A focus on empowerment

A social entrepreneur from Nepal, Jesselina Rana LL.M. ’22 focuses on human rights and women’s health

Four years ago, Jesselina Rana LL.M. ’22 was studying for the bar in Nepal and looking for a job after earning a law degree from National Law University, Delhi, in India, where she concentrated in women’s rights and human rights. Her then acquaintance Shubhangi Rana, a civil engineer, was also job-hunting, and as they sat over coffee in Katmandu, they hit upon an idea.

In India, universities and some other public places had vending machines that sold sanitary napkins, but there was nothing similar in Nepal. The two friends decided to establish a social business that would generate income, but also have an important social impact by providing women with a much-needed service. They decided to start with a small project by importing ten vending machines into Nepal, and very quickly, their business, Pad2Go, was born.

“We were not just selling a product but creating a market for a product that never existed,” said Rana, who during her graduate studies at Harvard Law School this year has continued her focus on women’s and human rights. “In Hindu culture, at least in Nepal, menstruation is seen as something impure.” During their menstrual cycles, women are often expected to sleep separately from their husbands, or even, in rural areas, to sleep outside of the house in a cow shed. “We thought it would be a big challenge to create a market within a taboo concept like that of menstruation.”

But another of her innovations served to boost their project. She announced Pad2Go on Nepalifeminist, a first-of-its-kind social media advocacy and community support site Rana had created in 2016. Two days after she and her partner got their first 10 vending machines, they were invited to a conference in Katmandu called MenstruAction, which convened young, innovative actors around the issue of menstrual health. At the summit, the Pad2Go partners connected with an organization called Care Nepal, which immediately offered to buy all 10 vending machines, place them in rural parts of the country, and have both Ranas travel through Nepal to introduce the concept to girls and women.

“Things just blew up from there,” says Rana. “In the whole country, no one had approached access to menstrual products in this manner.” Indeed, there were no vending machines selling any kind of products in Nepal. The Pad2Go machines don’t require electricity, which is an asset in rural areas, she says.

Their concept was so needed and so innovative that Pad2Go took off like a rocket. Over the past four years, Pad2Go has provided menstrual products to over 65,000 women and girls, and placed more than 300 vending machines in all seven provinces in Nepal, in schools, hospitals, movie theaters, and offices. Pad2Go, which also conducts workshops on menstrual health, has been featured in Forbes magazine. The company won first prize at AGUASAN in Switzerland, which gathers specialists to promote understanding of key issues in water and sanitation in developing and transition countries, and second prize at a startup pitch contest for Asian women-led businesses in Singapore.

While Pad2Go was taking off, Rana was also studying for, and then taking, the bar exam, while also undergoing a tedious application process to work for Amnesty International Nepal. “I was young and determined to make a mark and had energy, so I just did it,” she recalls, with a laugh.

Hired at Amnesty as the human rights education officer, she worked to help young people understand their rights under Nepali law on such issues as abortion and sexual health. She published numerous articles, conducted public programming, and made recommendations to the government on the criminal laws around rape and on acid violence.

In Nepal and some other parts of South Asia, it is not uncommon for men who are angry at their romantic partners to throw acid on them as a form of revenge — because it is used to clean the toilet, she says, acid is easy to obtain. “It’s definitely got a lot to do with how toxic masculinity is perpetuated but also how easy it is to buy acid,” says Rana. She and others devised guidelines for a 2022 change to the law, making it harder for vendors to sell acid. At the same time, she continued her work at Pad2Go.

As she worked in these arenas, Rana came to feel she needed more academic training and a better understanding of the laws and legal systems in other countries. She applied to Harvard Law School with an eye toward studying with feminist scholars she had long admired, and she has taken classes with Catharine A. MacKinnon and Diane L. Rosenfeld LL.M. ’96. Rana also was a researcher with the Harvard Advocates for Human Rights, and an LL.M. board member with the Harvard Alliance for Reproductive Justice. She was also selected as a student speaker in the Women in Power Conference at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“In every class I’ve taken, I have had an ‘ah ha!’ moment that defines my Harvard experience,” says Rana, who emphasizes that she could not have matriculated at Harvard Law without the significant financial aid the school offered her.

“Jesselina stood out as an exemplary student from the first day of the Gender Violence Advanced Research Seminar and has impressed me each week,” says Rosenfeld. “She is inquisitive, insightful, creative and has a unique ability to thread together different theories into innovative approaches to seemingly intransigent problems. Her sensitivity to cultural dimensions of patriarchal violence is likewise unique.”

Rana credits her parents — who have their own unique views but share core values — with encouraging her and her brother to be open to examining differing perspectives. Her father was in the Nepalese military; her mother is a social development worker in the women’s rights field, and very early in their teenage years, she taught her children about safe sex and gay rights, among other concepts not widely discussed in Nepal at the time.

“I was brought up with the idea that you don’t always have to have everyone agree with you in order to move forward in what you want to do,” says Rana, whose grandfathers were both in the foreign ministry working in foreign countries for most of their lives (her paternal grandfather was the Nepalese ambassador to the U.S. in 2004 and her maternal grandfather was the Nepalese ambassador to France in 2003.)

Her parents’ guidance “really inspired me to get into law and to choose a field I’m very passionate about.” Her mother and generations of women before her had “a strong say in the household,” says Rana, and her mother always emphasized the importance of women having their own sources of income. Rana herself went away to school in India at the age of 10 — the 10-year civil war in Nepal disrupted education there — and stayed through university before returning home.

Rana, who will take the New York bar exam this summer, is applying for a Harvard Law School Public Service Venture Fund fellowship to work for International Service for Human Rights in New York. Her Pad2Go business partner, Shubhangi Rana, is planning to attend grad school next year, so they are hiring people to keep the company going until they return to Nepal.

Jesselina Rana — her first name means “inclined to fame”—has but one complaint about the LL.M. program. “I’m upset it’s only eight months,” says Rana, who tried to do as much as she had spare time for while in Boston, including kayaking on the Charles River. “If I had one recommendation to Harvard, make the program at least a year and a half.”