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Brewed In Experiences: Some Journeys Make You Feel At Home

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India fellow logoEditor’s Note: This post is a part of a campaign by The India Fellow program on Youth Ki Awaaz. India Fellows spend 13 months working at the grassroots level to bring about real on-ground change. They are also mentored to be socially conscious leaders and contribute to the development of the country. Apply here to be a part of the change.

With cups of hot tea in our hands, three of us sat on a charpai with silly grins on our faces as Gulabi bai joked about how no one would marry us if we didn’t even know our ‘gotra’. It was only a while when we were exploring the corn fields that we’d bumped into her and ended up being invited into her humble abode. This is Iswal – a place where people confidently welcome strangers into their homes, with a kind of faith that I’ve found only in villages.

Located about 17 kms from Udaipur, seemingly broken only in topography by the Udaipur-Ahmedabad highway that cuts through it, Iswal exuded a unique charm. The first image of this village that comes to my mind is of a single narrow lane lined by luscious greenery, and a middle-aged woman sitting at a distance, dressed in a black ghagra-choli, chewing gutka (tobacco). She was from Abu Road in Rajasthan and was here to attend a relative’s ‘terahvi’ (a Hindu death ritual on the 13th day of demise). We politely refused the gutka she offered us and continued to go further into the village.

Houses – big and small peeked through the foliage on either side. The hills stood silently in the backdrop. The lane then got divided into two, and we decided to take the smaller trail on the right side. With the descent, emerged a different landscape – cornfields on the left and half-built houses on the right. A family was engaged in holding up the entrance gate with ropes to begin the construction of their boundary wall.

Interestingly, a lot of cacti and dry branches formed the boundaries of fields as well as houses along the way. The trail opened up to the highway. On the other side, lay the lowlands and plains of Iswal, and in the middle was Gulabi bai’s home.

Dressed in bright pink, she opened the unlocked door and ushered us in. The house that looked tiny on the outside opened into a veranda where a calf awaited her. After quickly laying down a charpai for us, she washed her muddy hands and seated herself on the floor, eager for a conversation that otherwise rarely came along. She spoke Marwari (the regional language) which was difficult to understand, but eventually, we started to make sense of the tone and expressions involved, along with our hand movements receiving a nod of comprehension – a dumb charade of sorts.

She told us about how she had been living alone since her husband’s demise, sustaining herself and maintaining the entire household on her own. Her days began at 3 AM. She would wake up, clean the house, bathe and then milk the cows. Keeping a small amount of milk that she needed for herself, she’d travel about 15 km by bus every day to sell the rest of it at the nearby town of Badgaon. The fields, too, needed her attention. Post the milk sale; she’d return to plough the fields and pull out weeds in the hope that her crops survive this monsoon. After a few rigorous hours of backbreaking work, she’d have lunch. Before preparing herself a quick meal, the size of which depended on the energy that remained, she’d clean the entire house.

During our conversation with her, she briefly paused to pick up a tiny container kept on a broad shelf lining the wall in front of the entrance. Its contents were difficult to decipher, and while I tried to make sense of the rusty powder, she dipped her finger into it, padded it into her nostrils and took a deep, satisfying breath.

She repeated this four times before noticing the mild surprise on our faces when she decided to offer us some, but again, we politely refused. Then came the questions about where we’re from and if people did any form of ‘nasha’ back there. I think our collective ‘yes’ prodded her to speak further about her addiction to powdered tobacco.

We got to know that it’s a common practice here, for both men and women alike, to sniff powdered tobacco. The nicotine rush produces a feeling of pleasure and gives temporary relief from stress and fatigue, which is why many people become dependent on it, one of them was Gulabi bai. For her, staying awake and energetic to work round the clock, alone, every single day, was only possible through this.

Placing the lid back on her vital dose, she got up to make some ‘chaas’ (buttermilk) for all of us, with the assurance that it won’t taste of tobacco and walked away laughing to wash her powdered fingers. Chaas, in her language, turned out to be tea, and also Gulabi bai’s lunch. We slowly sipped, accompanied by stories of a proud mother telling us how both her daughters are married into families in Udaipur, living a good life; and then showed concern of an elder as to how we’d never get married with our limited knowledge of ‘gotras’ (Hindu family clans).

Gulabi bai was unique – open to conversations, humouring herself, sharing her problems, and most importantly, hosting absolute strangers with a big smile and a bigger heart. Fine lines contoured her face, looking remarkable under a sweaty sheen; her thin frame reflecting years of difficult yet self-made, minimal living; eyes that shone at the prospect of sharing her story with someone new.

The day triggered a different kind of nostalgia. This seemingly simple place, nestled amidst beautiful hills, left me with a multitude of thoughts. Thoughts, binding together new stories with the old ones, to be carried from the home I found here, to my search for another.

*Name changed to protect identity.


About the author: Arunima Pande, is an India fellow, working with SEWA Bharat in Munger, Bihar as a part of her fellowship. She is supporting the teams with financial inclusion and capacity building of Credit Cooperatives. 

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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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