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2 Young Graduates Share How Working In Villages Smashed Their Notions About Rural India

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India fellow logoEditor’s Note: This post is a part of a campaign by The India Fellow program on Youth Ki Awaaz. India Fellows spend 13 months working at the grassroots level to bring about real on-ground change. They are also mentored to be socially conscious leaders and contribute to the development of the country. Apply here to be a part of the change.

By Maithreyi Kamalanathan and Tushar Garg: 

About 70% of Indians live in rural areas, coming from different cultures, histories and territories. But when we think about development and change, and discuss it at the meal table, how often do we really know of the ground reality? Our ideas about village life are often idyllic, based out of books and movies that we have read or seen.

But the truth is miles away from these ideas. A short conversation with our domestic workers, or migrant construction workers is enough to reveal how different and difficult life in rural areas can be. And to understand what needs changing for a brighter, more prosperous tomorrow for our nation, we need to understand its differences from closer quarters.

For the same, two young, passionate graduates, who were selected into the India Fellow programme, were given the opportunity to visit a village in Rajasthan and find out if their ideas of rural India hold true. It is not an exaggeration to say that the experiences transformed the way they perceive things, permanently.

For Maithreyi Kamalanathan, a graduate in journalism, it was an experience that brought her face to face with her own biases and misconceptions about how people in villages live. She shares:

“As the urban elite of the nation, we are often more aware of Trump’s political manifesto and Brexit’s impacts on Great Britain than about the country and the cities we live in. How often do we read stories from rural Rajasthan, unless it is a sensational report on dowry torture or rape? How well do we know the urban slums that lie around the corner from us?

Even in this age of 24/7 media, when we are continuously bombarded with so much information over the internet, television, and newspapers, we tend to live in our own cocoons, wrapped up in our own contexts and identities. We remain blissfully unaware of the world outside our immediate environs, and secure in the knowledge that only we – urban, English speaking, privileged – know about all else in the world, and its wonders. This is what makes it difficult for us to deal with the shock of being rudely jerked into a reality we aren’t familiar with.

Maithreyi with folks in Tur village, South Rajasthan

And why we grapple with our mental image of a woman like Divya Sharma. Divya lives in Katara, a quaint little village on the outskirts of Udaipur, in Rajasthan; one of those villages to which no public transport is available; where water scarcity is a way of life; where economic necessity has driven people to migrate as far as Bangalore to ply their trades. But amidst all this, there’s also Divya, who is an artist. And she’s a hardcore Instagrammer.

To be honest, it was a bit of a shock to me when I found out about Divya’s Instagram account – and when I saw Bob Marley on her wall, alongside images of Radha and Krishna. Why? It just didn’t gel with my idea of a rural village in Rajasthan.

I realised with a guilty start that I had suddenly been confronted by my own biases. And that’s the rub: My having an Instagram account isn’t as shocking as Divya having one. And that needs to change. I was trapped by my ignorance of Divya’s context: what I expected was what I knew. And I only knew rural Rajasthan as a place where Rajasthani women walk with pots on their heads, as depicted in some Rajasthan’s tourism ads. The smartphones that the women here use with so much ease as I watch them are not part of the mental picture I had of them. And seeing the reality of Divya made me realise that this kind of generalising and stereotyping need to change.”

On the other hand, for Tushar Garg, a medical graduate, the experience was a wake-up call that forced him to recognise the privilege of urban healthcare in India. His experience took him to a Primary Health Centre in Nichli Badi, run by a health worker named Nagma:

“‘Dabaav bohot hai. Hum toh koshish kar rahe hain. (There’s a lot of pressure. We are trying.),’ Nagma said. Nagma is a middle-aged health worker in the primary health centre (PHC) of Nichli Badi. She has been overseeing the PHC functions in absence of a doctor for the past one and a half months. A soft-spoken woman, she was reluctant to share her opinions about health care system.

The PHC has technically been upgraded by Rajasthan government during the last year, but development has been limited to paper. In truth, there has been no infrastructural progress. Rather, the only doctor appointed for the two stipulated positions has also been transferred. The water has to be carried from a hand-pump nearby, since there is no budget for a water connection. The health workers have to run the clinic themselves. The budget allocated to the PHC is not enough to cover the overhead costs; even office stationery is bought personally by the staff. The only positive thing about the centre is regular supply of drugs under the government’s free drug scheme. Only moral responsibility for the community’s health motivates the auxiliary staff to keep the centre running day after day.

Tushar (right), with kids from Prayog NGO’s initiative in Gopalgunj, Bihar

At such basic levels, the misogyny of government policy is evident. In a classic top-down approach, one sees that the staff is under a constant pressure to fulfil sterilisation targets throughout the year. But last year, only two-thirds of the targets for sterilisation of women was achieved, and not a single male was sterilised. Yet this year, without taking into consideration the limitations that field workers faced, the target numbers have been increased. Deeply unsettling as it is, this disconnect between healthcare policy and practice is clearly not uncommon. But without being here and speaking to Nagma and seeing her plight, one wonders if this is something they might have realised. After all, it is easy to argue over a cup of steaming coffee. But, how does it feel when that coffee spills in one’s lap?

The two experiences might be starkly different from one another but bring to light how ignorant we, in urban setups really are about the harsh truths of living in India’s villages today. Maithreyi and Tushar took the chance to step out of their comfort zones and see the reality for themselves. After all, only when we experience things ourselves, can we change the way things are currently. Agree or disagree?

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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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