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Pin It On: A White Ribbon To Keep Mothers And Their Babies Safe

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By Karthik Shankar:

Despite all the hoopla about India’s rise as a world power, the country’s social indicators are at par with countries that have far lower GDPs or per capita incomes. The statistics with regards to maternal mortality in particular are alarming. India has the highest rates of maternal deaths and accounts for 17% of all maternal mortality rates worldwide according to a UNICEF report released last year.

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In order to tackle this, several organisations are seriously taking up this cause, but only few have made so many inroads as fast as the White Ribbon Alliance. The White Ribbon Alliance (WRA) is a global coalition of individuals and organizations formed to promote increased public awareness of the need to make pregnancy and childbirth safe for all women and newborns in the developing, as well as, developed countries. White Ribbon Alliance unites citizens to demand the right to a safe birth for every woman, everywhere.

In a span of fifteen years, the White Ribbon Alliance in India (WRAI) has evolved to engage over 1800 organizational and individual members, five state chapters and one regional chapter. Members include NGOs, UN agencies, bilateral, donor organizations, foundations, academic and professional bodies such as the Trained Nurses Association of India (TNAI) and the Federation of Obstetrics and Gynaecologist Society of India (FOGSI). Centre for Catalyzing Change (formerly CEDPA India) has been the secretariat of the WRA India since its inception in 1999.

Dr. Aparajita Gogoi, the Executive Director of Centre for Catalyzing Change is the person who coordinates a coalition of 1800 organizations under the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood in India. She has been a vociferous advocate for maternal health. Due to the intense lobbying of WRAI, in 2003, the Indian Government declared 11 April the anniversary of Kasturba Gandhi’s birth, as National Safe Motherhood Day.

Every year WRAI members select a nationwide advocacy theme for Safe Motherhood Day, and WRAI members carry out activities and full-scale campaigns throughout the country. The goal of these annual campaigns, launched on National Safe Motherhood Day, is to increase awareness that every woman has a right to live and survive pregnancy and childbirth. In addition to campaigning together, NGOs, members, and state chapters come together on National Safe Motherhood Day to share technical expertise and resources. The theme this year is on engaging citizens for improving women’s and children’s health under the campaign titled Nothing about Us without Us’.

2015 is a watershed year, since the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will replace the Millennium Development Goals. The National Meeting, part of a global commitment to raise the cauldron on maternal deaths and appropriate recognition on the issue, will feed into the recommendations for the Global Citizens Hearing, which is to be held during the World Health Assembly in May 2015.

Safe Motherhood Day however is not the only achievement of WRAI. WRAI was twice awarded the Global Safe Motherhood Award in 2000 & 2003 by the Global Health Council in recognition of its contribution to the cause of safe motherhood. In 2001, WRAI received world-wide media attention for its march to the Taj Mahal. The connection between a memorial built for a beloved wife lost in childbirth and maternal health was unmissable. Several thousand people, including a leading parliamentarian and ministers, participated in the march.

The organisation also mobilised public figures and spokesperson to bring attention to the issue. The champions include Shabana Azmi, Raveena Tandon, Pooja Bedi, Shivani Wazir Pasrich, Poonam Bhagat, Rali Nanda, Padamshree Shovana Narayan, and many others who had tirelessly contributed towards advocating for safe motherhood issues. Veteran singer Shubha Mudgal composed a special single for WRAI.

One of the most important achievements of the WRAI is using social accountability efforts as a catalyst for system change to address the high volume of maternal deaths. The social accountability work centres around the performance of maternal death audits via verbal autopsies, utilisation of health facility checklists, use of community scorecards to jointly discuss the actions needed and use of Interactive Voice Response by women and community to directly link them in the process on improving quality of service. Finally, public hearings and rallies bring women together with government officials and service providers to allow them to address grievances related to maternal health service delivery.

All these efforts are commendable. Despite this, 44,000 women die every year due to pregnancy related causes. 80% of those deaths are due to preventable causes. Dr. Gogoi says that most of the women who die due to pregnancy related causes in India are poor women, who have little political power, are frequently illiterate, and have very low status in their societies. “Their voices are not really heard and therefore it is so very important for people like us to add our voices, speak with and speak for these women. The underlying causes for maternal mortality include low quality of health systems, socio economic causes that obstruct and underplay the importance of healthcare for women.”

Despite the hurdles WRAI continues to face, the umbrella of organisations continues to espouse maternal health initiatives. Their next goal is to push forward citizen engagement as a core aspect of the Post 2015 agenda through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“Through this campaign, we want to send out the message that every woman has a right to live and survive pregnancy and childbirth, and that citizen’s engagement can go a long way to help achieve the goals,” says Dr. Aparajita Gogoi, National Coordinator, White Ribbon Alliance India.

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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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