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Photos From My Trip To India That Shattered My Assumptions About Poverty

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By Sreeja Karanam:

Does the image on the right shock you?

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When I stepped into the “kitchen”, I immediately started sweating, due to the lack of ventilation, and I was only there for a few seconds. Women like Chandrika have to bear the smoke from the stove for the whole day leading to damaged lungs and blisters on the skin.

It wouldn’t shock me either. With a vast increase in technology and media, we are constantly exposed to pictures and stories of people living in slums in today’s modern culture – something I like to call the desensitization phenomena (also happening with the chain of ISIS terrorist attacks for a more recent example).

This phenomenon is one of the main culprits in the lack of aid and awareness for war, poverty and disease-stricken countries. We, as a society, have become so used to seeing such pictures and videos that it has desensitised us, and so we go back to our little bubble of “I shouldn’t take what I have for granted.”

But, all the media does is divide us even further and the pictures you see floating around on Facebook and Instagram are merely instigators of deception. The reality is far from it.

This year, during my trip in India, I wanted to see the harsh reality of life – what life was like on the other side of the coin – the rusty, broken and corrupt side of the coin.

“The World Is Developing, It’s Really Not That Bad Anymore”

Over 3 billion people, that’s just short of half of the world’s population, live in poverty. Of that 1 billion children suffer from malnutrition, stricken with disease and of that, 22,ooo children die every day as a result. This is the side we do not see.

The grass is always greener on the other side, with Western countries having had developments in infrastructure and economy over the past century leading to a higher quality of life for citizens. Levels of poverty in the EU stood at 16% in 2010 – which is significantly low as the figure takes into account the poverty levels of its 28 members. Now, compare this figure to the 48.5% of people living below the poverty line in Africa.

What makes India stand out is that it has one of the highest GDP growth rates in the world and an array of recent achievements in technology, industry and entrepreneurship – it strides confidently towards a better future. But, in the world’s largest democracy, more than 300 million Indians are victims of hunger, illiteracy and disease with 23.6% of these unfortunates living below the poverty line. This is far from the country Mahamta Gandhi envisioned.

 

“Poor People Are Just Lazy, They Can Go Out And Get Jobs”2

I have met people who have lived in slums their whole lives and their stories fascinated me. The person above is one such example: having been born into the lowest caste, his family was ostracised by society and this meant that they were not allowed to be educated and were given very little, if not no, job opportunities. The stigma of being a Dalit is very much alive today, also known as the ‘untouchables’, and due to this he could not be the breadwinner his family desperately needed. As I was speaking to him, I could smell the alcohol off his breath and when I stepped into his home, I saw many cheap liquor bottles thrown aside in the corner. Being uneducated snatched away any hope he had of getting a well-paid job which meant he could not afford to educate his children. He is just one of the many trapped in such the vicious cycle, and for him alcohol is a means of escaping.

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The holy being does not claim the Dalits, which means they often live their lives as outcasts – shunned away in slums because they are considered too impure to even be considered as worthy beings. They are ruled by prejudice and experience injustice every day, with poverty being the epitome of this. Without a fair and equal society, one that is not based on religion, the issue of poverty will always be a priority for India.

“The Government Is Already Doing So Much To Help”

Corruption is in the blood of Indian politics, the bloodline goes as far back as Nehru. In fact, the late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi publicly admitted that only about 17% reached the ultimate beneficiaries and the rest was siphoned off by people connected to the government strategy being implemented. For example, let’s say that the parliament releases a new bill saying that 1 lakh (Rs. 100,000) will be invested in constructing new roads in villages. Contractors will take double the amount that was agreed, so Rs. 20,000 is taken by them. Down the next level, Ministry of Road & Highways Department will take an additional Rs. 20,000 returning it to the government and even further down, the local council will take another sum of Rs. 20,000. When you finally get down to the level of the companies building the roads, they are left with 40% of the original sum – leaving them to build very poor quality roads. Now, imagine the same with the money being invested into helping the poor.

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“It’s Their Fault, For Not Educating Their Children”

Education is the one thing that can break the cycle with immense benefits for the family, society and economy. However, even the education system is corrupt in India; parents have to pay hefty sums of up to 5 lakh rupees a year for each child until they are sixteen. If the blessed wealthy ones find this a financial burden, how are the poor expected to finance their children’s education? As a result, many slum dwellers only send their sons to school, sending them to much more affordable schools hundreds of kilometres away. The women are left to work as maids, cleaners and street sweepers to earn a few measly rupees for the family’s daily roti (if they can afford it every day.) High levels of illiteracy, particularly in rural areas and among women, has always been a crucial factor in perpetuating economic backwardness and also in a high population growth. When women are educated, not only do they contribute to the economy, but they also keep family sizes small with healthy children.

One of the most remarkable things I came across while visiting these slums was the sacrifices these parents were willing to make so that their children have a much brighter future. Harika, who is 9, goes to school alongside her older brother and what astonished me was that she spoke in English. She told me she wanted to become a teacher, and when I asked why, she said she wants to help others learn too because she loves going to school. Her older brother wants to be police officer to help other poor people who cannot fend for themselves. Their parents slave away, earning just enough to give their children a high quality education and when I asked their father why he works so hard, he said, “There is nothing more important in the world than education.”

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Seeing the lives of these people brought tears to my eyes and gave me a new perspective of looking at things. I only hope that poverty is one day, maybe even long after our deaths, completely eradicated and mankind can live in a world where colour, gender and caste do not justify the mistreatment of others.

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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.”

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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
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