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Breaking Taboos, How This NGO Is Empowering Underprivileged Children On Sexual Health

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By Shreya Jakhmola:

Whiling my time away on the internet waiting for the rains to stop, I came across a short-film titled “ACID”. This 6-minute film brings to light one of the very common, yet a topic of immense importance requiring attention – menstruation. In India, the word has been loaded with all kinds of stigmas and taboos that make it more unchaste than simply biological. The film exhibits a 12-year-old boy narrating an incident, from school to his mother. A young girl of his class, who probably had got her first periods, was mistaken to have peed in her skirt. Having been noticed by her peers, they decided to label her ‘ACID’. Leaving the mother disturbed about what her son and his friends intend to do, she decides to educate him on the matter. Too simplistic, isn’t it? Nonetheless, in reality, it happens more infrequently than it should.

It is not just menstruation that our society is averted to, but most or any issue that relate to sexual and reproductive health. From being considered impious to embarrassing, neither are we allowed to speak about them nor is there any permeable education that is imparted. Recently, however, ad films and movies have become outspoken about such issues making their way through the popular discourse. In spite of the visible change in such matters surfacing through popular culture, a large chunk of the population, especially those from socio-economically backward classes remain unenlightened about the issues related to these.

The importance of educating adolescents, girls as well as boys, of having a healthy sexual and reproductive life cannot be debated. Reported increase in the number of sexually transmitted infections among the Indian youth is a hysterical concern for not just Indian government but also the society on the whole. Many governmental and non-governmental organisations have been working towards creating awareness about these health-related concerns.

One such organisation making ardent efforts to sensitises young people on sexual and reproductive health is Niramaya Health Foundation. Based in Mumbai, Niramaya incepted as a health program of Pratham Mumbai in 1999. From being focused on basic health interventions to promote health in children, the scope of the programme eventually expanded leading to the formal establishment of Niramaya in 2001. With its commitment to ensuring a disease-free childhood and a responsible adulthood, it undertakes many healthcare practices across all health paradigms. One such program run by Niramaya is SPARSH – Sensitization Program for Adolescents in Reproductive and Sexual Health.

Growing into young adults is primarily marked with certain physical changes that occur in the body. At puberty, girls begin to have bodily changes such as breast development and growth of hair in private parts, as well as hormonal changes that cause periods. Boys too, experience voice-change, growing muscles and pubic hair. Acknowledging these changes that a teen body goes through, Niramaya understands the physical, mental and sexual transformations that accompany. These developments lead to hyped curiosity in children that escalate newer levels of needs in them upon their interaction with other social changes. These social changes that are influenced by factors such as urbanisation, media, alcohol and others tend to induce unhealthy habitual and behavioural patterns that need to be catered to in order to avoid unsafe digressions in life. It is not only the expected changes that build up the need for educating adolescents but the alarming increase in sexually transmitted infections in young people, such as gonorrhea and syphilis, of which HIV/ AIDS remains the most prevalent. Further issues related to premarital pregnancy have also been rising. Given the situation thus, Niramaya through SPARSH works with adolescent girls and boys across schools and communities from low socio-economic strata to educate them on reproductive and sexual health matters. It does so by communicating with these kids in innovative and engaging ways. Niramaya health volunteers involve in participatory discussions with these kids to gauge their knowledge on sexual health and improve the anomalies accordingly.

In a recent venture of theirs, Niramaya has collaborated with a group of Harvard students to revamp SPARSH by incorporating ‘Girls Health Champions’ model. Employed to train adolescent girls as peer health educators and leaders, the model astutely tries to disentangle the deeply entrenched issues of gender inequality woven in the Indian societal fabric. Centred on girls, the model is moulded around enabling them with skills of leadership and effective health communication. These health champions are selected at random and trained on topics related to nutrition, sexual and reproductive health, mental health, gender-based violence and similar other areas that are positioned in the curriculum designed by the organisation and their partners. Upon being skilled with the required knowledge, they are encouraged to educate their peers on the same through presentations as well as personal talks. A pre-training and post-training test, at an interval of six months after the program, is taken to assess the levels of knowledge addition as well as retention in these kids. The effectiveness of the model can be explained in terms of the comfort level peers share among themselves to debate and discuss on these topics as often such matters form a part of ‘awkward’ conversations with parents or even teachers. While the immediate goal is to increase the existing awareness among these people, the long-term impact of the model envisions cultivating self-confidence while improving health behaviour and practices in people of the community.

Unhealthy living conditions continue to sweep across the Indian panorama. These conditions further extend to the institutional spaces, especially schools where children from low income and poor background go. Sites of dilapidating buildings, noxious washrooms, and poor infrastructure are very common in government and low-income schools across India. In spite of everyone everywhere wrangling about the importance and its concerns, little seems to be done about actually transforming this insalubrious scenario. However this ‘little’ includes conscious and dedicated efforts by many of the organisations that are working towards improving the health status of the communities around, the one like Niramaya.

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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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