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How A Young Entrepreneur In UP Is Boldly Challenging Everyone Who Called Her A ‘Burden’

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By Parvinder Singh:

Puneeta wears many hats today. She is a beekeeper, a processor of organically produced edible oil and the local advisor on methods and advantages of organic farming. This change is remarkable, not just because Puneeta is something of an entrepreneur but also a woman with a disability who is inspiring many around her.

As a girl with disability, Puneeta grew up hearing insults from her neighbours on how she will always be a ‘burden’ and never be ‘useful’ in a village where agriculture is the only source of income. At age five, she was affected by Poliomyelitis virus, which led to neuromuscular paralysis in her lower limbs. Hence, she cannot use her legs and uses her hands to drag herself to move.

She lives in the Deurawa village of Maharajganj district in Uttar Pradesh, not only one of the largest, most populous states in India, but one with a history of a high number of polio cases. As a result, there is a large number of young people with physical disabilities in the region.

The Oldest Student In Class 9

puneeta close-up
Puneeta’s eyes shine with hope and new found confidence. Courtesy: CBM/ Parvinder Singh

Sitting on the ground under a broken shed, which had its roof damaged by a recent storm, Puneeta’s eyes shine, almost challenging the glaring sunlight of the harsh north Indian summer.

“I am now going to school at this age (25 years) and am not embarrassed about being one of the oldest ninth standard students. I feel education is important for becoming independent,” shares Puneeta who had to drop out of school and stop her studies, at the age of 13.

Her new found confidence is the result of a journey that started in 2012 through CBM-supported, disability-inclusive, agro-enterprises for an organic farming project. Since then Puneeta has seen many changes in her life, ranging from a dependable cash income through assets that create economic value (like beekeeping for honey and an oil extraction machine) to being respected in the community because of the knowledge she has on organic farming.

Puneeta Has Bees

beekeeping
Courtesy: CBM/ Parvinder Singh

Seven white boxes hide a swarm of activity under the shade of four towering trees. Puneeta is eager to explain what these are. “They are honey bee boxes and mine are full of them even in this heat. They stay here because I never miss providing water mixed with sugar and jaggery,” she explains and adds emphatically.

beekeeping process
Beekeeping can be a stinging job. Courtesy: CBM/ Parvinder Singh

Moving on a customised wheelchair-styled tricycle around the boxes, she points out that she is one of the few people in the village who extracts honey and sells it at a premium price. Though the ground is uneven, the access to the opening has been modified for her to reach the boxes, which generate about 84 litres of honey in a year.
They are sold for Rs. 400  per litre, yielding about Rs. 33,600 annually. She, not only received the boxes and necessary training to start beekeeping or apiculture, but also information on how bees benefit farming, particularly vegetable production.

oil extraction machine
The oil extraction process. Courtesy: CBM/Parvinder Singh

In addition to this, she has also been supported by a machine that is used for extracting oil from mustard and sunflower seeds, grown locally. With the machine being available, she offers its paid services for farmers in the village. She also purchases seeds to extract oil and sells it as an organic product in the local market. This, too, provides her with a steady income through a value addition asset.

Puneeta’s machine is put to work extracting about a litre of mustard oil, which she offers to sell to us. She comes across as a focused entrepreneur constantly looking to optimise the benefits of assets she has been supported with.

“I Have An Identity”

Puneeta, though married, has limited interaction with her husband and does not like to discuss it. But she is quick to add that, “I am independent and have a bank account. I am respected for the knowledge I have on organic agriculture from all the training that is taking place under the project.”

puneeta cbm
Puneeta sits close to the oil extraction machine, which allows farmers and Puneeta’s own family to process the local produce and sell it in markets nearby. Courtesy: CBM/Parvinder Singh

Puneeta has not only grabbed new opportunities through the livelihood project but has also become a strong voice in her family. “I have an identity of my own. This was not the case earlier, when I was seen as a burden. People with disabilities are often left behind as family members see them as a financial burden. Being able to make a living, close to home and within the village, has allowed me to change my life. Now, I am an example for other women with disabilities,” says Puneeta with great conviction.

Enabling Livelihoods

People with disabilities are among the poorest in the world and India has a large number of people with disabilities living in poverty. Lack of access to livelihood, and an independent life that flows from it, is one of the biggest barriers to leading a life of dignity for people with disabilities. In this bleak scenario, Puneeta’s story finds a resonance with the phrase ‘agents of their own destiny‘ used by the Supreme Court, in its recent judgement on representation of people with disabilities in job promotions. As most people with disabilities still draw their livelihood and employment from the unorganised rural sectors, there is a need to address the barriers in the production process and bridging the gap in skills.

With its disability-inclusive farming initiative, CBM and its partners have created a model that has both disabled and non-disabled rural community members, working together to create farmer groups that grow and sell organic produce, with a control over the production process and finances to thrive within the existing set-up. Over 11,000 farmers in five states, including 5000 people with disabilities like Puneeta, are a part of this project. With marketable skills, assets and loans, people with disabilities are demonstrating that core farming sector can become a source of empowerment.

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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 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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