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How An Entrepreneur Is Building An E-Commerce Enterprise In War-Torn Kashmir

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ILO logoEditor’s Note:With #FutureOfWork, the International Labour Organization India and Youth Ki Awaaz are coming together to explore the spectrum of issues that affect young people's careers and work lives. Join the conversation! 

26-year old Muheet Mehraj attended his Master’s course for exactly five days, before realising his heart lay somewhere else. All of 20, and itching for social change, the youngster soon dropped out to start, along with a friend, Kashmir Box, an e-store based out of Kashmir that stocks everything Kashmiri.

Having lived in Kashmir all his life, the youngster knew that starting his own entrepreneurial venture wouldn’t be easy. But the desire and determination to do things for his state, combined with the idea of doing something on his own, made Mehraj take the plunge.

Talking about the idea of starting an all Kashmiri e-commerce site, Mehraj explains, “Kashmir is a brand in itself. When we were researching, we realised there are so many things, from saffron and rugs to Pashmina and handicrafts, that are unique to Kashmir alone, and that people want to buy them. But there was a problem, too. There is a lot of ambiguity on the genuineness of products one gets in cities. And while Kashmir has a strong brand name, its presence in the market, especially when it comes to e-commerce is negligible. But that is also what presented a great opportunity.”

From saffron and pashmina to wazwan feasts and kehwas and even authentic Kashmiri rugs and phirans, Kashmir Box, which started operations in 2010, stocks it all, with several shopkeepers and artisans from the state, selling things through the platform.

The journey of the startup, though, was far from smooth. Apart from the usual challenges facing any startup, Mehraj had to additionally battle the huge odds of setting up an entrepreneurial venture in a state that has been in the shackles of war and conflict for more than a decade. The first problem faced by the organisation was consolidating the increasingly fragmented handicraft industry of the state.

“We realised that for the last 20 years, there has been no intervention, especially when it comes to the Kashmiri handicraft industry. While middlemen were eating away most of the profits, artisans were languishing, worse off than daily wage labourers. Becoming an artisan had become a kind of taboo, and most artisans did not want their children to become artisans,” shares Mehraj. “We understood that just building a marketplace would not suffice, and that it was our responsibility to build a platform that could also enable Kashmir’s artisans, and in the process revive Kashmir’s rich art and crafts,” he adds. So, Mehraj got local artisans to start selling their ware directly on the platform, enabling them to draw maximum profits.

There was, of course, also the difficulty of setting up an enterprise in a conflict area. “The first few years were only about the challenges. From figuring out how to get access to the market to developing a steady supply chain in a hostile zone, from living without electricity and at times even the internet, everything was a challenge. I remember a time when from clicking photos to writing content, I used to do everything. But the passion never dipped, and that is why we are here,” Mehraj says.

The entrepreneur particularly remembers the 2014 floods that ravaged Kashmir and the recent violence that broke out in the valley after Burhan Wani’s death. “During the floods, my entire house was under 20 feet of water. My first instinct, however, was to look out for my teammates.We spent a whole month just involved in relief and rehabilitation. For two whole months, we did not take an order. There was waitlisting for three to four months for products sometimes. Thankfully, our customers didn’t give up on us. They understood what had happened and fully cooperated,” he says.

When curfew was imposed in 2016, his team would work from 5 to 7 am every morning, and then resume work from 6 to 10 pm. “Surely, those days were hard. But if you have started something, you have to get behind it.”

That the government has offered the young in Kashmir little support doesn’t affect Mehraj. “The youth in Kashmir are bright and enterprising. There are many youngsters like me who are trying to change things. We don’t want anything from the government. We only want the government to let us do what we are trying to do, and get out of our way,” he says.

Asked how he manages to stay so positive despite all that he sees, he replies, “It’s because I believe in one simple thing with all my heart – that the best of solutions always come from the worst of places.” Well said!

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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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