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Lessons From A Year Spent Working To Get More Indian Women Online

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Last year, 15 women were announced as World Pulse Ambassadors at the International Conference held by ‘Women Deliver’ in San Francisco. The founder/CEO of the world’s largest social network of women leaders, Jensine Larsen introduced each woman as a leader in her own right.

I heard there was an air of celebration as the audience got to its feet and applauded. One of the women who was being applauded was me.

I was not in San Francisco at that time, but I could still feel the wave of joy. I wanted to accept this responsibility placed upon me to advocate for the digital empowerment of girls and women, but coupled with this moment of joy was also a little voice of uncertainty of how I would carry out my role and if I would match up to expectations.

A picture, a placard, a message on it joins with faces and voices of women worldwide to give rise to not a collage but an uprising defying the leadership that Donald Trump embodies.

To be able to do justice, the conviction that’s needed to back your dedication comes from reports on how the digital gender gap is growing wider with Africa reporting the largest divide at 23% and America the narrowest at 2%. These facts, make it all the more necessary to bring more girls and women online.

My message to the women who will come after me as ambassadors is that, you’ll doubt yourself for sure, but that’s how you grow. At times you will wonder how a program can be organised unless you have funding. Who would be interested in your message? Who are the people most likely to be receptive? Is it possible to even carry out all the activities and initiatives while you have a full-time job (like I did) or run your own organisation or have family commitments?

The ‘how’ will become a constant, but let it not be a barrier because these will be your answers soon. That is what I discovered that helped me decide what could be the message, the dos and don’ts, what approach works and what you eventually will walk away with at the end.

My Year As A World Pulse Ambassador

The year I spent as an ambassador of World Pulse was super eventful. In the last 12 months where I represented World Pulse in international and national conferences as a speaker, my message was to increase the use of the internet by girls and women and build connections between them to address social norms that lie at the crux of the many social problems in India or elsewhere.

To champion digital empowerment of girls, women and the marginalised it is critical to connect the dots between these social evils and the women who are not using their voice to end them. It is important to get more girls and women online so that they can tell their stories and issues pertinent to their community, political background or cultural setting and pitch for the change they want to see.

Using digital training asset to train girls on sex education, menstrual hygiene management and water and sanitation.

One such conference was the UNICEF National Consultation on Social Norms and the Rights of Women and Children. It was attended by close to 100 academic professionals on March 27 and March 28, 2017, in Bangalore, India. The discussions centred around the impact of social norms on the development of children and women. It also revolved around topics like the antenatal period in a tribal woman’s life, child birth practices, feeding practices, education, gender based violence, menarche and the culture of silence, addressing challenges on maternal, child and adolescent health as experienced by the health department and the gender stereotypes in media.

Initially, you would have to work a little to come up with how the use of the internet could be seen as a related subject associated with a solution to a wide number of problem. It took me a day to come up with how I would fit the vision of World Pulse and the use of the internet into a discussion on social norms. The forum was meant for sociologists, development communication experts, social researchers and program practitioners, and I pitched for the role of the media and citizen journalists (stories of women by women and for women). It was important to make people understand how they could play a role in changing the negative social norms to positive social norms and design outcomes related to the rights of women and children. 

After the first time, it is easy to visualise the depth of internet use in every possible space of intervention. This is when you truly become an advocate of digital empowerment of women.

I always like to quote Chi Yvonne, who is the founder of Gender Danger, an NGO for education towards the eradication of the harmful traditions against women and girls in Africa and what she achieved using digital skills. Look at the social evil of breast ironing in Cameroon, where mothers believed that this measure would prevent the rape of their daughters. She used the internet and her digital skills to tell stories and relay her recommendations on why and how to end breast ironing. She succeeded in bringing global visibility to this inhuman practice and campaigned for its eradication, aligning like minded individuals and organisations to support her. In the process, she also helped develop a resistance to practices that are harmful to girls.

World Pulse envisions the transitioning of a girl/woman from an existence of being a mere spectator to being vocal and suggest solutions and lead her community to change in partnership with other women around the world.

The Important Takeaway’s From My Experience

During the year I learnt that you do not have to set aside a program specifically for advocating the use of the internet; you can integrate this message in many of your current activities and public appearances during your job and your organisation work too. Additionally, if you need a success story of a woman change maker who uses the internet to enhance impact, you will not face any difficulty in identifying her, thanks to the internet. I found Olutosin Oladoshu Adebowale from Nigeria, Zephaniah from Pakistan, Neema Namadamu from Congo, Beatrice Achieng Nas from the Republic of Uganda and so many other inspiring women!

Padmalatha Ravi and Pushpa Achanta two World Pulse sisters from my city Bangalore in India are my biggest support

If you do not have a staff or a team to help you, do what I did! I reached out for help. Busayo Obisakin from Nigeria helped me out during the Women Digital Skills Training I conducted in April 2016 for a small group of 10 women sales professionals in Bangalore by being my co-facilitator using Skype to connect with us in India and sharing her experience in using the internet.

Olutosin Adebowale, Stella Paul and Upasana Chauhan extended their support by being panellists on the International Women’s Day Skype Program held on March 8, 2017, where close to 30 callers from around the globe joined the Skype based conversation and many viewers connected to our Facebook Live streaming. 

During the Nepal National Training on Menstrual Hygiene Management held in Nagarkot in February 2017, I conducted sessions on digital tools to enhance program implementation on menstrual hygiene management program for 60 participants from Nepal and Pakistan who were government officials from different departments. The participants shared how useful that session had been to unlock their own apprehensions on sharing on social media or on online portals for fear of loss of privacy, lack of idea on benefits of networking and thinking it was only for the new generation to be online.

Noteworthy are accounts of two of my colleagues, who were also trainers like me. They shared that the session had completely changed their view on being connected to others.

Abdulwahid Ahmed Jama working with Kenya Red Cross Society shares his experience of attending the digital skills session and says, ‘This training was extremely useful in instilling in me a culture of sharing information in real time. I found there is no greater advocacy than using social media to push for a cause.”

Ayesha Riaz, another participant from Pakistan who works in the education department says, “Digital skills training was so inspiring because no body receives training on this topic unless your line of education is this. People might buy the latest gadgets but how many know how to use it well and for good?”

And then there were ample opportunities in my friend circle, among colleagues, with family where I could give hand-holding support to set up a Skype account, or an email, take a picture and share it with friends and so on. You will be surprised to find the number of people who find the confidence to be online through your help.

The journey that was meant to facilitate the learning process in others also left me with lessons that will change my life forever, one being that the biggest resource we have is ourselves. With that alone, we can move mountains. The other learning is, digital skills are not stand-alone topics, a subject of learning or occupation; instead they are skills that can be used alongside any other activity in any industry you work in or in your personal life- everyone can benefit from it! I found several teams and persons I want to continue working with, a new confidence and peace of doing my best in my circumstances. I also drew closer to World Pulse sisters and take delight in being considered as a focal person or point of reference for other women who train others.

I found several teams and persons I want to continue working with, a new confidence and peace of doing my best in my circumstances. I also drew closer to World Pulse sisters and take delight in being considered as a focal person or point of reference for other women who train others.

I thank all my friends, sisters, volunteers and others who supported me to accomplish the goals I had set for myself. Thank you, World Pulse, for giving me the opportunity to serve the global sisterhood and my World Pulse family. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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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