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No Food, Dirty Pools To Swim In: How I’ve Seen Athletes Being (Mis)Treated In India

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By Siddhant Nag:

For my family, sports was a given. It was less an activity, but more a culture. Discipline, mental tenacity, teamwork, sportsmanship (ethics) and above all, the pursuit of improving one’s self. Whether it was my father playing hockey for the Western Naval Command, my mother playing basketball or my brother playing football for TUS Bad Aibling in Germany, there was a sense of purity attached to being an athlete. As for me, I was promised a call up for the U21 India football camp after school, but a last minute injury, ended any hopes of a professional career.

With the Olympics just done with, a lot has been on my mind regarding how athletes in India are treated. Involved in the sporting circuit, my brother and I have really seen and experienced what it means to be a sportsperson in this country.

Like witnessing the time when a state-level Jharkhand football team had to clean a stadium, to be able to pay for shoes, for their next match. We’ve also had statements like “excessive spending on athletes” thrown at us. I’m guessing they’re talking about that time when my brother had to be shoved through a window into the free compartment of a moving train, just so that the team could arrive at their destination more ‘economically’. They also found themselves sleeping on the floor, because they did not have reserved tickets.

I remember being taken as part of the Indian contingent to Holland, to play at the Youth Friendship Games; our chests beaming with pride as we stood at the airport in our matching tracksuits. I remember having a horrendous campaign there, losing all our matches, but I also recall having to leave 2 hours before our match, so that we could cover the distance on foot and reach the venue. Let it be known that I have almost no recollection of food during that time. I’m grateful to my parents for shoving 50 euros into my suitcase last minute, perhaps they saw this coming all along.

Qualifications for a national level football cup, held in Haryana, saw 3 rounds of consecutive matches, in the middle of an afternoon in the great Indian summer, with no water and no food. Luckily for us, there was a cricket stadium around 600 metres away, where we managed to find some Pepsi, bread pakoras and a fridge stashed with Bisleri.

And that’s just what I have gone through personally. A coach I know very closely, was beaten with iron rods on his calves to inhibit his ability to play the next day, during national team trials. You see, national team players get a regular income, which means you’d actually get paid for being amazing at what you love! He didn’t make the team, but as destiny would have it, years later he would form the team – he went on to become the manager for the national side.

I’ve heard a multiple medal-winning national swimmer tell me that she closes her eyes before she dives, and tries to swim with as little visibility as possible because the swimming pools are too dirty, and the nausea would prohibit her from competing. If you think I’m exaggerating, read about this young swimmer, who dove into the pool and hit his head on the floor, giving him serious cervical spine injuries, ensuring that he won’t be able to swim again. He dove into the shallow end, because he could not tell how deep it was, such was the filth in the pool.

I’m an extremely privileged citizen, part of that 1% that can afford an energy drink, an A/C ride home, and the option, of just saying, “I’ll do something else.” But there are those, like our Olympic athletes, who are thrust into an ecosystem that accounts for no basic facilities and yet expects them to achieve excellence. Oh and if they don’t, this is what comes their way – “Genetics hee nahin hain” (“They lack the genes for it”), “Yeh log practice hee nahi kartey, halkey mein le liya” (“They don’t practise, take it lightly”), “Inka toh kuch nahin ho sakta, inko pata bhi hai kuch” (“They will achieve nothing, they know nothing”)?!”

Rage.

Rage is all I feel on behalf of my countrymen, who rise at 4.30 am, train all day, tend to responsibilities at home, denounce peer lifestyles and sacrifice, just to represent us in their fields – and then they have to hear this?

Some of our Olympic athletes have struggled to find a way to get to Rio. Isn’t that supposed to be the easy bit? Oh, wait, perhaps, becoming the best wrestler in a country of 1.2 billion is a feat that needs little commitment, but yes, the true struggle should be finding the financial means to sustain this exercise and compete. But don’t worry, the Minister of Sports Affairs will take a selfie with you, and you’ll definitely get 500 retweets, only thing is he may get your name wrong.

*Conditions apply – if you don’t win a medal, don’t feel bad if we ostracise you a little, and forget about you within a day or two. You see, your struggle may sell magazines and page-views, in fact we can feed you a spoonful of pity, but dare we actually red-flag and help you achieve your true potential. Whose got the time for that?

The Olympics were not just meant to be a medal tally for India, they were meant to reflect the lapses we have in the way we view, deal, engage with sports. The lack of conversation and lack of sustainable solutions have always cut short our prowess. As usual, we study the night before the exam and hope to top. We wave our flags months before an event and hope to win gold. We do parade our winners, but do those that don’t stand on the podium, have no right to be celebrated? Last I checked, being a world class athlete is worthy of applause.

There are multiple levels of intervention that must occur, right from the way we talk about our athletes, to the policies that influence them. We must look at grooming children from a young age, must look at nutrition more closely, demand appropriate facilities for our athletes, invest in training our coaches to meet international standards and expose young sportspeople to the highest levels of competition. At the international level, athletes require a troupe of professionals to help them perform – not a radiologist whose expertise in the area is under question or Indian officials that don’t turn up for a 42 km marathon, where our Indian runner has to compete sans water.

Our athletes may not have won us many medals, but they’ve definitely helped put sports back on the map for our country – a country that is truly limited by intent, not talent, ability or resource. Let’s make our athletes accountable, only when we have given them our best.

Trust me, they’re already doing theirs.

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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.

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.

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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)’.

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.”

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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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