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How Working With Children Made Me Realise The Healing Effect Of Writing

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By: Piyali Dasgupta

16-year-old Ritu Kumari (name changed) from Haryana grew up listening to easy exchanges about sex-selective abortions and female infanticide. She knew of friends, neighbours and family members who had killed or had an abortion because the child would have been born a female. Ritu lost her mother as a young girl, so she grew up very affected, and largely confused.

In 2014, she attended a mentored creative writing workshop for children organised by Katha, at the Children’s Writers Festival (Katha Utsav.)

She wrote her heart out. Talking about the violence against women that she witnessed and experienced every day, she found a way to express herself through her writing. Katha Utsav proved transformative. Two years on, after having found her distinct voice, Ritu writes prolifically and is training to be a wrestler. She is still in touch with me.

I have had the honour of being associated with Katha Utsav as a mentor and now as the festival curator this year, since its inception five years ago. This year, we are gearing up to launch the Utsav with the north zone regional round on October 7 and October 8 in Delhi.

Five years ago, Padma Shri and founder of Katha, Geeta Dharmarajan conceptualised the Utsav with her innate vision for education and calling to empower young people. The Utsav became one of the several other initiatives that she has spurred in her guidance and leadership. Built on Katha’s ethos – which believes every child has a story to tell, Katha Utsav taps into the potential of young people, hearing their stories and helping them channelise their authentic selves with the hope to transform their lives.

In order to reach out to as many children as possible, the workshop is divided into two stages: the regional rounds, and then the national round. How this works is that students and schools first register to be part of this workshop through an intra-school writing competition. We get about 15,000 stories in different languages from all across the country. Of this, we select 1200 stories to participate in the four regional writing workshops. The regional writing workshops are being held this year in Guwahati for the east zone, Baroda for the west zone, Bangalore for the south zone and New Delhi for the north zone. The mentors choose about 500 submissions from this pool for the national finale in December, a three-day literary event.

Katha Utsav firstly enables young people to brainstorm ideas, address relevant topics, engage in an inner dialogue and turn it into a piece of art through their writing. Secondly, by listening and sharing their thoughts and ideas with peers and mentors, they become more patient and empathetic. Thirdly, it shifts how one lives individually in their ordinary life. Writing makes you an observer. By observing, one’s own and others world it helps widens your own perspectives and worldview. Fourthly, the workshop focuses on peer review and support. Considering the various backgrounds and experiences the participating students and mentors have, there is a healthy exchange of ideas in a safe space and in a non-judgmental way. Since the past four years in which I have mentored children, I have seen this transformation take place. Fifth, this creative process aides a young person vent, harness and channel that anxiety and stress positively.  It helps deal with the demons, feel grounded, find focus and gain clarity. Writing makes you get in touch with the vulnerable self and helps you in parking the unnecessary and focusing on what is truly important.

Katha Utsav mentors become confidantes for young people. Our mentors are educators, writers, poets, illustrators, artists, theatre artists, storytellers, creative arts practitioner and translator etc. A mentor, through debate and discussion, opens them up to various ideas and thoughts. This year our mentors are focusing on topics like gender and writing, writing for films. We are focusing on questions like ‘What does creativity mean?’  , ‘How does space impact a story?’ , ‘How creativity can create a peaceful world?’, ‘What is the origin of stories?’ and to understand what non-fiction is.

Today young people are assailed by problems like – cyberbullying, body shaming, gender stereotyping, academic pressure, bullying, violence, abuse and problems at home. Things like “Blue Whale Challenge” are just the external, superficial and outward projection of the deeper issues. The real problem is that young people go through stress, anxiety, pressure, and a multitude of labelling. These are left unaddressed and it’s a buildup. What we see externally is a reflection of the internal conflict within a young person.

One year, a student came out as transgender in front of the entire group. In another year, a young student from Assam confided in me about being bullied with racist remarks about her eyes by one of the boys in the group. She went back and wrote a lovely story about how eyes change form in size, shape and colour from place to place, and therefore, appearances and beauty cannot be straight jacketed. That is how she chose to respond to him and speak up. These stories confirm that writing, as a process, heals you. Hence, platforms such as Katha Utsav become relevant.


Piyali is an educator, writer, brand consultant and creative arts practitioner. She is also a mentor and curator for Katha Utsav.

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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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