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In Delhi, This Medical Student Is Teaching Kids To Present Their Lives Through Poetry

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More than 53% of children in India are subjected to sexual abuse, more than 60% to corporal abuse, yet most don’t report the assaults to anyone. They are deprived of one of the most important aspects of development: their voice and the ability to use it. This becomes even more apparent in the case of underprivileged children and those in places where individual expression is inaccessible.

We know that academic success alone is not enough for living a successful life, and even after acknowledging the need for socio-emotional learning programs, formal and informal learning spaces find it challenging to implement integrated learning.

Slam Out Loud is an initiative at Arts for Social Change (ASCI) India, that strives to address this issue through using a combination of arts, education, and leadership with the aim of empowering everyone with a voice that changes lives.

One of the ways in which we do this is through the Jijivisha Fellowship – a fellowship program under which dedicated and skilled artists from different fields (poetry, storytelling, and theatre) spend nine months working towards becoming leaders of arts for social change.

The artists come from different educational backgrounds. Some of them are still studying, in colleges like, Hindu College, LSR, Sri Venkateswara College, Ambedkar University, and Santosh Medical College. Others have completed their formal studies and are now dedicated in the field of arts education. They also come from various other fellowships, such as Young India Fellowship, Gandhi Fellowship, and Teach For India. They use their acquired techniques of creative expression to empower children and youth across the city. 

We talk to Neha Saini, a poet and performance artist working with us as a fellow, to find out more about the Jijivisha Fellowship and its impact (on both the fellow and the children).

Tell us a little about how you got involved and what your role is as a fellow?

I had been following Slam Out Loud on social media and admiring their work for quite some time when I got to know about the Jijivisha fellowship. I applied for it in October last year and was one of the 25 fellows to be accepted into the program.

Under the fellowship, I have been facilitating two poetry sessions every month for kids at a low-income private school near Seelampur in East Delhi. During the sessions, we aim to cultivate creativity and critical thinking through various activities.

What are some things that are important to you as an individual? How has the Fellowship enabled you to access them?

As an individual, I want to make the most of my capabilities. It is important for me to find meaning and fulfilment in the work that I do.

Through the course of the fellowship, I’m discovering strengths I didn’t know I had. It is fascinating how much one can learn about oneself by just trying to do new things with the help of a supportive community.

I will never forget how I felt after my first session with the kids. When you witness positive change happening in an otherwise unfair world, it brings you hope. And once you realise that you can contribute to it, it changes things inside you.

The fellowship has helped me gain clarity about my personal goals in life and how I want to get there.

What did poetry mean to you before? What does it mean to you now? What (if anything) has made the difference?

For as long as I can remember, poetry has been my solace. During personal moments of grief and despair, words have never failed to provide me comfort.

The fellowship has altered my idea of poetry from something deeply personal to something revolutionary. It has allowed me to identify and harness the strength that words hold.

When I see children telling their own personal stories of existence through poetry, when I see adults being compelled to listen to them, I realise how important it is for every individual from every community to have a voice. To know that art can transform lives and to actually witness that transformation are two very different things.

Tell us about an important experience you have had through your work?

Often when I ask a question in class, some students look away, at the wall or their notebooks or the floor, anything to avoid eye contact with me. With Tannu, however, pretty much anytime during the class I look at her, her gaze shoots down from my face to the floor. Even when we would all recite a poem, she would mostly just look at her notebook and mumble it to herself.

I noticed something change in her during an exercise where the students were divided into groups of four in the second session. I was taken aback with surprise and amazement when she raised her hand to answer a question in session 3 (open mic). Later, she volunteered to perform. She stood up, took her notebook in her trembling hands and froze. A stream of tears flowed down her cheek and my heart sank. Luckily, Kaavya was there to help me console her. We moved on to another performer. I was pretty bewildered when she agreed to perform after she calmed down, merely 15 minutes after she wiped her tears. The group welcomed her on the stage with chants of “Tannu is?” “confident!” [something that has now become a ritual] and she bravely stood there with her notebook. And she again went blank. I encouraged her by saying that I will say the first line and she can take it from there, and so we recited alternate lines of the poem. I asked her to recite it again with me and I could feel her voice getting stronger. The third time, she recited the entire poem herself! After the applause died down, I gifted her a pen, shook her hand and said, “Congratulations, you’re a poet!” (going by the lesson plan).

During the 6th session, this Wednesday, everyone worked in groups of two to write on a prompt. Tannu and Kanishka chose “I remember” where she described the incident. This time, I was the one with teary eyes and she was the one with a confident voice and a bright smile.

I cannot express what it means to me, all words seem trivial. From now on, I can no longer say that no one has ever loved me enough to write me a poem.

Where do you see yourself going with this?

I have realised that social change can happen. That it is happening. And that I’d like to be a part of it. The fellowship has strengthened my resolve to work in public health and health communication.

Is there anything else you want to tell us?

I think art is the most effective way humans have to document their existence. From cave paintings to sculptures to ancient scriptures, art is how we as a people, as a civilization, represent ourselves. It’s how we leave our footprints in the sands of time. We would be at a great disadvantage as a community if we do not allow a section of the society access to this medium. Every great idea deserves to find the right words. Every story deserves to be told. Every spark of passion deserves an opportunity to develop into the raging fire of revolution.

Neha Saini is a poet and performance artist based in Delhi. She is currently associated with Slam Out Loud, an organization that helps children in marginalized communities build leadership, expression and mindfulness through art. Her poems have been published by the Delhi Poetry Slam in an anthology called The Flight (2016). A final year medical student at Santosh Medical College, Ghaziabad, Neha has been associated with the Global Medical Training initiative in India. She aspires to harness the power of poetry and art to overcome public health challenges in India.

To find out more about Neha and her work, watch this:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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