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What Does Freedom Mean To An Underprivileged Student?

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By Sachin Jain:

We all know that education is the key to freedom in today’s world. However, what does freedom really mean to a child in an underprivileged school? It is the freedom both to be able to do things, as well as the freedom from a lot of ills that plague our world.

India’s freedom movement is understood as the struggle to overthrow foreign yoke and usher in an era of self-governance. Today, 64 years after those heady days of 1947, our country is ready for another freedom movement — the movement for educational equity.

Ours is a country of disparities. Walk into any classroom in a municipal school, and these disparities become glaringly apparent. From absent toilets to absent teachers, it all leaves much to be desired. The pupils move up from standard to standard, starting school in the monsoons in June every year, without really making adequate progress commensurate with their new grade level. As a result they find it harder and harder to cope with an increasingly difficult curriculum. The result of this is that at some point they crack under the strain and drop out of the school system. Even if they stay, on passing Standard X, they are so severely under-skilled that most are virtually unemployable in meaningful jobs.

What such pupils need is a second freedom movement — freedom from systemic apathy that is trapping them in poverty and a lifetime of difficulties. Such a movement requires leaders, specifically the youth of the country. Those of us who have had a privileged education, and see the fruits of that in our daily existence, be it the choices we make, the lifestyles we enjoy or the level of work that we find fulfilling, can now make someone else’s dreams come true. By being in the life of a classroom of underprivileged pupils for two years, as a teacher, friend, philosopher, guide, inspiration, motivator and coach, you can move the neediest sections of our society — on whom the fabric of our social structure of tomorrow depends — to better life outcomes.

The need of the hour is transformational teaching — teaching that transforms the life-outcomes of the pupils. The first step to that is academic achievement: being able to read and write and achieve proficiency in Math, English, Science and Social Studies. Unless these pupils are equipped with the skills and knowledge they need to excel academically, the achievement gap between them and pupils from privileged schools will only widen. Secondly, we need teachers who inculcate long-term traits and mindsets in their students that foster success and engender growth. From regular study hours to a balanced lifestyle of study and recreation, to a sense of self-worth and confidence that comes from meeting goals regularly, the attitudes and beliefs that students hold about themselves and others are critical to determining how far they get in life.

But even a teacher who brings all these things to the classroom will not be able to make it come alive, if they are not aligned with the students’ interests and aspirations. Our pupils must dare to dream: in the challenging environments that they come from, dreaming seems either foolhardy, or a luxury. If we are able to connect the dots between the learning experience of today, and the realization of dreams tomorrow, both for the pupils and their parents, we can provide a road-map to meeting their aspirations. This is the third requirement.

The fourth is to provide pathways to opportunity for students to be able to channelize their talents and hone their skills to be achieve excellence as professionals. If all we seek for our pupils is to put them on the conveyor belt to a quotidian job, then are we really doing our work well? We must let each student flower to the maximum of his or her potential. This could mean inculcating a spirit of entrepreneurship along with the possibility of getting a job. This also means exposing pupils to the various emerging career options present in the 21st century: from being a translator in Mandarin to creating the technologies of tomorrow’s electronic devices — and getting them to meet role models who have taken the path less travelled and contributed value to the world.

But for me the biggest meaning of freedom is the freedom from the established norms and frame of reference of the world: a world which seeks to define “betterment” as the pursuit of mindless consumerism at the expense of inner peace. If our pupils lose their inherent innocence and sense of harmony with the world, and become mindless, unhappy stressed-out worker-drones, all our education will have done them a disservice. Rather, if we take the qualities that they already come with — resilience, grace under pressure, innovative thinking, problem-solving, optimism, and a never-say-die spirit, and combine them with a sense of the big picture and what makes our world wonderful: a concern for the environment, the willingness to serve and contribute, to produce goodness in the world and not merely consume from it — we will have truly set our students free.

Sachin Jain is Director, Fellowship Recruitment at Teach For India, a national movement of young leaders to end educational inequity in India. He taught for 2-years, full-time at Supari Tank Municipal School in Mumbai as a part of Teach For India’s first cohort of Fellows (2009-2011).

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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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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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