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‘I Took A Break From An Ivy League College To Work In Indian Villages, Here’s What It Taught Me’

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By Zubin Sharma:

Madad. Mehanat. Mannat.

On the first day I reached the Bishanpur village in Bihar, my new coworker Abodh Kumar asked me to live my life by these three words.

The words are so simple, almost obvious, and yet, they were so profound. They reminded me why I had taken a semester off in the first place — to escape from the intellectual world at UPenn, where I had learned to construct and deconstruct complex theories for the past 3 years, but had forgotten how to focus on what was happening right in front of me.

Picture credits: Facebook page of Project Potential
Picture credits: Facebook page of Project Potential

Recognizing how little I knew or understood was liberating. It allowed me to ask questions about relationships, purpose, intelligence and love with a beginner’s mind.

I wanted to see new places, meet new people, and understand how intelligence, ideas, and potential were understood outside of the Ivy League — in places where people hadn’t even heard of the Ivy League.

With this idea in mind, I started a project through an NGO in India, where my father is from, to explore this question. That’s where I met Abodh.

Spending time with people like Abodh, who in spite of significantly fewer resources and many more obstacles, had such strong convictions and were doing so much for the society, confirmed my earlier hypothesis that potential exists everywhere.

And yet, this potential was disconnected and lacked the necessary nurture to grow, so I started organizing community meetings to bring people together–people interested in working for change.

The issue that came up over and over again was education, so we built up educational programs for every stakeholder in the village –from mothers to preschoolers, all the way up to high-schoolers. All of these programs were run by local volunteers from the community. That led to the first organization I started — SEEKHO.

SEEKHO worked to create a culture of learning in the village by involving all stakeholders in the educational process. This included mother literacy classes, anganwadi support, literacy camps for primary school students, subject-wise classes for middle school students, and matric preparation for high schoolers. All of our teachers were local volunteers, who taught in exchange for English, computer, and leadership courses. By involving everyone in the learning process — including the teachers — we were able to start changing norms. SEEKHO has taught over 5,000 community members in total.

Over time, however, we noticed that many of our students were slipping through the cracks due to other issues they faced, like poverty and health problems. Even if we worked hard to change norms and provide quality education, we would never be fully successful until these issues were addressed.

In response, many of our local volunteers and teachers started to address other issues in the community in their free team. For example, they decided to clean up a dump next to our facility to create a sports field for our students. Others taught basic health and sanitation practices to lower the likelihood that their students would get sick.

Seeing their incredible desire, strength, and resilience to improve their village in whatever way possible gave us the idea to start a new pilot in which our volunteers would use existing resources to help the community achieve their self-defined goals. Using local resources — including local skills, physical assets, and government support — our local staff, what we call Village Visionaries, were able to get a new school built, bring electricity, jobs, and cultural programs to their villages.

With this success in mind, we started a new organization called Project Potential, which selects, trains, and supports local Village Visionaries to use local resources to help communities reach their goals. As of January 2015, we will be expanding to three new districts, and by the end of 2015, we will begin work in Jharkhand and West Bengal as well.

All of us have embodied what Abodh taught me–madad, mehanat, mannat–to simply work hard and be devoted to serving others. And yet, this would have been significantly harder without the support we provide to one another.

There are thousands of Village Visionaries across rural India who are doing micro social innovations, and yet no one has recognized or supported them, so their ideas remain small. And yet, as we’ve seen, a little bit of help goes a long way in helping these social change agents transform their communities.

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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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