The founder of a health collective fighting to change the narrative around reproductive and mental health has been named Grace Woman of the Year on International Women's Day 2023.
Neelam Heera Shergill, from Birmingham, founded Cysters, which is striving for equal access to healthcare for marginalised communities and was nominated for creating an inclusive space that empowers people of all faiths, backgrounds and genders to speak up about the issues they face around fertility.
The Sikh woman, who credits her faith with inspiring her to help others, has won the top prize of £500 in the awards, which were set up by Grace newsletter, to celebrate inspirational women on International Women's Day.
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Neelam started experiencing problem periods around her teens but said it was only after years of pain and battling for help from doctors, they discovered she had a chocolate cyst – a marker of endometriosis.
“We’re always told to give six to three months worth of calendar dates of pain as a way of proof. And I started realising that, you know, not only are period sexualized, our pain levels aren't really listened to.
“Cysters came from a place of real anger and hurt from my own journey. But I wanted to find out if other people struggled with them as well. And it kind of went from a one woman band talking about these problems to essentially a group of as a collective almost a system of other people.”
As a Sikh woman, Neelam said the Sikh principles of working for the good of all and ‘seva’, which means selfless service, is something that has driven her desire to build the community - or Cysterhood as it’s known.
“Our doors are open, the Cysterhood is yours, if you ever need it. And people sometimes need it for a specific period in their life when they're going through a diagnosis, some people might need it during fertility. It's not something that you have to commit to be in every meeting. It's just a place for you to belong, without having to justify your existence in that space.
“And that also goes for our trans and non binary members, because there's not many safe spaces for people who have different intersects with gender and sexuality to have safe spaces, a place which they call their own.
“Quite often when I spoke about menstrual health, I was the only brown person speaking about it. What I want to do is take everyone on the journey with me because I don't want to be the face of this organisation. I want to everyone I want it to be a collective of people.”
Neelam was invited to 10 Downing Street ahead of International Women's Day to talk about reproductive health. She says she's incredibly proud to be named Grace Woman of the Year.
“It's taken seven years to get to this point where we're actually being listened to on a Government level, and we're being heard at a Government level. So it is a really proud moment, for me, is a really proud moment that I've not only just won this Grace award, but I've actually got a space to actually say to my community that we've got a seat at the table at Downing Street to have a conversation about your health, to think make things better for you.
“What makes me more happy is the fact that somebody in Cysters, who has been on this journey for a long time with us, has taken the time and thought and energy to put this into somebody like me and thought that I was worthy of this.”
Neelam was chosen by a panel of four judges at Reach - Alison Phillips, editor of The Mirror; Dr Rebecca Whittington, online safety editor; Lynda Moyo, head of emerging content at The Mirror; and Jacqui Merrington, Reach discovery director and editor of Grace.
The five runners-up in the Grace Women of the Year Awards were:
Jess Siegertsz, who runs a ladies only skating group in Stoke-On-Trent
Hannah Payton, Britain's only practising Zumba instructor with Down's Syndrome
Kath Sansom, founder of Sling The Mesh
Karen Harvey, who founded the UK's first initiative against hygiene poverty
Jean Lindsay, founder of Preston Black Women's Group