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How One Woman’s Vision Has Transformed 1600 Children’s Education In Tamil Nadu

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By Ananya Damodaran

Madhi is the Tamil word for ‘knowledge’. In 2015, Merlia Shaukath pioneered a non-profit in Chennai, naming it ‘Madhi Foundation’. Currently, Madhi implements a classroom enrichment program that focuses on teacher training and student learning outcomes – mobilised with the help of technology with an acute awareness of all the constraints that exist in under-resourced schools.

“I think the inspiration [for Madhi] was my time with Teach For India, and being in classrooms and seeing how the children’s lives were impacted. I wanted to bring the same impact in non-TFI classrooms as well,” says Merlia.

This year, Madhi will impact 150 schools.

Merlia spent two and a half years at Teach For India, first as an operations associate, and then as a government relations manager. These roles gave her a rare opportunity: “It took me to classrooms, but it also gave me the chance to interact with people within the system. A lot of my skill sets today were honed during that time,” she says.

Already armed with Masters degrees in governance and public policy, Merlia then joined Athena Infonomics as a policy consultant. She wanted to focus on the implementation aspect of policy, and figure out how to make systemic impact possible.

“It gave me the perspective I needed to take both into consideration – how policy can trickle down to the grassroots and how ground realities can impact policy,” she explains.

Merlia combined her understanding of policy formulation and implementation, and experience in the education sector, to start the Madhi Foundation. This process was not without its fair share of challenges. Getting people to have faith in a startup non-profit is not easy, but as Merlia says, “trust can only be gained with time.”

“If we continue doing the work we do, consistently and with an unflinching commitment to the cause we believe in, people will eventually start trusting us,” she says. Elaborating on Madhi’s goals, she says, “The way we see Madhi is that it’ll implement different programs addressing the various puzzle pieces in the education sector. Right now we’re working with teacher capacity-building and creating content for students. In the future, we’re looking at school leadership, and capacity-building of teacher trainers employed by the government in the system.”

Madhi’s work is tied to the interaction with the government systems currently in place. “Working with the government is exciting, but it’s also challenging because it requires a certain temperament. There are uncertainties and ambiguities, but the government is the only machinery that you can work with if you want to create impact at scale,” says Merlia. In one of her blog posts, she talks about the difficulty of settling on one system of education that is ‘the best’.

“At Madhi we do not believe there ever can be one ‘best way to teach’ children. We work with the core belief that children are unique, their learning needs different and their socio-cultural backgrounds diverse,” she writes.

They work with the system that is currently in existence, slowly trying to “chip away a few rough edges at a time.”

With this goal in mind, Madhi launched the ‘Transformational Academic Program’ (TAP) in June 2015. After conducting surveys and data analysis, they identified the practical problems teachers were facing in classrooms every day and sought to develop solutions.

“The Transformational Academic Programme is the result of a lot of learning, listening and empathising with what our teachers and children had to say,” writes Merlia. TAP provides teachers with bilingual scripted lesson-plans, a toolkit with all resources they require, and simple technological assistance with tabs and smartphones. TAP was implemented across 15 primary schools under the Corporation of Chennai’s Department of Education. It was implemented in class 1 and class 2, impacting 1600 students and 42 teachers!

Team Madhi

Madhi is on its way to becoming a critical stakeholder in the education landscape of Tamil Nadu, and is expanding its horizons to change our system for the better.

“Working to change the system is frustrating and exhausting, but it’s worth it, and with the kind of dedicated and passionate team that Madhi has, it’s an exciting journey despite all the challenges,” says Merlia of her long journey in policy implementation and the education sector.

It’s people and organisations like this, relentlessly pursuing equity, that will convert it from vision to reality.

Applications for the 2018-2020, Teach For India Fellowship program are now open. Please visit to submit your application by October 29, 2017.

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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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