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From The Arab Spring To Chennai Floods: How Online Campaigns Have Led To Real Change

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By Shruti Sonal

Online activists or “slacktivists” as they have been termed by some, are often criticised for robbing the term activism of its meaning. These are the people who change their profile pictures to condemn an event, tweet with hashtags and sign online petitions. Cynics have argued time and again, that sitting in the comfort of their homes, these acts involving a simple click, are nothing more than an illusion. Without facing the wrath of authorities and the harsh life associated with offline activism, they create a false sense of power and strength of internet opinion. Thus, while the internet has made it easier for us to raise their voices, the massive flow of information has also made it easier to forget.

Do Likes Translate Into Real Action?

The question then is, how much of what we do online really makes a difference? In a world where more than 2/3rd of the population has no access to the Internet, can it really be an effective tool for activists and altering ground realities? According to The Guardian, a study by Journal of Sociological Science analysed the “Save Darfur” campaign that gained massive support on Facebook. It found that out of the one million-plus people who had signed up, less than 3000 ever donated, raising around $90,000 over three years. However, not all campaigns play out in this manner.

Spontaneous Mobilisation For Offline Causes

ringarab spring Online activism began as, and continues to mainly be a platform of bringing together like-minded voices on issues happening in the real world. One way in which the internet helps is to mobilise people and resources for spontaneous campaigns or relief during natural disasters. Be it during the Arab Spring, or the outrage in the aftermath of the December 16 Gangrape in Delhi, they allowed more and more people to pour out on the streets and exert pressure on the government. The online platform often proves useful to pool resources and spread the word about offline campaigns such as ‘Black Lives Matter‘. More recently, the Chennai floods saw an outpour of help on the Internet. Not only was a crowdsourced effort to map inundated roads in Chennai undertaken, an online Google spreadsheet was also created, in which people put information of available options for temporary stay for displaced locals in Chennai.

Impact Of Online Petitions

Apart from these instances of providing support for offline causes, internet and social media have also come up with well-directed efforts at starting campaigns on their own. A popular tool of online activism is the concept of online petitions. that allows users to create petitions with specific signature targets, explains how it works:

“When you specify an email address for your target, each time a supporter signs your petition, an email is automatically sent directly to that person. Governments, companies and individuals value their reputations and feel accountable to their neighbours, constituents and customers. When hundreds or even thousands of emails arrive in their inboxes, the message is very hard to ignore.”

On its website it has listed several victories. While YouTube responded to a 52,000 signature strong petition to bring down videos exploiting Indian children, another led to the sanctioning of Rs. 1.5 crore by the Central Railways to build a foot-over bridge for the visually impaired near the railway lines in Vangani, Mumbai.

Fundraising By Humans Of New York

A number of examples can also be quoted from Humans of New York, a photo blog started by Brandon Stanton that’s changing lives of people simply by sharing their stories online. Brandon has been using his following to travel to other countries like Pakistan and Iran and also documenting the experiences of refugees to dispel the misconceptions in public mind. His work has often led to real change. Just to highlight one instance, when Brandon visited Pakistan last year, he helped raise over $1.2 million for an organisation called Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLFF).

I want to conclude the Pakistan series by spotlighting a very special change agent who is working to eradicate one of…

Posted by Humans of New York on Saturday, 15 August 2015

Kony 2012 – A Viral Video And Real Action

Leader of the Lord's Resistance Army Joseph Kony speaks to journalists after a meeting with U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland at Ri-Kwamba in southern Sudan November 12, 2006. Egeland held a brief and heated jungle meeting with the elusive head of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army on Sunday but failed to win immediately two of the concessions he was seeking. REUTERS/Stuart Price/Pool (SUDAN) - RTR1JA2B
Source: REUTERS/Stuart Price

Another central element of online activism is the making of short documentaries and movies. A brilliant example of this is Kony 2012, a short film produced by Invisible Children Inc. that was released on March 5, 2012. The film’s categorically aimed at promoting the charity’s “Stop Kony” movement to help arrest Joseph Kony, an African militia leader and indicted war criminal, by making him globally known. The video, uploaded online, became viral and created intense public pressure that resulted in a resolution passed by the United States Senate to send troops by the African Union.

Thus, while it is obvious that profile picture filters and “prayers” in the form of hashtags do little to combat larger issues like terrorism or migration of refugees, online activism cannot be dismissed as a tool of the laid back. If used wisely to facilitate the gap between those who have resources and those who need them, it can really lead to changes at the click of a button.

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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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