other in the face of experiences like menstruation is precisely where stigma and taboo originate and thrive if given the space to, and that’s why examining the everyday situations in which they are perpetuated is so important.
‘I started questioning myself, with three sisters, why was it so difficult, so hush-hush, to talk about periods in our house while we were growing up? When I was at school if a boy in my class had a stomach ache he would be sent home to rest, if I had really bad period pains and blood loss, I’d be sent to the school nurse who’d throw me a couple of paracetamols and say ‘don’t worry it's just your time of the month.’
Due to Zareen’s openness and commitment to this cause, she’s caused positive changes within her own family and community, as well as in wider society.
‘Believe it or not, my whole family, yes a traditional Muslim family, complete with long bearded uncles and teenage nephews and nieces and aunties in head scarves, were side by side in my warehouse, labelling and packing menstrual products to send off for charity.’
The central message of Zareen’s work is embodied in that quote: that every conversation we have about the issue of period poverty, and every small act we make towards finding a solution, builds towards huge, culminative change. It starts with changing minds and attitudes, and is rooted in the simple desire to help others be more comfortable about their experiences as body-inhabiting humans! To sum up, lets reflect on what Zareen has to say on the importance of recognising the struggles we face and using them as a positive force.
‘I hope that my story has conveyed the synonymous relationship between hardship and periods; both involve pain and difficulty, loss, recovery, and renewal- for me it goes full circle, all the way back to that idea of passing on the sacred trust fuelled by love to the next generation, although in my case it's not just through my own daughter, but thousands of daughters who are benefitting from that decision to not just feel love but to do love.’
To watch Zareen's TEDx talk in full, click here