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What We Learnt On A Mission To Teach Children In Haryana & MP About Abuse

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By Shivakshi Bhattacharya, Swaranjali Agrawal and Suvangana Agarwal:

To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom and the threat of eternal indecision.
– I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou

Sometimes, in fact, most of the times, life is harder for a child. There is only so much they can make sense of, only so much that they can understand. For most of their childhood, they struggle with the concept of right and wrong. “Is it okay to eat ice-cream in the middle of the night? Is it okay to go to sleep late on a school night? Is it okay to not want Uncle Creepy to touch me anymore?

According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2007, children between the age group of 5-12 are at the highest of abuse and exploitation. The survey found that out of 69% children physically abused in 13 sample states, 54.68% were boys. It is a family member physically abuses 59% of the children across the country who live in a family environment and don’t go to school. As huge as these numbers are, not enough is being done to reduce them, and that is what inspired us to start a movement.

We feel that talking about sexual abuse and harassment will remove the stigma surrounding it and initiate conversation. So both of us, 4th year BA LLB students of Jindal Global University, Sonepat, Haryana, began a Sexual Harassment Prevention Program, “Make India Bold”, attempting to provide students with information about sexual harassment to reduce such incidences. We started as two but to have a greater impact we needed more people with a similar vision and passion for this issue. Suvangana Agrawal, our batchmate, joined us to make a difference. We aim to encourage students experiencing such harassment to get help by reporting to adults, promote respectful behaviours among peers, and help out friends experiencing the same.

We knew that it was at the grass root level that we needed to work – speak to children, parents and even teachers about what abuse and harassment is. They need to be aware of these things to realise what is happening to them, or even, what they may be doing to someone else. Our intention is not to tell children what is right or wrong, good or bad. We intend to inform them what various forms of harassment are, how it makes the other person feel, and how they can deal with it. A lot of times, what kids think is teasing and playing is not that. A ‘fun’ nickname at the expense of their friend’s self-esteem issue is not worth it and it is important to understand and take into consideration how their friend feels about the nickname.

We have done these sessions across Katni, Madhya Pradesh and Faridabad, Haryana. At our sessions, we often see students dealing with various problems and not know whom to approach for help. They understandably don’t know how to handle some situations themselves, and sometimes it is not easy, or enough, to confide in and consult parents. At our first session in Holy Child Public School with class 6th students, we asked them what they understood by harassment. A girl answered by saying “Didi, harassment ka matlab to nahi pata. Par meri mummy doctor hain, unke pass bahaut saare patients aate hain mental harassment ke liye. (I don’t know what harassment means, but a lot of patients come to my mom complaining of mental harassment).” At another one of our sessions, we found that these class 6 kids had been getting repeated invitations like, “Chalegi kya jhodhe mei?” These invitations had become an everyday occurrence, and had thus, become acceptable behaviour. When taken for granted, something like this has the potential of snowballing into bullying and sexual abuse very fast.

As students, it is sometimes very tough to prove your credibility. It becomes further difficult when you are three unknown girls walking around to schools with a dream to make a difference. We are often stared at by the principals and given ‘advice’ as to how sexual harassment is an inseparable ‘natural’ part of a woman’s life and hence, a sexual harassment prevention program is worthless. Despite all the on-ground struggles, we walk to make a change.

To have a greater impact, we have also come out with a fictional book, “The ‘Other’ Four”. It talks about isolated and ‘misfit’ kids. We want to be able to reach out to all the kids who cannot attend our sessions. Sometimes, children do feel comfortable approaching us to talk about these issues, so the intention is to be able to reach out to them and find a way to connect to them. The book is written from the perspective of four school-going children who talk about the problems they face to create relatability. We aim to come up with as many stories as we can so that we can cover as many issues as possible. If we could create relatability and awareness, we would consider this a success.

Often parents think that they are alone and their child is the only person facing some problem, but in most cases that is not true. We also plan on creating a forum for parents to come and discuss the problems that they see their kids go through as reassurance from someone who has faced similar challenges always helps more.

Our journey so far has not been easy. We have been struggling with the initiative as we are in the fourth year of law school. The only thing that has kept us going is the support of our professors and family. They have helped us grow from day one, making our dream into a reality and taking it further to achieve the larger goal. As we currently have no source of income as students, we have started an online crowdfunding campaign so that we can reach out to each child in this country through our workshops and books. We already operate through Facebook and Twitter, but our next immediate step is to come up with a website where people can contact us, and buy “The Other Four”.

In a country like India, dissolving stigmas and breaking age-old taboos is imperative. This is what we fight for. This is our mission.

If you are a survivor, parent or guardian who wants to seek help for child sexual abuse, or know someone who might, you can dial 1098 for CHILDLINE (a 24-hour national helpline) or email them at dial1098@childlineindia.org.in. You can also call NGO Arpan on their helpline 091-98190-86444, for counselling support.

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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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