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A 15-Year Old Autistic Girl Was Working With A Welding Machine To Make Metal Flowers…

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By Janhavi:

I was some 6 years old when my family shifted to a new apartment. The idea of having neighbours was totally new to me and I loved it instantly. The first house I remember visiting was on the floor above our house. When we rang the bell, a saree clad woman opened the door and let me in with a huge smile. Her eyes were deep and her touch was as soft as my mother’s. I ran all over the house and saw a girl sitting on a chair. She was dark in complexion. Her neck was as if permanently positioned on the right shoulder. She emitted a profound odour which I noticed when I went closer to say hello. She kept staring at me and I stared back at her for a long time. After a while, she gave a huge smile with brightened eyes and I smiled at her as well.

artist-paints-art

“You can call her Tai. Her name is Sneha and she is my elder daughter,” the woman who opened the door told me from behind. While returning home, I told my parents that I would go and play with her every day after school. They agreed but told me to be extremely sensitive towards her as she was not a normal child. I asked them what exactly was her problem and they told me that she was ‘mentally retarded’. They made an honest effort to explain what exactly that means. At a tender age of 6 I could only see a potential friend in her. As I grew up, I came across many such children as if I was meant to meet them and befriend them. These encounters helped me deepen my understanding about various physical and mental conditions. Yet, Tai holds a special position in my life. Not just for the special bond we shared but because she introduced me to the empathy within me.

Now when I look back I realise that these were not mere associations, as I ended up choosing a profession where I keep meeting people with mental illnesses. But is that really a ‘mental illness’? I prefer to call it a mental condition. I realised this especially when I went to Brazil for a small internship in Dance Movement Therapy.

I worked at a place called casa dos sonhons (house of dreams). This was a government aided center where people came in for counseling as well as alternative therapies such as art, craft, movement, music and so on, free of cost.

One day when I went to the center, I found Miris, one of the therapists, sorting out boxes full of postcard art. I asked him what they were and what he was going to do with them. He seemed very enthusiastic to share the entire story. The postcards came from different mental rehabilitation centers across the world, made by patients having some or the other mental condition. On a closer look, I realised that I was looking at some intense artwork. My brain simply refused to accept the fact that it was made by people who we consider as ‘mentally ill’. I felt inadequate for flaunting myself as an art-based therapist.

Miris asked me to make a postcard on the theme of ‘How big is your madness?’ Without even giving it a second thought I picked up a piece of paper and a few colours to paint whatever came to my mind. I handed over that piece of paper and told him that I was no painter, but this is what came to me. He asked me to further describe and talk about the ‘mad one’ hidden within me. When I finished talking he said, “This is what it is! Madness is important. We as art based therapists here do nothing but help people find a direction for their madness. In this way they can make it big in their own possible way.”

Looking at my keen interest in arts and therapy, one of the psychologists, Cami Jacob, decided to take me on a tour of the main mental rehabilitation center in the city of Campinas. The first thing I noticed were the sign boards made of mosaic work which had been made by the patients who stayed there. Since she knew that I have worked with people with paranoid schizophrenia, the first place Cami took me to was the extreme trauma center. It came to me as a cultural shock to see a group of schizophrenics sitting under a tree sharing smokes and calmly talking to each other. I enquired about the type of treatment they received and she took me to the arts and crafts section. I saw people engrossed in some or the other artwork. I was surprised to know that this was a part of their core treatment. They utilise art to tell the most intimate stories of their life which otherwise becomes difficult for them to verbalise in a one-on-one counseling session. The walls of the room were filled with jaw-dropping creations.

We further went to the wood and metal workshop where I met a 15-year-old autistic girl who held my hand and took me to show her creations. My eyes could not believe that she was working with welding machines to make metal flowers. She wanted to give one to me but since it was freshly made it was hot and I could not hold it. I told her that I would collect it after some time. But she did not agree and went straight towards the water tap and held it under cold water.

The whole experience of visiting the mental rehabilitation center acted as an eye opener for me. The walls were painted with amazing graffiti works; patients were freely wandering around in the premise; the lawn was well maintained. The whole space was calm, peaceful and energizing. While returning home, Jacob said, “We take art very seriously. It is like one of the inseparable activities that we do in our day to day life. Hence, art becomes an important component when it comes to healing and therapy for people having a special mental condition.”

When I returned to India I felt like a complete alien. I realised that even though we say that India is one of richest countries when it comes to art and culture; we are not able to see the power that art holds. It has so much more to offer than just being a mere tool of entertainment. Many people like Tai might just find a way to make their lives meaningful as art would help them find their own way of expression.

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  1. Saravana

    Art in India is still there but struggling for its existence.

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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 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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