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How A Team Of 6 Is Changing The Lives Of 12000 Students Across MP and Other States

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By Vani Manocha:

Note: This article has been republished from Down To Earth.

After completing his schooling, getting into a college was an uphill task for 29-year-old Sandeep Mehto. His family, hailing from Kesla tribal block in Pathrota village, Madhya Pradesh, did not have enough money to support his higher education. But Mehto was determined. He borrowed from a moneylender to get enrolled in the Samrat Ashok Technological Institute in the state and sought an education loan to get into the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, in 2009. While he made it to the prestigious institute, Mehto knew that far too many children gave up on their dreams of a higher education either because they did not have the financial means or were not aware of the career choices which could give them a good education without costing a fortune.

Along with sensitisation training, the Bharat Calling team helps government school students fill up application forms to seek enrollment for higher studies (Photo: Tarun Choudhary)
Along with sensitisation training, the Bharat Calling team helps government school students fill up application forms to seek enrollment for higher studies (Photo: Tarun Choudhary)

The urge to help children pursue their dream uninterrupted led him to start Bharat Calling, which he co-founded in 2009 with John Basumatary, his batchmate from TISS. The venture, started in Hoshangabad district, was registered as a society in 2011, supported by Shri Ramesh Prakash Samajik Sansthan, a non-profit based in Pathrota. Bharat Calling provides counselling to government school students about higher education streams, including courses like forestry, environmental studies, music, dance, sculpture and physical education, and connects them to colleges and universities to facilitate their admission. Once a network is built, it becomes easy for students to enquire about courses, fee and duration of study. “Since I went through a crisis myself, I can relate to the challenges faced by students who neither have Internet connectivity to find out where to apply nor enough money to enroll for higher studies,” Mehto says.

An idea that changed lives

Mehto and Basumatary started Bharat Calling with an initial investment of Rs 30,000 that came partly as a contribution from their professor at TISS and partly from a trust in Mehto’s village. Initially, the initiative had 50 students under its counsel. Today, it connects 12,000 students from about 900 villages to educational institutions across Madhya Pradesh and neighbouring states. In 2011, the initiative was also showcased in the TV reality show Kaun Banega Crorepati as “Ek anokhi misaal”.

As part of their work, six employees of Bharat Calling, who started as volunteers, meet government officers to seek permission to conduct awareness camps in schools during November-December every year. If permitted, they contact the school principal and arrange infrastructure like classrooms and books to hold 45-minute long sensitisation training with students. These sessions, once conducted by the co-founders, are now held by volunteers who are selected through a fellowship programme. Students have to fill forms with their areas of interest for higher studies.

When I was in class 12, I had no idea what to do next. But the desire to be a teacher was somewhere within me. When Bharat Calling came to our school in Jhunkar village and its volunteers guided us, most of us realised that our dreams could come true,” says Arti Damde, now pursuing her bachelor’s degree in education from the Regional Institute of Education, Bhopal.

Sensitisation is only the first round. In March, when application forms are made available for admission to higher educational institutions, the Bharat Calling team again approaches the students to conduct intensive training camps to prepare them for entrance examination. They also help students fill up application forms. “Since most of us could not afford to make many phone calls, the team kept in touch with us. Had it not been for Bharat Calling, I had lost all hope to study further,” adds Rajkumar Patel Gujjar, a student of B.Sc in Forestry from Guru Ghasidas University, Bilaspur.

Sunita Wadhwa, principal of a school in Bankheri village, believes that not every student wants to be an engineer or can enroll in reputed institutes like the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). The initiative gives tribal students an opportunity to explore unconventional career options and groom themselves to earn a livelihood out of them.

This network identifies students’ interests and talents and guides them to seek admission in institutes whose fee they can afford,” Wadhwa adds. Today, as many as 200 volunteers run Bharat Calling. The core team comprises six salaried members—four coordinators and two managers, one of whom is Mehto. The volunteers are not paid. Funds for the initiative now come from the Development Bank of Singapore and Caring Friends, an informal group of funders. Besides funds and online crowdfunding to seek donation, Bharat Calling also runs online campaigns asking people to sponsor a child. The management has already started getting scholarships for deserving students.

Mehto and his team are a source of encouragement to those students who want to study but have no one to guide them,” says Lorry Banjamin, an education activist who once worked with the Ratan Tata Trust.

Worth all the trouble

The journey for Mehto, however, was not a cakewalk. “When I pushed the idea to school authorities, they were not very supportive as the concept focused more on raising awareness about career choices than assured economic benefits,” he says. He also faced societal pressure for not choosing a conventional career path for himself. But he was fortunate to have his family’s support.

Mehto conceived the idea of Bharat Calling while studying at TISS. He conducted a survey to assess the situation of higher education enrollment in Kesla. The survey showed a dropout rate of 82 per cent among class 10 students. It also revealed that those who continued to study further got enrolled in colleges rated ‘B’ by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council. This is when Mehto and Basumatary decided to bring about a change. “The goal of Bharat Calling is to ensure that no student is denied the right to higher education due to poor socio-economic conditions,” says Mehto, who wants his cause to reach other states as well.

Students are encouraged to pursue unconventional career options like physical education and sculpture (Photo: Archana Relan)
Students are encouraged to pursue unconventional career options like physical education and sculpture (Photo: Archana Relan)

Bharat Calling is one of the few projects of this kind. Renowned mathematician Anand Kumar’s Super 30 is another initiative where his team selects and trains students from economically backward sections to appear for IIT entrance exams.

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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 Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’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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