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My Visit To Umang, A Democratic School Where Students Decide How They Learn

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On a sunny Monday morning this July, I got up early and excited to go to school. I boarded a Haryana Roadways bus from ISBT to Ganaur, Sonipat, and reached my destination in about an hour and 30 minutes. I deboarded at Valmiki Ashram, where Umang Pathshala, an NGO practising alternative education is functioning. I was running a little late, and, therefore, missed the morning session, which begins with a cleanliness drive. The students democratically elect their sanitation and cleanliness committee. All students and teachers are then assigned their duties, right from cleaning classrooms to cleaning toilets. Everything is performed jointly by the teachers, students, and staff members.

The aforementioned routine is followed by the morning assembly, which is performed in groups, where both teachers and students sit together in a circle. This is the most important moment of the day. It is a forum where students and teachers exercise their rights and fulfil their duties. If any teacher or student misbehaves or there is any grievance, it is raised here, and all matters are resolved through dialogue democratically. This is followed by group singing, where students sing not something related to a caste, religion, or group, but socially relevant songs in their native language which they themselves shortlist. This is followed by regular classes.

Currently, about a hundred students are enrolled in Umang. Only four of them can afford to pay the fee, though they aren’t forced to do so. Nobody is forced to pay the fee. The institution is seeking scholarships from individual donors so that more students can receive proper education. There are many students who have left the best schools of Sonepat and enrolled in Umang. The children of the staff too study here. Students belonging to different walks of life learn and grow together. There is no division of students into different hierarchical classes. Ability and interest is the guiding force.

Students are divided into groups as per their interest and ability. Each group is further divided into subgroups, where students learn through peer-to-peer learning. Teachers are just facilitators. They do not regulate or discipline the students. Every talk and chat is encouraged. Students are encouraged to ask questions and let me ensure you, they do ask mind-boggling questions. A student asked, “Why can’t humans fly like the birds do?” When teachers are unable to answer, they apologise in a dignified manner that they do not know the answer and the whole group comes up with their research and discusses the findings in the group assembly next morning.

What wonders can such an education bring, I shall explain through an illustration. A person told the group that nothing is impossible, saying that bumble-bees can fly despite having tiny wings and a heavy body because nobody ever told them that they cannot fly. I was in a fix. By the time I started thinking that something was wrong in his statement, a girl replied, “Then why can’t ants fly? They have a tiny body and nobody ever told them too that they cannot fly.” The girl admitted that she wanted to be the future Prime Minister of the country but was not able to understand why her family members thought that she couldn’t. I wish that her dream comes true.

Uniform was recently adopted by students after a plebiscite. The students themselves conducted an election by forming a committee, voting in favour of school uniform. On being asked, the teachers told me that the students are often taken to the Panchayat Bhawan so that they may understand political science. The students are encouraged to remain connected with society, by organising surveys and researches on various issues of the village. This is very crucial for a student to develop practical knowledge and apply what they have learnt in the field.

They are also free to study as many books as they want. For instance, if a student completes a certain curriculum, they are encouraged to read the book of a higher level. As I had told you earlier, their ability and interest is the deciding factor. To my surprise, the students themselves ask for examinations, and like writing exams in a country that is facing a crisis like student suicides due to exam pressure. The students also study different arts like theatre, computer science, and are free to speak in the language of their choice. In my view, the role of education is to enable one to ask questions. At Umang, I could see that. I felt jealous of these children, as my childhood had been trapped in the shackles of a colonised education system.

I paid my gratitude to the school’s director, Shri Sudhir ji and other staff members for hosting and embracing me with their open hearts. I wish Umang Pathshala prospers and many more such schools are established so that children can enjoy learning and do not have to undergo the ‘unlearning’ process that many of us do. I wish every student receives such education which truly empowers. Initiatives like Umang need to be encouraged and supported. Unfortunately, Umang Pathshala is struggling because of lack of resources and support. I suggest that you visit Umang and support them in every possible way.

I hold that Umang is setting a milestone in the field of education and setting many children free from a dull education system. Truly, Umang Pathshala is a place where umang (hope) never fades, and everybody teaches and everybody learns.

You can visit their website for contact and other related information by heading here.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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