Every year, Girl Scout’s national organization (GSUSA) recognizes ten girls as inspiring leaders who have transformed an idea and vision for change into an actionable plan with measurable, sustainable, and far-reaching impact at the local, national, and global levels. This year, Austin Girl Scout, Devika Kumar has been selected to be named a GSUSA National Young Woman of Distinction, due to her demonstration of extraordinary leadership in addressing a globally impactful issue.
As a child, Austin native and child of Indian immigrants, Devika Kumar, spent her summers visiting her family in a rural village near Rajasthan, India, where her father grew up. “When I was younger, I didn’t really understand the difference [between the United States and India]. I began to get older, and to realize the unique experiences I’d had, and one of these things was with my period.”
Menstruation is a sensitive subject for many countries, but in India 23 percent of the girl population missed school five days per month, due to the unavailability of feminine hygiene products. In a nation of over 1 billion people, this percentage works out to roughly 40 million girls who miss school two months a year. The other 80 percent of females use scraps of filthy cloth to control their menstruation cycle. Sanitary napkins are not a luxury afforded to the 276 million of India’s who live in poverty.
For Devika, this is simply unacceptable. When Devika began to brainstorm how she could earn her Gold Award, the highest achievement in Girl Scouting, recognizing girls who complete projects that have sustainable impact in their communities-and beyond, she frequently considered how she could aid the millions of girls who are completely uneducated about this natural occurrence, and are forced by their society into a confused, shameful silence. She was hesitant to undertake such a large-scale project.
“To be honest,” she says, “my biggest fear was that the locals wouldn’t be receptive some foreigner coming to preach to them.”
But she felt compelled to take action. The Austin community rallied around her passion, raising $4,500 to purchase a sanitary pad machine from a local Indian engineer. She then travelled to remote villages in Rajasthan, to educate the women villagers how to operate the machine. Grinding cotton. Pressing the cotton. Disinfecting the pads. With each step learned, these women began to take leaps toward empowerment. With the machine, the village women can also create a self-sustaining business from selling the sanitary pads.
Additionally, Devika visited surrounding villages, where she conducted mini-workshops. She showed educational videos on menstruation and menstrual hygiene, answered questions, and discussed how the machine works, providing women with critical information and a safe space to discuss menstrual hygiene. Because of Devika, all the girls in the village now attend school full time.
Devika is currently a freshman at the University of Texas, and is studying International Relations. She plans continue her work to bring awareness to seriously overlooked global issues.