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A Power in Denial Mode

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Tanya Jain:

The recently concluded 16th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in the Bhutanese capital of Thimpu would surely have been hawk — eyed by China due to its alleged insecurity on India’s growing clout over their common neighbours. China not only undermines India’s influence but also plays possum on India’s achievements globally. China has been bubbling to join SAARC, but with India playing the Big Daddy of the association, Chinese ambitions show little scope.

SAARC, the convergence of eight member countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Maldives, India, Bangladesh and Nepal, is the largest regional association in the world representing more than 1.5 billion people. Accordingly, it is expected to yield results. Albeit, SAARC has merely become a consortium for South Asian discussions, ofcourse with a solid, predetermined agenda which qualifies for the global attention, but also followed by ubiquitous inaction by the members.

This year, the centre of discourse was ‘climate change’ mostly considering the woes of two of its members; Himalayan nation Nepal, and the island country ,Maldives, both of whose existence is imperilled by the perpetual glacier melt, portending a grave future risk.

Shockingly, 7 of the 8 members of SAARC have been noted by The World Food Programme, to be grappling with hunger and food crunch, Sri Lanka being the only exception. In 2008 SAARC summit, the focus was on bringing about food security in the subcontinent by operationalising the SAARC Food Bank, which would maintain food stocks and be an effective tool for managing future food crisis situations. The idea took 20 years to be turned into reality. The Food Bank plan saw the light of the day in 2008, when its need was finally realised and worked upon.

Alarmingly, India has been noted of being home to 50% of the worlds hungry. The dichotomy here is that India has been contributing 60% of the food to the SAARC Food Bank, ofcourse maximum by any country.

Some of the typical issues dealt by SAARC includes, growing energy needs in the subcontinent, transport and trade facilitation, regional integration and the mother of all, curbing the terrorism ‘menace.

The point here is that neither has hunger been expunged out or even impacted drastically for SAARC functioning to be deservingly lauded, nor has trade made any landmark development, terrorism has found its solution only in ‘cautiousness of oneself’, as Jihad continues to breed and flourish. I wonder who the members share terrorism concern with, Pakistan or Afghanistan. Moreover who is willing to do, or has the authority to do something about it? Does Pakistan’s stance of its having nothing to do with terrorism changes when it comes to attend SAARC? What’s the purpose served? Of what use is a 40 minute cold, phlegmatic meeting between two countries when the bitterness in their relationship still lingers? Is it just a ceremonial business responsibility to meet and greet?

The political relationships both internal and external between nations will always remain the same, countless agreements and pacts can be signed and wasted time upon, but their scope of bringing some fundamental change is narrowly limited due to lack of continuous and coordinated correspondence between nations. For instance, SAFTA OR South Asian Free Trade Agreement was ratified by all the member nations in 2006, as a step towards opening their economies and reducing trade tariffs and other barriers for effective exchange of resources. Now that is merely an agreement, an obligation to lift the morale of the believers of SAARC.

In reality the countries are vary of India’s intentions. They fear India’s invasion over their markets, societies and politics through commercial ventures and a commercial presence in their country. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Nepal are especially chary of India’s economic gains through regional diplomacy.

Recently, Bangladesh banned Bollywood films due to their insecurity over growing India’s influence both culturally and economically, which was also seen to be threatening local industries.

A consortium as powerful and as mighty as this one, according to me is going more or less wasted due to its failure in writing a subcontinent integration story ,failure in sending the world a message of unity and togetherness of SAARC nations ,which could have further lead to confidence building in the region. There ought to be a list of short term goals and long term goals, so that the summit is not stagnant over years working on a single issue, and instead focuses also on quick social, cultural, and economic exchanges between countries, frequent communication between the head of the countries will only facilitate it’s functioning.

25 years have passed since its creation; the achievements are far lesser than what could have been. Countries have expressed their interests in becoming members of SAARC, including Iran, China, and Burma. To say that India is utilising SAARC to the best of her and the region’s interest will be an overstatement. The future of this association doesn’t look far different from its past or present. However there is no denying, the scope of SAARC is immense, if presided and coordinated well, it holds the potential of becoming an alternative centre of power in the years to come.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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