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After 72 Years, What Does Freedom Even Mean To Us?

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Are we really free? What does freedom mean to us? What have we got from the notion of freedom? What are our rights and duties as a citizen of a free nation? These questions come repetitively in my mind and I think that these are the questions that may have struck you too. After 72 years of freedom, India is still struggling with issues and challenges that were present before its independence.

We often listen to this argument that the Hindu-Muslim conflict is the result of the British divide and rule policy. But we always forget that the larger Hindu society is intolerant towards Dalits, other religious minorities, and Adivasis. The socio-political scenario of the nation is the manifestation of the historical hatred of the dominant religion and castes. The hatred against ‘other’ people is deeply rooted in the social inequalities. Historically, the larger society has maintained distance from other communities. The reason is very simple – prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination on the basis of religion, caste and ethnic identity.

Now, every day when we listen to any news channel, we mostly find the same orthodox ideas floating into our minds from our television sets. Prime-time programs of news channels are the prime source of hatred against the marginalized and disadvantaged citizens of India.

Without wasting many words, I would like to draw your attention to the organization called RSS (Rashtriya Swayam-Sevak Sangh). This organization was banned when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by one of its members – Nathu Ram Godse. This organization has been infamous for its role in communal riots across the nation. The 1992 Babri Masjid demolition, 2002 Gujarat communal rights, 2013 Muzzfarnagar riots are just some of the examples where it was reported that the RSS may have had a role to play.

Even today, whenever we come across any news related to mob-lynching by cow-vigilantes or the murder of innocent people based on rumours; all the cases are related to the hatred against ‘other’ people. Needless to say that the political party heading the central government and most of the states of India, has chosen to remain silent so that they do not lose their Hindutva identity and the communal vote bank.

Now, the question that may come to your mind is, why am I quoting these examples? I must admit that I am a concerned citizen of the nation. A nation that is based on diversity and respect for all identities be it race, caste, gender, ethnicity, religion, region and class. My notion of a nation is different from the definition that has been spread by Hindutva forces. After all these years of independence, our primary focus is still not on social democracy. Our freedom fighters dreamed for a nation without fear of expression and dissent.

But in today’s India, freedom of expression and dissent has become a life threat. Poets, intellectuals, social-political activists are living in constant danger. A number of them have been killed by alleged Hindutva outfit members. Intellectuals like M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh are victims of Hindu religious fundamentalism. India has always been a nation with a culture of dissent. From Periyar to Dr. Ambedkar, dissent was never in the shadow of a threat to life. Every idea was challenged by debate and discussion.

There is an old saying that “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely”. This is an apt statement for the current regime. And this is not just in the issues related to the Center but states also. There is news from the state of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh related to the rape of minor girls in shelter homes. The irony is, in all the cases, a member of the ruling party is involved, directly or indirectly. These people are so powerful that despite evidence, the administration hesitates to arrest them. Even if they do get arrested, they are treated like VIPs in jail too.

In the recent events before Independence Day, some hate mongers burned the Constitution of India at Jantar Mantar in Delhi. They shouted slogans against Dr. Ambedkar and the Constitution. They were also shouting caste-based abuses. But they forget that this Constitution provides equal rights to every citizen of India. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, caste, gender, ethnicity, religion, region and class. I wish that when they will be locked up in jail they will be granted rights as a prisoner that are mentioned in the Constitution they burnt.

Any youth questioning the state is given the tag of ‘anti-national’. They are questioning government policies, that does not make them ‘anti-national’. In the parliament, the role of the opposition is the same. However, there is no strong opposition in the parliament. Thus the students are questioning the state. These policies directly impact our lives. The narrative of ‘tax-payers money’ has been given so much importance that the people who are paying taxes are unaware of their rights as a citizen. They are not willing to question the policies that are making their life and value of their labour vulnerable. The taxpayer does not even know that the money they are paying is being used by the corporates. The sharks of the economic ocean, who took the loan and never returned the money. Forget about returning the amount, they left the country.

In the 21st century, the world is heading towards the scientific achievement and India is struggling with poverty, malnutrition, corruption, poor health facilities and death from starving from hunger. With each passing year, our world rankings on the parameters of development have also dropped drastically. What should a nation think about? Issues related to hate-crime or how to resolve the primary issues of hunger, unemployment, illiteracy and many other basic issues such as shelter, health services and life with dignity? It is not that we have not achieved scientific and strategic milestones but the question is how it has brought change in the life of people who are living at the margins of society and nation.

One must think critically, are we really free? If you are not free to express yourself, to question the government; then you are not free. If you think that we must focus on the issue of hunger, unemployment and health facilities, then you will have to raise your voice against the powerful. If you think that you don’t want a society based on hatred against another human being, then you will have to fight against caste, religious fundamentalism and all sorts of discrimination. Real freedom comes with a price and with passing time the feeling of freedom will change. So will the price. To celebrate one’s share of freedom, one will have to pay the price.

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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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