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From Russia, Japan To India: How Social Sciences Has Helped Me Understand The World

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Serendipity…funny word, isn’t it? I remember a 16-year-old me being introduced to this word on a wintery November morning. The beauty of this word is not just in its meaning, but also in its eligibility of practical application. Serendipity that is, finding good without consciously looking for it is pretty much how I have chosen to look at the last 22 years of my life. It has been a serendipitous roller coaster, in trials and triumphs alike. I, however, do not intend to romanticise my life experiences, neither do I wish to consider it in terms of relativity.

Stories have been a rather crucial part of my world. As I child I grew up with stories being narrated to me, and subsequently got into the world of reading. I believed (and continue to believe) not just in the power of the words, but also in the abilities of stories to be a mirror unto what we seek and what we choose to reflect. So what happens when I map out my life experiences in the form of a story? I realise how serendipity has been the core undercurrent of everything and everyone that came my way!

If I had to describe the one force that drives me, it has to be passion. Nothing done half-heartedly has ever had the mettle to keep me glued to it, and neither has it been in my system to continue with things that I do not resonate with. Apart from a few opportunities in my life, my life choices have largely revolved around things that keep me passionate, and drive me to be a better version of myself every single day. While this may sound a rather dramatic approach to life, I have had the good fortune of this belief getting reinforced by watching people around me follow things that they truly believe in.

I grew up in a house that always upheld the importance of education: not just literacy, but education. Understanding cultures and diversity (and disparity) was inculcated as a core value in my life, and that is where my love for the Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts began. My courtship with Humanities went further ahead as my exposure to culture took an international turn, with my mother’s posting to the Embassy of India School, Moscow.

It was there that I became closer to my culture, and became sensitised to different standpoints and approaches that people came with. The level of national integration there was immense, and it taught me valuable lessons on the true spirit of unity. You see, you may read a lot on all of this, but the real deal is when you get to experience it first hand.

While these may seem big words for a then 10-year-old to comprehend: that’s what growth is, and better realised in hindsight. My scope of understanding cultural heterogeneities reached a high as fifth grader, when I got to work on a project called ‘Religious Harmony and World Peace’ under Oracle. It allowed me to foster interactions with children and educationists from the US, UK, France, Indonesia and Germany; apart from Indian educationists and children. It is imperative to talk about this experience mainly because of the indelible mark it left on my thinking. While all of us may have come from different processes of socialisation, the core undercurrent of emotion running within all of us is essentially the same – that is what makes us all human. Furthermore, the richness of Russian culture and heritage; and constant interactions with the natives ignited the latent love for exploring historical heritage.

Coming back to India after a three-year stint in Moscow was ironically tough. As someone who had been sensitised in terms of interactions with people from across the country there, I felt that my idea of looking at culture as a seventh grader was not in sync with the majority. It was demoralising, yes, but also it gave me enough grit to gradually identify and tap on my passion for working in the social sciences. So while most eighth/ninth grade students are caught in the doldrums of choosing career streams for their 11th and 12th grade, I had complete clarity of thought about the line that I wanted to pursue. My parents played a pivotal role in keeping me insulated from the clichéd questions: “Oh, you scored above 90%, why are you not taking Science?” or “Why are you taking Humanities? Do you want to be an IAS Officer?”

Limelight is rather overwhelming, flattering at times, but not when you become the talk of the town for choosing an academic stream that is ‘unworthy’ of your potential. It gradually dawned on me that in spite of being immersed in social structures and constructs, everyone is running away from it – not ready to look within the structures that are so deeply entrenched in our upbringing and collective consciousness that we refuse to review them or reflect on them. Grades 11 and 12 were all about burning the midnight oil to make sure that I do the best in the subjects I vouch so strongly for. My quest for understanding people and cultures saw an all-new high again in 12th grade when I lived the life of a cultural exchange student in Japan. It opened my eyes to how blinding westernisation is, and how the McDonaldisation of the world had made us so unaware about anything that was not European or American. The warmth of the people was endearing, and I realised that the philosophy of ‘Atithi devo bhava’ could very well be projected to the Japanese way of hospitality. At the same time, their town planning, civic sense and emphasis on discipline and cleanliness was mightily impressive – also because it was a non-negotiable way of life. Japan is a beautiful blend of the old and the new, and how to take everyone along together.

The idea of studying History, Economics and Political Science further on in graduation had completely concretised from an idea to a plan, and I was looking out for options that allow me to study ‘Social Sciences’, and not just one aspect of it. Serendipity struck once again when I got to know that the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, the premier institute for someone like me who call themselves a Social Sciences enthusiast, had happened to finally venture into not just post-graduate and doctoral studies but had also introduced a multidisciplinary undergraduate course by the name ‘Bachelors in Social Sciences’.

As already mentioned, the running theme of this story is serendipity, so it should not be difficult to guess what the next plot point in this story is.

I joined the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad, for a three-year course in Social Sciences, and as the rhetoric goes – my life changed. The process was of massive adjustment – an 18-year-old living 2000 odd kilometres away from home, for the first time and studying a course of her passion. The partial adult life was a handful, but the experience of being in a conducive academic environment with some of the brightest minds in academia was a sheer blessing. The nuances and depths of Social Sciences were introduced to me during this time, and it widened my horizon in ways that were immensely humbling. I fostered friendships with people, transcending all kinds of boundaries that may otherwise segregate us. I learnt to be thankful for all of life’s privileges, learnt to question all the constructs that I had unquestioningly imbibed, learnt to confront my personal biases before confronting anyone else about theirs, and realised that we are all entrenched in ideas that needed to be considered for serious revision.

At TISS, the focus was on understanding everything that we see every day but do not question, and everything that we choose not to see. The beauty of TISS is not just in the beautiful concoction of diversity that it is, but also in how everyone blends so well in it that there is no judgement. We were taught to fearlessly talk about everything that our society cannot talk about; to give a name to everything that the society considered ‘that-which-not-be-named’ (As is now evident, Harry Potter has continued to influence my childhood as well as my adulthood. There could be a separate anecdote on that).

Another important facet to my life at TISS was that I could talk about social issues and nuances in not just an academic way, but also in a way that would be understood by people out of the realm of the academics of the Social Sciences. I learnt to co-exist and blend in with different life experiences, which could sometimes be contrasting or conflicting. I knew that my love for my subjects was now a commitment. I also knew that I wanted to work in areas that required a much greater intervention by Social Sciences.

The ethos of TISS and the cultural wealth of Hyderabad brought me closer to my passion for Humanities and heritage, and to the realisation that this is where I’d flourish the best.

By the time graduation was drawing to a close, the serendipitous life of a 21-year-old me declared innings number two at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai – as a Master’s student in Human Resources Management and Labour Relations. While the radius of the challenge may have increased, I am hopeful of the simultaneous increment of serendipities in the circle too.

The beauty of studying Human Resources Management as a student of Social Sciences is that it allows me to understand not just the management side of the story, but also understand the pulse of the ‘labour’ involved – and to understand their pulse in ways that the social sciences have equipped me with. As I have been hearing in the last one month at TISS Mumbai, we are the ‘human’ in the Human Resources.

Given that I have been getting pleasant surprises as I tread the road I chose to travel, there is not so much of a conclusion to give to this little compilation of anecdotes. The journey has only begun, and it is now getting interesting. At such a point, all that I can do is to soak myself up in all that life’s had to offer, and exude it back to those around me – that is what seems to me, the best way to making good use of everything that I resonate with. As for the end of this story, who knows, you might just find a season two ready to realise somewhere in due time?

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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.

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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.

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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