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Who Says Being Different Is A Bad Thing? Learn Something From Sandy!

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A few years ago, our family shifted to a new house. Our neighbours, Mr and Mrs Francis, were expecting a baby. The excited parents were painting the house a neutral yellow to make space for either a boy or a girl child. They were always over at our place – seeking advice from my mother (the proud and experienced mommy of two). A couple of months later, the big day arrived, and Sandy was born. But everything came to a standstill.

Mr and Mrs Francis were devastated. They’d been told that Sandy has Down Syndrome. Down Syndrome is a genetic disorder which results from the presence of chromosome 21 in the cells of the body. The frequency of Down syndrome is 1 per 1150 newborns in India according to a recent study. And Sandy was one of them. There were tears and consultations and whispers about giving Sandy up for adoption. Well-wishers and neighbours came and went, and the Francises finally accepted Sandy as their own, for better or for worse. But still, they struggled to come to terms with the grief of having an ‘imperfect’ child.

In India, we generally follow ‘the more, the better’ thumb rule, but somehow this philosophy doesn’t apply to extra chromosomes. Society often sees persons with disorders such as Down Syndrome as ‘cursed’ and ‘abnormal’, making it difficult for them to live and thrive like everybody else. Can you imagine what this would do to a person’s mind and soul?

All the credit for Sandy’s early development was due to their family physician, Dr Singh, who always went the extra mile to help Sandy. Sandy tried to learn English, trying industriously to speak and write the language. She tried and tried, and all that would come out were broken words of an alien language. But Dr Singh never gave up.

Can you imagine the life of a tiny 4-year-old, isolated from the world? Without friends? She never understood why she was ignored by other children or, for that matter, by the rest of the world. Sandy hated getting clicked; she could sense the awkwardness of the person behind the camera.

Since olden times, we have regarded people with any abnormalities as outcasts and tried to shut out their suffering by avoiding them. But was it Sandy’s fault that she was born with an extra chromosome? Did she choose this for herself? According to studies conducted in the West, 75% of the Down Syndrome population suffers from hearing loss, 50–75% with sleep disorders and ear infection, 60% eye disease, 22% psychiatric disorders, and 50% from heart diseases. On top of these physical health challenges, we add generous helpings of discrimination, isolation and psychological hurt through our judgmental attitudes.

Reality struck Sandy when she turned five and became the sister to a two-day old beautiful baby girl. Looking at her perfect features, she asked her father, “Why am I ugly, Papa?” This was the first sentence that Sandy had ever spoken. With teary eyes, Mr Francis realised that their grief had made Sandy feel abnormal and hurt, and he vowed that from that day on she would feel nothing but loved.

Today, when I see Sandy running around the playground with her sister and friends, all I can think is that my faith in humanity and this world is restored. I have seen Sandy grow up. Seen the way she cares for her baby sister: no one could be as protective as she is. With love to back her up, Sandy knows that she is God’s special child and was born with the mission of spreading happiness and smiles.

She adores the fact that people look “amazing” when they smile. She dreams of helping others and making them smile. And tell me, how many children of her age have such a noble thought? At times, I wonder where all this love comes from. Is it the extra chromosome that teaches one about perspective, love, life, and happiness? Be extra thankful for the extra chromosome is all that crosses my mind.

I am confident that Sandy will shine in her life. Grow up to become an angel for all those who are around her. She teaches me that, what makes her different is what makes her beautiful. It is a fact that these children may be different, but I have learnt from Sandy that this should be seen as a positive rather than a negative. She says being different means that “You have something unique to offer to the world, nobody can replace me. People might laugh because I am different, but I think they all look the same.”

Purple walls, petite vintage interiors, toys scattered all over the room; two beautiful girls in deep slumber. At the end of the tiring day, I have seen the glow on the faces of Sandy’s parents as they see their two perfect girls sleeping happily, and their gratitude for the fact that they kept their faith.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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