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‘No Place Was More Special Than Jamia’: My Experiences As An American Exchange Student

You go somewhere special, and you come back something else. Everybody wants to ask you how everything was and what you’ve gained. But I cannot place it in words, and I do not know if I even want to at times. I want to keep those memories, feelings, and tastes all to myself; it’s as if it’s another separate world that only I can tap into. So, I usually say the simple things when people ask, “it was fun”, “food was nice”, “made some friends” but rarely do I touch upon how I truly feel.

But I somehow feel comfortable talking here. Maybe it is because somebody personally asked me to write. Maybe it is because that somebody is an Indian and not an American. Or maybe it is because it is 4 am, and my honesty usually comes when I am tired and can write with less of a barrier.

But anyhow, I found something in India. It revealed itself through moments such as trying real Kashmiri Rogan Josh for the first time, being excited over seeing cows on the road or travelling to beautiful areas such as Kerala and Dharamshala. These moments were special not only because of their inherent value but also because they all happened in a place where my perception was different.

And nowhere to me was more special than Jamia Millia Islamia, specifically the Mass Communication Research Center. I was able to take two amazing classes on the ‘Pleasures of Bollywood’ and ‘Interdisciplinary Methods’ from Dr Geeta Patel, a professor who changed the way I think and approach topics. It was probably the first time in my college life where I actually enjoyed reading the texts and working on assignments because the classes had a nuanced approach to learning that drew me in.

Additionally, the people I studied with were nothing short of amazing. These were some of the most talented media students in India. I saw a passion for art in all of these individuals. And to me, their artistic spirit did not stem from ego nor pride, but instead it was mostly from love for creating their craft. I remember watching the final film festival that these students had their films featured in, and I saw the depth and seriousness they took to both the technical and theoretical elements of the film.

I’m not entirely sure how I impacted them, but seeing these individuals pursue their craft put a fire in me to pursue the things I love irrespective of societal pressures, money, and other difficulties. But most importantly, all the humanity and friendships the Jamia students shared with me is something that I will always hold onto. I saw something special with these individuals in addition to so many others in India and every individual bond I made truly made me that much happier. Even now, my mind sometimes goes back and decides to play out the conversations, interactions, and food I experienced with everybody in India; I miss it all.

I could go on and on about India, but I believe there’s something more to it all. It seemed that India existed outside the boundaries of my life. It’s as if time froze and my pressures melted away as I realised that I had nothing to lose and only significance to gain. Somehow, here was a place where I could unconditionally feel brightness. Ultimately, what I found in India was purity. India reminds me of the part of myself that is unaltered, authentic, but also naive at times. Naive because my love for India makes me at times forget the many problems in this country.

Over a billion people call this country home, and most of them experience this place like home with all the happy, sad, devastating, and euphoric aspects that life brings with it. But in my short five-month stay, I was not able to experience all these emotions. The positivity far outweighed any negativity and my memories of it thus remain as solely a pure one.

But there is nothing wrong with a little purity even if it is merely a perception. Sometimes, we just want to find something to attach ourselves to unconditionally. Many of us have been so battered in life that we yearn to cling onto something that makes us remember that there is another side to all this. I am one of those people still yearning. Perhaps that is why I have been wanting to keep my India experience for myself and not allow others to somehow ‘impurify’ it.

I intend to return to India someday. But the next time I want it to be different. I want to experience strong moments of sadness in India. I want to fight for something there. I want to experience a lot more and add to all the positive memories because I want to deepen my love for India. Perhaps I will find those things or perhaps I won’t, but I at least want to try.

India will always mean something to me, but that does not mean that my relationship with it has to be static. But for now, I will continue to reminiscence the purity that I found in India because it is what I need right now.

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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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