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How I Uncovered ‘A Strange Truth’ In Assam, One That Could Change The Life Of Its Women

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By Sujan Bandyopadhyay:

communityDuring my first two months in Barama in Baksa District, part of the autonomous Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) in Assam, I uncovered a strange truth about the handloom sector in India. The reservoir of handloom skills is concentrated in the north-eastern states of India, which together account for 16.83 lakh (60.5%) handloom households of the total of 27.83 lakh units engaged in the country. Yet, the north-eastern states haven’t been able to leverage this resource as a viable source of income and employment.

I soon understood why. In almost every household in Barama, the women possess a loom on which they weave clothes. Yet, despite such a large presence of handloom, it was only being used for household purposes. Agriculture was the dominant occupation, with about 55% of the population (Census 2011) employed in it and related activities. Being here on a 13-month SBI Youth for India fellowship and assigned to DHAN (Development of Humane Action) Foundation, I made it my mission to make handloom a viable source of income. It would reduce dependence on agriculture, it could help emancipate women and also perhaps, preserve a slice of their heritage.

bieng taught how to weave 1Weaving For Change

Motivating and organising the women was the first step. To facilitate this, I had to make many trips to talk to the weavers and figure out their needs, so their skills could be best utilised. This was not the easiest of tasks.

Due to bad roads and poor public transport that became even more infrequent by 5.30 pm (when it grew dark), we often found ourselves stranded in unknown places and had no choice but to walk home. Also, being new to the textiles field, I had to learn from scratch about the processes involved and made some rookie mistakes like confusing which yarn was being used.

But despite everything, I was able to motivate and organise 35 weavers into groups of five members each, and a month back we completed our first order to the tune of INR 5,000 for a local shop in Guwahati; the weavers were really excited about this!

Now, we are trying to connect with various vendors and portals, and have sent samples to an online portal and it looks promising. Our eventual aim is to create a portal owned and managed by the weavers themselves. This is an extremely challenging proposition but there’s no harm in dreaming big! If successful, this can be replicated by approximately 4,000 SHG women members in the area and perhaps, beyond. To raise funds for this venture, I have launched a crowdsourcing campaign and even made a documentary around the lives of these weavers-in-the-making.

Getting Professional

procurement for first orderAs things progressed, one could literally, see the enthusiasm and vigour in the weavers to get orders and get the job done. They also became aware of simple techniques to improve efficiency and the quality of their products. For instance, they used to earlier take measurements using their hands when making clothes for themselves, but now they use measuring tapes, a small investment that helps them to be more precise. Secondly, since weaving is time-consuming, weavers work together. As one attends to household chores, another weaves at the same time.

Life In A North-Eastern Village

Luckily for me, language was not such a barrier as Bengali, my mother tongue has some similarities to Assamese. However, my co-fellow Elamuhil from Tamil Nadu was not so lucky. This is how a conversation for him would typically go. He would ask a question in English. I would translate it for the NGO staff who knew Bengali. She would translate it into Assamese for a community member. That person would then translate the question into Bodo for the final recipient of the question. The answer would then follow the same chain in reverse order!

beautiful sceneryI also got a taste of how the north-east is ignored by the rest of the nation. Though Assam experienced terrorist attacks, floods, and an earthquake, I wasn’t inundated with calls from friends and family, because the national media barely mentioned these incidents, and thus no one was aware of what was happening. I could never have understood this, having lived all my life in Mumbai. Neither could I have imagined getting used to constant power cuts, poor water supply and with sharing a rarely cleaned toilet with three other families. But I did. I also took up photography, learnt how to cook and ride a motorcycle, and have enjoyed community celebrations like Kali Puja, Durga Puja, Ras Mela, and Bihu.

Through my interactions, I realised that despite being poor, people here are always ready to help you out. We hired a maid to take care of our house. Being a widow supporting two children, her financial condition isn’t the best. However, whenever we get late in the field and don’t have time to cook (local restaurants shut early), she never fails to offer us dinner. Living in a village does need some getting used to, but once you do, it’s really, really an absolute delight!

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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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