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When Natural Disasters Wipe Out Communication Networks, This Messaging App Could Help

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By Marina Azcarate

Technology is a beautiful thing: with the small machines in our pockets we can buy a plane ride to the other side of the world, order a cab and some pizza, maybe even swipe right for a date.

But when communication is really critical, for example in the middle of a natural disaster, we have to rely on technology that is at least thirty years old. From New Orleans to New York, Kashmir, Tacloban and Kathmandu, we know how floods, typhoons and earthquakes can quickly wipe out the telecom networks that are our communication lifeline for survival. Then even the humble SMS doesn’t work. All that is left in those situations are devices like satellite phones and ham radios, too expensive to buy and difficult to operate for most of us.

FireChat Manila Students

We need a new way to share critical, life-saving information, in real time and on a large-scale even when all networks are down. People bake their own bread, grow their own vegetables and generate electricity on their roofs. Why can’t they also harness the power of their smartphones at the time when they need it the most?

The solution may already be here. FireChat, is a free mobile messaging app that works even when networks are down. It connects mobiles phones to one another through Bluetooth and Peer-to-Peer Wi-Fi and lets people establish their own peer-to-peer networks that work independently of traditional networks. These new types of networks can be used on an everyday basis for free communication and also as a lifeline in times of emergency when all other networks are destroyed.

The Philippines and French Polynesia are among the first countries to adopt this technology, with the support of their respective governments. Their goal is to create ‘citizen communication networks’ that are disaster-proof.

It is not a coincidence that both are island nations with fragile geographies. Those countries are taking a hard reality-check of the future and it is cruel. They have contributed next to nothing to warming the world, yet will pay a disproportionate price for the changing climate with unpredictable, stronger and more frequent typhoons and hurricanes. In a sense, they are already living in the future: weather patterns are becoming unstable and there is an urgent need to harness technology in innovative ways towards disaster preparedness at scale.

Copy of TyphoonWatch3Jeepneys are van-like trucks used everywhere in the Philippines to transport people. They are brightly painted and stylish. Passengers sit facing each other: ten, twelve or fifteen across two long benches. In Tacloban, we sat facing a man who was maybe in his fifties or seventies: it was impossible to tell. The look in his eyes was of infinite sadness. For a long time, we wondered what had happened to him, or his family on that terrible Friday in November almost two years ago when the city was devastated by one of the most powerful typhoons or ‘storm-surges’ ever recorded. The moment the storm hit, all cell networks stopped working and communication across the city became impossible. People could not be warned, could not be reached, could not call for help or even be rescued when help was available.

The Philippines are home to a vibrant community of civic leaders, weather experts, scientists such as Dr Mahar Lagmay and development practitioners doing brilliant work in preparing communities for disaster. Filipinos call it the ‘Zero Casualty’ paradigm. A crucial part of this ambitious effort is to pioneer new communication mechanisms that help warn populations in real time. We are honoured to contribute to this forward-thinking movement by offering a communication alternative that could become a lifeline in critical moments.

Disaster-proof communications are not just about ‘resilience’, they are also about taking charge: life is fragile in the face of the wild, primitive forces that are the rain, the wind, the sea, and seismic shifts. Yet everyone wants to feel strong and empowered. Everyone wants to be able to take care of themselves, of their family, their friends and neighbours when emergency strikes.

FireChat users in The Philippines and Polynesia are already acting on this principle. We predict that in the future, this aspiration will be shared everywhere in the world and that peer-to-peer technologies like FireChat will become ubiquitous.

About the author: Marina Azcarate is Head of Global Marketing at Open Garden, which is a pioneer in peer-to-peer mesh networking technology and the creator of FireChat, the first mobile messaging app that works even if there is no Internet access or cellular phone coverage. FireChat is available for iOS and Android at

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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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