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For Me, Poetry Isn’t About Being A Recluse But A Means To Challenge Intolerance

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By Richa Gupta:

There is a certain stigma associated with the poetic form of expression. When people think of poetry (according to my personal experience), certain images tend to pop into their minds: a lone wanderer desperately trying to communicate with the world, a recluse ranting about the injustice of his surroundings, a person hunched before her laptop. In my old school, when we’d begin reading a poem in English, I would either hear sighs of exasperation or the deafening silence of indifference. Fictional pieces would take the forefront, while poems would sit in the backseat. Classmates who wrote poetry would be teased; eventually, a lot of young writers were prevented from embracing this form of art.

But I continued writing poetry, submitting to literary magazines, and posting on my poetry blog. And as I’ve delved deeper into this form of expression, I’ve come to appreciate its widespread benefits, not only to established writers, but also to novices and those who are still learning the English language.

Source: Caleb Roenigk/Flickr

Probably the biggest virtue of poetry is its freedom. Learning and studying English can be an intimidating task, thanks to the unyielding grammatical and syntactical rules, as well as the daunting principles of sentence formation and punctuation. What adds to this unbending image is the rigid method in which this language is taught in Indian schools — as an endless series of rules meant to be obeyed. But sometimes, as I’ve learnt, following standard axioms can be a hindrance to a student’s creativity. After all, scores of people have broken these rules and have left their marks on the history of literature. And when it comes to challenging the rules of English grammar, there is no better form that does so than the poetic one.

In an educational scenario that overplays the importance of strict rules, poetry invariably becomes an underrepresented subject taught in the education system. However, introducing the wonders of poetry into a classroom can benefit students in a myriad of ways. By incorporating the many poetic devices, such as metaphors, alliterations and onomatopoeias, into their writings, students can find an effective portal to express the thoughts that are not easily expressed in essays or articles. When I was in Class 1, I was naturally introverted. On top of that, I wasn’t well-versed in the nuances of the English language. However, one of my school teachers turned that around by encouraging me to write poems. My poems were short, ridden with errors, but still readable. I had just moved to India at the time, and my words described how different the people were in Bengaluru, and how strange my surroundings seemed. Even for a six-year-old, the quality of my poetry was exceedingly poor but it still helped me grow out of my shyness. Since I wasn’t burdened by the rules of grammar and syntax, I could actually put my thoughts across,

and tell the world how I really felt. It gave me an inexplicable feeling of power, and told me that everything was in my hands, quite literally. And I continue to use that power even now.

Furthermore, apart from improving a student’s linguistic skills, perusing poetry can also be very enlightening— for it gains students, new insights into the viewpoints of people who lived in different ages, broadens their imagination, and sparks their creative skills. In addition, it introduces them to new styles and forms of writing, whether they are studying the many diverse works of Shakespearian sonnets, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or “The Song of the Jellicles”. Each piece carries with it its own taste, colour and voice, and appreciating this fact widens students’ empathetic tolerance and opinions regarding different people, and helps make them more informed and culturally aware citizens.

I noticed this when reading the winning poems of the 2015 Human Rights Poetry Award, organised by the Universal Human Rights Student Network (UHRSN). The competition aimed to raise awareness about the plight of refugees in Europe, and how they are denied their fundamental rights as humans. As an Indian teenager who has never lived in Europe, I would be completely unable to actually empathise with refugees in Europe. Although I’ve read news articles and watched videos, they only provide me with a statistical indication of what is really happening. So, I eagerly waited for the winning poems to be posted on the website — and was rewarded when they were. The poignant voices of people who had been refugees, whose family members had been refugees, and social activists hoping to mitigate this issue rang out, loud and powerful. Reading about the young Aylan Kurdi on online newspapers let me know about the issue; but reading a poem about him, and about how fortunate most of us are, truly brought the predicament of the refugees to light. The winners of the poetry award were of different nationalities and spanned over a vast range of ages — which shows the extent to which poetry helps people across the globe connect on a deeper, emotional level. There was one poem that touched me in particular: “For Aylan“, by Laura Taylor. It started off like this:

“I just wanted you to know
your lovely bones have not been wasted […]”

Honestly, I find it incredible that a few stanzas can help people empathise and learn about other cultures. So, when it comes down to it, poetry is an essential component of education in a world that is growing more diverse by the day. It’s a way of forging bonds not only with others, but also with yourself. It screams of liberation, and lets people chart their own paths. So what if you’re not well-versed in the English language? You can always get your point across — and poetry will help you there; it will imbue colour and vibrancy into your words, and even add a certain musicality to your message. But most importantly, It can help an adult understand a child (as in my case), or a wealthy person stand in the shoes of a poor person. So, poetry doesn’t only have to be freedom from the rules that stalk any language, it can also be freedom from the intolerance and lack of empathy that shadows society.

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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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