Sansad Unplugged: Bringing Policy-Making Directly To Young People

SansadUnplugged logoEditor’s Note: This post is a part of #SansadUnplugged, a campaign by Young Leaders for Active Citizenship India and Youth Ki Awaaz where your elected representatives engage directly with you on key policy issues that matter. Find out more and engage with those you vote for here.

By Aparajita Bharti and Rohit Kumar:

About a decade ago, young people from middle-class backgrounds had almost no window into the policy space. Understanding was limited and policy was synonymous with politics. We had only seen Members of Parliament on TV sets and we broadly knew that these people were responsible for making laws in the country. We thought of MPs as distant and much beyond our reach; more importantly, we thought of them as all powerful, with enormous authority to change things.

And then came along an organisation that opened the doors for young people to engage with parliamentarians to provide the much-needed support on legislation and policy. We both jumped at the opportunity to understand how the country’s law-making body operates and started working with PRS Legislative Research.

A closer look at Parliament was undoubtedly fascinating, but also very disappointing. We were surprised to learn that more often than not, Members of Parliament also find themselves just as helpless as regular citizens – without a voice and without the power to influence policy, unless of course when they are Ministers in the government.

This may come as a surprise to many people, as it did for us. And why shouldn’t it? We have all been taught in schools that Parliament is the supreme law-making body in the country, that each Member of Parliament represents upwards of 2 million people and that they hold the government accountable on our behalf. Why would anyone imagine these people as not empowered? As young citizens who were just starting to make sense of the world, how were we to know that there is a massive imbalance of power between the executive (i.e. the government) and the legislature (i.e. the Parliament)?

The reality is, in fact, just that. What goes on in Parliament is governed by certain ‘Rules of Procedure’ that gives inordinate power to the government, right from setting the agenda of what gets discussed in Parliament to deciding what Bills get referred to the committees. Possibly a legacy from British times, these archaic rules still haunt us today. These rules are also the reason why we see the opposition (irrespective of which party it is) blocking the Parliament for days on end, just to get the government to hold discussions on a topic of their interest. In the absence of a legitimate means to get themselves heard, the opposition often is left with no choice other than protesting inside the Parliament.

As the logjam in Parliament intensifies, so does public anger. Media reports lawmakers as being callous and irresponsible; an already low public perception of politics and politicians gets marred even further. The cycle repeats itself over and over again, until citizens give up, stop engaging and become indifferent to the debates (and theatrics) in Parliament.

But, in our experience of working closely with Members of Parliament, we realised that this public perception is often misguided. Many of our MPs are sincere, hardworking individuals who are genuinely trying to bring about positive change. They put in effort to critique laws and propose new ones even when the rules of Parliament offer little opportunity for them to be heard, let alone create impact.

MPs who are not a part of the government i.e. those who are not ministers have the power to submit what are called Private Members’ Bills and often put in a lot of effort to do so. Through these Bills, MPs raise pertinent issues – social, economic and otherwise – and put forward researched policy proposals in the hope that Parliament will take notice and give these issues the serious consideration that they deserve. Some Private Members’ Bills that have been in the news lately are MP Shashi Tharoor’s Bill to decriminalize homosexuality and MP Tiruchi Siva’s Bill on Rights of the Transgender Community.

Theoretically, every Bill in Parliament should carry the same weight and should be dealt with the same seriousness, regardless of who champions it. The focus should be on the issue at hand, and not the person introducing it. But, given the distorted balance of power between the executive and legislature in the Indian context, most Private Members’ Bills never see the light of day. In fact, since 1970 no Private Members’ Bill has become law and till date, only 14 Private Members’ Bills have been passed by Parliament. Of the 370 odd Private Members’ Bills introduced in the 15th Lok Sabha, barely 3% were discussed; 97% lapsed without even a single debate in the House. In the absence of a proper platform for discussion, these Bills never find a place in the public narrative. And these are not Private Members’ Bills that deal with frivolous issues either; they talk about important things like censorship and freedom of speech, paternity leave, recall of elected representatives, population control and other issues that many of us care deeply about.

As young people who joined the policy space with an idealistic view of the world in which policy-making is truly inclusive and democratic, it has been disheartening to witness this disenfranchisement of our elected representatives and the growing (and almost irreversible) disenchantment of the public with the Parliament.

‘Sansad Unplugged’ is, therefore, YKA and YLAC’s attempt to create a platform for our Members of Parliament to present their Private Members’ Bills directly to young people and lend a voice to these proposals. For youth, this is a chance to know the hopes and dreams of our elected representatives, and to get to know them beyond the cynical image painted by the media. We hope that this platform becomes a direct channel to engage on policy issues that matter and where many MPs and young people can find common ground.

As they say, democracy is a never-ending project; it’s “a beckoning goal and not a safe harbour”. We hope this becomes a small step that we take together to fill the fissures in the very foundations of our democracy.

Aparajita and Rohit are founders of Young Leaders for Active Citizenship (YLAC)YLAC aims to increase the participation of young people in the democratic process and build their capacity to lead change.

Tell us your thoughts and observations on this Bill. Your article will contribute to the way your elected representatives are presenting bills, defining policies and creating change in the Parliament. Response article will be shared with respective Member of Parliament, and in many cases - suggestions are included in the drafting of future policies.

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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 Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’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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