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How SEWA Changed Pooja’s Life [And My Experiences]

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By Richa Hingorani:

Waking up to unfamiliar walls, I glanced at the watch clocking away my time. Reaching out for my notebook, I tenderly flipped the pages and drew to a stop when I read a familiar date. ‘SUCCESS STORY’, it said under today’s date with thick blue ink boxing it, silently telling me it was the priority of the day. Minutes later, I walked to the reception area and saw a pair of wandering eyes gaining assurance as I walked closer.

“Richa ben”, said the petite girl dressed in the printed salwar-kameez.
“Mai, Pooja” she continued.

Following Gandhi’s principles, Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) Katihar began an initiative of cleanliness aptly christened ‘Swachh Katihar, Swasthya Katihar’, ensuring door-to-door cleanliness drive, street sweeping and cleansing of the drainage system. A SEWA employee, Pooja, works as an organizer managing a municipal ward and a team of 4 entrusted with the task of maintaining taintlessness.

“Good morning”, I greeted.
Coyly smiling, she turned to the exit, “Chalein?”

Posing questions, I set afoot in her comfort zone. As we walked through the crowded rude roads, she forewarned me about potholes, held my hand, carved the way for me and repeatedly offered to take a rickshaw. Declining each time, I was enamored by confidence she exuded. Upon probing, I learnt she was all of 20 years old, Sociology graduate and nurtured dreams of pursuing B.Ed.

Gesturing towards sparklingly clean households, she smiled and said

“Yahaan kaam ho chuka hai.”

Strolling up to the accumulation point of waste, she beamed as she saw a dustbin that read SEWA Katihar. Fearing improper retention and citing a distant bench, I asked if we could take a seat. Her response came in the form of hurried steps towards our destination.

“Garmi nahin lagegi?” she inquired.

Squinting my eyes to look at her, I nodded and she began marching towards the cool shades. Sitting on the steps, I dug out my notebook and began jotting down. Through the route of my questions, I saw her inhibitions collapse and proceed to be engulfed by a certain ease. Answers became more personal, my stimulation decreased and her participation quadrupled.

My findings fastidiously took me away from the purpose of our meeting. On a monthly salary of 4,000/-, she hoarded savings of 50,000/- . How? I posed and prompt came her reply
“Do saal se SEWA ke saath kaam kar rahin hoon”

As though responding to my disbelief, her eyes twinkled with pride as she repeated the savings she had amassed. Unfolding stories, she narrated how her greatest achievement took the shape of a Johnson & Johnson’s baby kit she gifted to her brother and sister-in-law. Ah! The innocence of her all! She was barely 5 feet, a face that harbored a smile rather frequently, how could anyone have taken her seriously? She nodded even before I finished asking, making it seem like a familiar obstacle.

“Mai unke saamne itna smile nahin karti, mai inke saath bahut strict hoon”

Pausing for a while as though she’s time-traveling, she adds,

“Woh sab (the team) nahin chahte ki mai kissi se kuch kaam ke bare mein sunoo isiliye woh apna kaam achche se aur imandaari se karte hain.”

Having created a feeling of togetherness among those who have been traditionally oppressed is not easy. Called rag-pickers ordinarily, SEWA addresses them as ‘Saundarya Saathi’ aimed at bestowing dignity and reverence. Tough row to hoe!

She glances at her wrist watch and exclaims she loves shopping for clothes, nail paints and dotes on Shahrukh Khan. Rubbing off the dust off our clothes, she looks at me egging me to move faster. As she saunters and gains lead, I look at her admiringly and realize the odyssey she has undertaken, the crests and troughs she encounters, the self-reliance she represents, the relevance of the savings she hoards, the Johnson & Johnson’s kit she proudly gifted.

Leaping over and beyond merely being a success story, she traverses on a road less traveled and becomes synonymous with being inspirational.

Hats tip to you, Pooja!

Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) is committed to strengthening the Movement of women in the informal economy by highlighting their issues at the national level and building its member organisations’ capacity to empower them.

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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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