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Our Efforts To Improve Girls’ Education In Rural Schools Tell A Disappointing Story

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While India slides down in the report on global gender gap rankings from 87 in 2016 to 108 in 2017, the youth must be concerned that the gender gap is widening. The report is based on a multi-dimensional analysis of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.

We have been addressing the issue of India’s gender gap for at least two reasons. Firstly, we are engaged in the social campaign Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao which is geared to empower girls. Secondly, we firmly believe that educational attainment is critical to achieving the other dimensions.

India ranks 108 is among 144 countries like Iceland (#1), Bangladesh (#47), USA (# 49), and Pakistan (#143). The choice is clear which of its neighbors should be a role model for India. The report touts India’s success in fully closing its primary and secondary education enrollment gender gaps for the second year consecutively. And, for the first time, India has nearly closed its tertiary education gender gap.

The report states ‘education enrollment’ and not the attainment. In fact, India ranks #112 in education attainment which is among the lowest fourth of all nations. My own visits to rural government primary schools tell the story about the low educational attainments – kids write very little, the books are supplied nearly half-way in the school year, teachers’ absenteeism, poor infrastructure, and the instructional aides are in short supply. Perhaps the enrollment on paper is nearly perfect, but how many attend school regularly is a different story with no reliable data.

For our new initiative to provide furniture in four schools, an Education Officer told me to use approximately 80% attendance as a good number for providing the furniture.

The first step toward educational attainment is going to school regularly and continuing it as far as possible. Many girls don’t go beyond 5th grade. Simply put, we leave behind nearly one-fourth of girls at 5th grade depriving them of economic participation and opportunity, and political empowerment.

When Vidya Gyan adopted the second half of the government flagship initiative Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, we had a vision that every girl under 10 years of age in all rural government schools must have a saving account as a future financial security while going to school. Today, after opening over 650 saving accounts in rural schools, our experiences tell a very different and disappointing story.

Vidya Gyan offered financial incentives to open the accounts, it coached parents, created a network with teachers and local post offices, and brought the post office to a school site. However, now we are finding out that many parents are not depositing ₹100/month (toward the required minimum of ₹1000/year for the account to have a good standing.) There is an element of denial by parents in changing their mindset about daughters. Perhaps, these parents don’t understand that they are contributing to the widening of gender gap by not having their daughters educated.

We had hoped and assumed that the teachers are our best ambassadors in promoting the program for the sake of increasing gender parity. Many of them proved to be very trusting partners, but others did not see the value in it.  The postal department valued our initiative in meeting its year-end productivity goals, but the postmasters in rural post offices were themselves poorly informed about the saving account nuances; many of them even misinformed parents and asked to deposit ₹1000/month. Being government employees, they are hardly accountable and most do the minimum possible to get by. Apparently, the limited outreach efforts and lack of trust seem to be failing our efforts.

According to the report, a decline in India’s low ranking is largely attributable to a widening of its gender gaps in political empowerment as well as in healthy life expectancy and basic literacy. India also continues to rank fourth-lowest in the world on health and survival. India, once credited to have nation’s first female prime minister nearly 50 years ago, must renew its efforts and make progress on achieving political empowerment with a new generation of female political leadership.

In the meantime, Vidya Gyan continues to move forward with its vision to have rural youth, particularly girls, read, write, and learn to attain gender parity through educational attainment. When I come to India in January, we will reevaluate our initiatives, learn from our failures to become better and put our best foot forward. India must rethink its policies and practices not to deprive the youth of their right to education and thus right to their participation in all economic, political, intellectual, and social sectors.

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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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