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I Had To Give Up On My Education To Work For My Village, And It Was Worth It

By Raju Kendre:

Education was a luxury for me. I hail from a small family of farmers from Vidarbha and I’ve been a first-hand witness to the problems of farmers in the region. The condition of my life and Vidarbha were somewhat similar, we both saw trying times.

vidharbha
Vidharbha continues to go through a tough time. Source: Arijit Sen/Getty

Back in the day, what I found unusual, was that University graduates and government officials were frequent in the region. They used to work on some drought mitigation programmes and used to try and pinpoint the causes of the drought.

I cannot say much about their impact on drought mitigation, although, in my experience, I think their measures didn’t really do much but here’s the remarkable bit – everyone wanted their children to become like these babus with a stable source of income and a comfortable life. When they came to the village, it hardly mattered as to what they did but what attracted the most attention was the set up they arrived with – the police, their advisers, motor vehicles and drivers. I always thought, if I had this setup, I could bring about a real change in people’s lives. After meeting a few IAS officers, it was then that I decided to become one as well.

Right after completing high school, I shifted base to Pune. I thought Civil Services was going to be just like any another entrance exam. But turned out, that it was not my cup of tea. I was not able to manage a regular graduation, let alone, IAS preparation. I had to resort to correspondence courses. But one thing I was determined about, was that I wanted to be an agent of change.

During my stay in Pune, I met a few activists and organisations who were working on tribal issues in Maharashtra. One such organisation was ‘Melghat Mitra‘, which was working on child malnutrition. I stayed here for a year and half. In this period, I had the chance to work on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme, Right to Information (RTI), malnutrition, gramsabha and advocacy for all these issues with the Korku tribes. With them, I learnt the value of patience, hard work and a commitment towards society. And I believe that, that has given shape to my career and future as well. I am indebted to the contribution of the Korku society in my overall development as a human being.

While working in the ‘Dhadak Mohim Campaign’ that works towards addressing child malnutrition in Melghat, I realised the role of politics in the development of any region. Most of us tend to ignore politics as something beyond our scope, but we fail to realise that we all are a part of it. All the programme funds and schemes boil down to the political will of the village. Venal political leaders survive on our ignorance and fear. The idea of being a part of village politics had started taking shape. But the path was not easy. I began with the mobilisation of the village youth.

water crisis
Water crisis in Vidarbha. Source: Arijit Sen/Getty

March 2015, marked our presence in my village. The gramsabha of my village demanded two watershed projects through the MGNREGA to conserve water. But the gram panchayat didn’t seem interested. We began to inquire the reason behind the reluctance and exposed several discrepancies in the use of MGNREGA funds. We were just students who had not even graduated and we faced threats from influential politicians. Eventually, our efforts yielded results. We were able to get the sanction for the watershed project. Apart from that, we also managed to set up a hand pump to address the lack of clean water.

But it was an amazing experience: the sense of victory and the recognition in the village was beyond our expectations. So in August 2015, I ,along with my team, decided to contest elections for the gram panchayat to oppose the growing muscle and money power.

By this time, I was enrolled in a reputed institution for social sciences in Maharashtra. The course was about Rural Development. Although I had lots of good experiences to share, the lack of theoretical knowledge and inadequate English, limited my expression. It was the first time that I was attending a regular college. When I shared my vision with them, everyone was quite amazed. Away from high-flying theories, I was preparing myself for direct action.

Incidentally, the dates for the third semester examinations and the gram panchayat elections were clashing. I was standing on the crossroads. If I contested the election, I would lose a year of my education. After much contemplation, I chose to contest. What was the point of education if I was not a part of survival struggles at the grassroots level?

We wanted to have unopposed elections so that we do not hurt the existing political structures and that youngsters like us get an opportunity too. We tried to convince existing political leaders, however, our negotiations with them failed and we were not left with any other option than contesting elections.

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I proudly contested the local election. Shared on Facebook by Raju J A Kendre.

Right from day one, we decided to break all conventional rules of politics. I declared my candidature from an SC ward. We prepared our manifesto with public consultations and gave our manifesto on stamp paper. We were sure that we were contesting for the people and requested them to contribute money. We managed to raise Rs. 20000 for election expenses.

I had not a single penny in my pocket but my willpower to serve my village and people was enough to encourage me to contest this election. But we were fighting against those who spent lakhs for the elections, against us. They used all muscle and money power and won the elections. But in spite of all hurdles, we managed to get 33% of votes and the trust of people.

I am indebted to those youngsters who, now, are living in different cities but came to the village and extended support to us during the elections. Most of them worked with us during election campaigns.

This power of the youth is driven for change and I am sure, in the near future, it will emerge as a youth movement against the existing corrupt political structures. Today, I may not have attempted the UPSC exams but I have contested an election and I look forward to participating in more. We are planning to contest the next zila parishad elections next year and hope to mobilise youth from over 20 villages.

Even if we don’t win, we will continue to work towards developing our village. We aim to start a ‘Gramin Yuva Prerana Kendra’ that would work as a resource center for villages and also encourage residents of the villages to be more involved in various developmental activities. As the famous quote from Karl Marx goes, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

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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.

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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)’.

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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.”

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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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