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They Warned Him From Entering This Village, He Went Ahead To Revive It

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By Varun Sharma

Are you insane? Who takes a gap year during their Masters? Don’t waste your degree like this!

These were some of the responses last year, when I decided to take a break from my college education and take up something quite offbeat and little heard of – the chance to work with a tribal community. But let me tell you, the decision to do this wasn’t a random one.

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Years of toiling in the academic field, I was just sick of only writing, talking, debating, and discussing about the issues concerning the education system and development sector at large. In the academic world, we are used to writing term papers, text book and essay reviews, doing class analysis and other kinds of things that sound fancy but do not yield immediate ground results. I was searching for alternatives. Since I was extremely interested in working with a tribal community and intensively exploring tribal languages and culture, immediately after finishing my third semester I joined the SBI Youth for India fellowship. The university too was supportive of my endeavour.

Once in, as a part of the fellowship, I was working in Suaba village in Odisha. During my long walks by the countryside, one thing that always intrigued me was a particular mountain that was up ahead of the village. Out of curiosity, one day, while out for my usual cup of morning chai, I asked Basanti Didi, what there was on the mountain up ahead. She told me that there’s a village where no one goes. She warned me not to go there, and in case I do, then not to eat or drink anything there, for I would fall sick. Even more curious now, I couldn’t resist the temptation to do exactly the opposite – a childhood habit of doing what I was told not to! That minute itself I decided to go and explore, and a local 17 year old boy decided to accompany me on this walk, more out of concern than anything else!

The school at Saura village

It was an 8 km hike up the hill, nestled in the Eastern Ghats – one that shredded all my delusions about how fit I was! Once at the village, I was stunned to find that here there was neither road nor electricity. In spite of the Right to Education Act, the only school in the village was literally falling apart and had not been functioning for 4 years!

As we headed back, a couple of community members met us on the way and giggled and said something in Saura, the tribal language. I looked at my friend for an explanation and he said that they were laughing at how I ran away from the village and was not able to stay for even an hour.

This laughter still echoes in my head. I gradually understood the extent of hopelessness that has grown in the tribal communities, which only elicits laughter at the desperate nature of their situation.

To state just a few of the problems that plagued the village – the nearest Public Health Centre from Suaba was 8 km downhill – in Koinpur; the nearest hospital was in Rayagada block, around 45 km away! What would happen to a pregnant woman in case of complications during delivery? Will a woman trek 8 km downhill in that condition? I came to know that there had been cases where people had lost their lives because of lack of such menial infrastructure that we always take for granted in well-connected places.

Troubled by all this, on our walk back, I began to vigorously preach to my young friend about doing something to change this situation. This was when it struck me – why wasn’t I myself doing something about it? It took me 10 whole days to get things sorted out and overcome my fear of a daily 16 km walk to commit to changing things. Today I’m glad that I made that commitment.

I began by teaching the children at the village every alternate day and this went on for two months. Then, to figure out a more sustainable model, we collectively tried to navigate through the bureaucratic hurdles:

1. To get the school started again with a fixed teacher: The school is up and running now in a community hall. We are currently fighting to fix the school’s infrastructure.
2. To electrify the village: For this, we have already raised more than Rs 3 lakhs. We are looking for more support. The project should showcase the power of collective efforts.
3. To get an all-weather road sanctioned: This will help decrease the drudgery of walking. The District Collector has given written guidelines to the BDO for road planning. We are regularly following up on this.

Today, it brings me immense satisfaction to think that a little effort from my side along with the hard work of everyone collectively, has put Suaba village on the path towards holistic development.

Suaba A glimpse
Suaba village

All this while, I have observed several fundamental problems in the approaches that have been used for bringing about development in tribal communities. These have shattered their dignity and made these self-sustained communities handicapped in the long run. Also, our inaction and proneness to preach (like mine in my initial days) are major hurdles. People from non-tribal communities usually have a lot of biases regarding tribal communities, especially when the question of “mainstreaming” them comes up. But truly, the indigenous knowledge I have confronted by working with them is enormous and something I sincerely believe should be brought to the forefront.

Personally, this whole experience also taught me to be humble and critique one’s own work. I followed my heart by taking 2 gap semesters from the University to join the SBI Youth for India fellowship, which gives one an opportunity to work at the grassroots level while following one’s dreams and provides support for the same. Such a prospect is hard to come by – and I am glad that it came my way.

You can contact Varun at varun.sharma13@apu.edu.in and support his electricity campaign here.

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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.

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 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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