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One ‘Masterji’ Is The Reason Why Kids In This Mumbai Slum Are Daring To Dream Big

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By Alankrita Khera:

Anoop Parikh 2It’s just another day at Geeta Vikas Vidyalaya in Shivaji Nagar, Mumbai. A low-income school set amidst the dusty slums of Govandi, it rings with the sound of lesson recitations inside tin-roofed classrooms. The cramped staffroom has notebooks stacked high on every available bit of space with a mix of Teach For India Fellows and municipal teachers trying to find a method within the madness. On being asked, I’m directed to a man surrounded by a crowd of children – patiently answering a stream of never ending inquisitiveness. Meet Anoop Parikh – a Teach For India Alumni who completed his Fellowship in 2013 and currently works as a full-time teacher at Geeta Vikas – and has school staff, students and parents alike swearing by his teaching skills as well his commitment and dedication towards his kids. “I knew I wanted to be a teacher during my very first week at Institute!” he states with a smile, referring to Teach For India’s rigorous 5-week training program for new Fellows. It was while he was working as an academic counsellor at the College of Wooster, Ohio when friends in Teach For America and Teach For India inspired Anoop to join the TFI Fellowship. And there has been no looking back for him since then. “The Fellowship was almost like a boot camp that prepared me for everything that would come afterwards – in ways I would never have imagined. Teach For India pushes you to maintain a high standard that way. 85% is just not acceptable; you just have to make sure you’re giving your 110% every single day. And that kind of thing stays with you.”

So why stay with Geeta Vikas once it was over, I ask. Why not any other well-paying school across the country? The simplicity of his answer takes my breath away. “I love my kids – just like a parent or an elder brother would. And I won’t abandon them mid-way – the plan is to see them through their board exams at the very least. My destiny brought me to Geeta Vikas; my resolve to ensure a bright future for these children has made me stay.” With Teach For India’s intervention, the school has admittedly seen a marked rise in literacy levels. Children have rediscovered their interest in learning – reading, science comprehension and math scores have slowly and steadily improved. But Anoop’s biggest learning has come from the children themselves. “Time in the classroom has taught me patience. Kids push you like no-one else will and I’ve learnt to work in a calm, planned and organized way even as I juggle a million things and yet at the same time know how to formulate contingency solutions whenever needed. I’ve also learnt empathy. It’s just too easy to scold a child for consistent absenteeism for example – it’s a lot tougher to ask and understand why. There is so much with such kids that doesn’t make sense and constantly threatens to pull you back – and that’s when being empathetic really helps.”

The school bell rings signalling a lunch break and a swarm of kids from various grades pop in the middle of our conversation to say hello. “Hi Didi, what’s your name?” echoes around me as I get swept away in their confident enthusiasm. And it strikes me that if I were to close my eyes and rely solely on what I was hearing, these kids could have been from the best of schools in the city – I would never be able to tell what background they really came from. The sheer power of education is almost overwhelming. Anoop affirms my revelation. “Every child has potential. For these kids, it just gets clouded by the reality of their existence. A lot of my students are simply trying to escape the same maze of basic survival that they’ve seen their family and friends trapped in. To them, it’s either that or an ultra-rich lifestyle that modern day media exposes them to. They begin to aim for the latter without realizing that there is a middle ground to breaking out as well. And when they understandably fail, it leads to them making wrong choices like dropping out of school or participating in illegal activities through peer pressure. Every child in Shivaji Nagar wants a good education, a good career, a good family – a good life. But they have seen failure around them so many times that they just assume they’ll fail as well. It’s a sense of helplessness that catches on and drags them down – irrespective of the tremendous amount of potential they have.” 

This fact brings to the forefront just how challenging a teacher’s job has become today and so much more important. I wonder about the support that is essential from all the stakeholders to the education process – especially in such cases. Anoop cites the community as a big example. “With low-income communities, it’s somehow assumed that the parents don’t care – something I’ve found to be utterly untrue. But at the same time, there is definitely a gap that can be attributed to such parents not being able to give enough time to their children. Pre-adolescent identities are shaped by parents – they can either keep them going or let them fall off the path. Most importantly, they know their kids better than teachers like me ever will. Can you imagine how helpful their active involvement, partnership and feedback would be to our processes?” 

What about the government? “The movement to educational equity is fraught with problems,” he says ruefully, “starting at the school level going right up to government policy. The good policies aren’t practical and the practical solutions aren’t backed by policy. We need people working at each level – facilitating overall coordination to enable a holistic solution.” And of course, the teachers themselves form the biggest piece of that puzzle – something that Anoop himself clearly exemplifies. “At least 50% of the change we want to see will come from teachers. They’ll be the ones implementing the workable policies at the end of the day. That’s the reason I chose to remain a teacher. I push my kids towards excellence – they’ll tell you how strict I am but they enjoy my classes anyway because they know I won’t let them put in anything less than their best. That is the kind of change that after parents, only teachers can influence!”

And yet today, teaching as a profession is more often than not taken up as a last resort rather than as the option of choice. The label of being a teacher no longer has a mark of privilege attached in the Indian context. “That’s the saddest part of the entire scenario. Take me for example. I constantly have people, including members of my own family who’ve been erstwhile teachers, asking me – what’s next? It’s not socially acceptable to remain a ‘masterji’ you see. But the way I see it, I attempt to inspire 40-50 young lives every year. If I’m able to bring about a concrete positive change in even 5 of them in my entire lifetime, what could possibly be more prestigious?”

Anoop ParikhSo why does that happen? How did we go from putting our ‘gurus’ on the highest pedestal to looking down upon their choice of profession? “The day a society stops aspiring to a particular job, that job will cease to be effective. And that’s exactly what’s happened. We don’t train our teachers enough – we definitely don’t pay them enough. No job is as undervalued as teaching in India today. How can teachers be expected to give their best, when they’re struggling with their own financial problems? And when they don’t give their best, they push themselves even lower in the scheme of things. It’s a vicious cycle – one that desperately needs attending to.”

As the conversation flows, I ponder over Teach For India’s vision. That one day ALL children will attain an excellent education. And I can’t help but silently applaud Anoop’s clarity of purpose towards the same. “It’s not overtly ambitious – I definitely believe that together we can make it happen,” he says in response, “For me, that day will be the day when all children will have the freedom to choose their own destiny irrespective of their background. It will have arrived when the children of this country are equipped enough to distinguish between right and wrong. That is the day we would have successfully built a nation of good human beings who would be able to take care of this country in ways more meaningful than from just a capitalistic standpoint. Maybe it won’t be a one generation change – but as long as we’re all able to join this movement and work towards this goal – it’ll all be worth it in the end. And I hope I’m able to inspire as many people as I can during my lifetime towards the same.”

And I sincerely hope we all do. One day, ALL children WILL attain an excellent education.

Teach For India’s Fellowship program places outstanding working professionals and college graduates as Fellows – who work full-time for two years in low-income & under-resourced schools teaching underprivileged kids. Applications to the 2016-18 Teach For India Fellowship program are now open. Application Deadline: 2nd February 2016

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  1. imaran

    in our aap Politics also we nee some master ji to teach some people like Sanjay Singh

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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