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Sit At Home? Hell No: The Amazing Story Of Aakriti And The Women Whose Lives She Changed

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By Anugraha Hadke

‘Development’ is the new fancy term our leaders like to throw around, giving us big dreams of smart cities, unbeatable technology and a digital India. But at the end of the day, it’s small things, seemingly small efforts that are making a huge impact in people’s lives. They show that development is not a big, flashy showman with promises of distant dreams. It is a humble simpleton, making real contributions that have a direct and positive impact on people’s lives.

It was these simple things that motivated Aakriti Uttam to move to a rural district in Madhya Pradesh and become an initiator of social change. The district of Betul in M.P. has a rich tribal population, largely dominated by three communities: the Gonds, Korkus, and Yadavs. In this district of over 1.5 million people, are eight Tehsils, covering over 1300 villages.

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With the warmth Aakriti received from the residents of these villages, it took her no time to settle into a new lifestyle and culture and start contributing to growth at the grass roots. One of the most remarkable change that she was a part of was the development of the women’s collectives.

She proudly remembers one such story of Rajni Bai, a 45-year-old daily wage labourer, who lived in the village of Gyraspur. The money that Rajni Bai earned was enough to sustain her, but for years she had been facing abuse from her alcoholic younger brother who would take away her savings. Her brother’s wife was also subjected to similar abuse.

All it took to solve Rajni Bai’s problem was the setting up of a Village Level Committee (VLC) that Aakriti was an integral part of. Now the women of the village are so organised and united, that if Rajni Bai so much as gets into a small quarrel, a group gathers almost instantaneously to her aid. In a village not so far away, another VLC gathered up the women of Baghwad to help a young woman who was being threatened by a wealthy man from another village.

Self Help Groups (SHGs), which Aakriti helped set up in several groups in Betul, are set up to encourage mutual support and provide a common space to solve community problems. She recalls how much the villagers could relate to these groups. “It was the feeling of taking out time for themselves, coming out of their homes, keeping aside household work and meeting with SHG members, which motivated them to come for the meetings every week,” she explains.

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The simple act of gathering the SHGs of villages has not only helped build a stronger community, it has empowered its women into taking up a stronger position in society. These women have realised that together, they can tackle problems that they wouldn’t have had the courage to face alone.

Another effort, in the form of a gender equality program, encouraged the women of Betul to fight against the gender discrimination they have faced for decades. Instead of sitting at home as they were told to, they actively participated in the Panchayat elections. From carefully selecting candidates, to aggressively campaigning for them, no stone was left unturned. A group of women even kept watch during the nights to ensure that no bribes were made in the villages.

These collectives have given the women of Betul district higher aspirations in life; they are politically motivated, socially more aware. They now realise the importance of education and make regular checks at village schools to ensure the presence of teachers, and the quality of mid-day meals.

By simply bringing the women of the villages together and helping them understand the importance of growing together as a community, Aakriti was able to provide them with the confidence to be strong, opinionated, and active members of their communities, ready to take on new challenges, together. “Every time the community learnt something new, it seemed like I was learning something new. Their progress and hurdles seemed like my progress and hurdles,” she says, knowing that this experience has helped her grow professionally, as well as personally.

Like Aakriti, 351 PRADAN professionals work directly with around 3.7 lakh families in 5700 remote villages spread across 39 poorest districts of India. PRADAN offers a one year experiential learning programme for young professionals to explore and contribute towards socio – economic change in rural India.

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  1. The Joker

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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.

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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.

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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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