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Working With Youth In Rural India Smashed My Belief That They Want An Urban Lifestyle

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By Zubin Sharma:

For the past four years, I’ve been working closely with the rural youth in Kishanganj District, Bihar. (first with SEEKHO and then with Project Potential). Having grown up in a privileged family in the U.S., I came with many assumptions about what it is that people in the villages (where we work), would want, and perhaps, ‘should’ want.

That having your own room is always better than sharing a room and a bed better than a mat on the floor; that ‘modern schooling’ is necessarily good; that all companies should seek to brand themselves and scale up; that everyone should aspire to be a ‘global citizen,’ (hence, expected to know the names of all the countries in the world); that one should use a western toilet and toilet paper instead of a squat toilet and hand – these are all of the kinds of biases that I came with. And initially, it was these biases that I worked on. I gradually weaved new ideas on the basis of all the interactions I had.

Yet, four years out and hundreds of hours of interactions later, I realised that these assumptions were patently wrong. More specifically for we’re a people’s university that provides an open space for youth to live consciously and help find a balance between the self, community, and environment. We have no teachers, no exams, and no degrees. But we are an intellectual community committed to self-designed learning. The nature of our program has moved away from ‘developing’ the people to simply creating space for people to learn and grow, which has allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of the kinds of things that people care about.

Take Suraj, for example. Suraj is a ‘swayam seekhi’ (self-learner) with us in Project Potential, and he has been exploring alternative notions of education. In the last month and a half, he’s visited Shikshantar, a people’s movement which explores gift culture, jugaad thinking, and unlearning; Swaraj, which is another alternative university for the youth to reclaim their learning via self-designed learning and new perspectives; and Creativity Adda, which is an open learning platform and center for children in Delhi.

As an important part of our learning process involves internships and apprenticeships, Suraj is currently organising a Yatra, in which he’ll visit alternative learning spaces like Swatantrata Talim in Uttar Pradesh, Anand Niketan Democratic School in Bhopal, Adarshila Learning Centre in Badwani, M.P., and the homeschooler’s network in Pune, along with several other places. Given that Suraj realises that his journey and everything he plans to do will only be possible via the gifts and support of many people, he is crowdfunding the costs of his journey, and will be sharing consistent updates throughout.

All of these places are distinct, but while working in different contexts and with different age groups, what they all have in common is a commitment to a different kind of learning – one which allows children to mould their own learning, and one which focuses more on how learning interacts with our society and the environment.

Suraj’s vision is completely at odds with the majority of our modern institutions (as you’ll notice in the video beneath).  He isn’t aiming for a consumption-based lifestyle and he isn’t trying to indoctrinate children with a certain way of thinking either, the way our modern education system does. Instead, he’s simply trying to provide children with the space they need to explore, and his job is to simply help facilitate people, materials, and experiences that enrich their learning.

As a country, India has always embraced diversity, and yet, it feels like today, more than ever, that diversity is in danger. It’s not only the clamp-downs on freedom speech or association or the ideologically-driven vigilantism; it’s also the silent, but perhaps more dangerous and longer-lasting, monoculture brought in via socialisation in school and via popular media.

And yet, in spite of that, my experiences of living and working with young people like Suraj in rural India has shown me that there are plenty of people who are resisting the fragmented, destructive vision that’s being sold to them, and instead, are opting to create something that makes sense for the earth in their own cultural context. That’s what real courage and leadership look like – balancing resistance of a status quo you don’t believe in with the creation of new alternatives in the face of opposition.

Image source: Brent Stirton/ Getty Images
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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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