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From Culture Shock To Gossiping: 9 Things I Learned From A Year In Odisha’s Kalahandi

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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.

Honestly, I had no clue what I was doing when I had applied for India Fellow. My folks seemed happy that I got into “something”, but they were not excited about the whole idea of me working in a random village that could be anywhere in India. Their fears were further intensified when I told them that I was going to be placed in Kalahandi district in Odisha; and that I’ll be working there for a whole year. The time passed quickly, and the programme concluded last month.

My parents changed their perceptions about Kalahandi. They have finally understood what I’m doing here and are now comfortable with me working here even after my fellowship. They are planning a visit to Swasthya Swaraj soon.

The journey so far has definitely been a roller-coaster ride; filled with cultural shocks, meeting some really amazing people, a few messed up ones too, tried a whole lot of new dishes I had never even heard of, travelled to unknown places, been depressed for a month, discovered my hidden skills… the list goes on. To sum it up, this was one of the best decisions I have ever taken in my life.

Those who are new to this program might be wondering how to live through this fellowship. I’ll share my learning with you:

1. Patience
I think patience is one of the most important personality traits required to work in this sector. It took my mentor around 5-6 months to trust me. There were days (even weeks) when I thought I was not contributing enough and even felt that I was probably a bad pick. Yes, there was plenty of challenging situation, and at times I felt lonely. But keeping calm was the only option, and things eventually turned good for me.

2. Improvisation

This will literally save your life. When I was giving a malaria training to high school children, I had to show them a video documentary as a part of the session. Unfortunately, the power went off, the speakers didn’t work, and the entire program was jeopardized. I immediately improvised and divided the divided the children into groups. I gave each group drawing charts, sketch pens and stationary; and asked them to discuss among themselves what I had taught them. Next, I asked each group to come up and present their charts to everyone in the class. It turned out to be a huge success, and that activity was later incorporated in the malaria training module.

3. Reading

Reading was one of the best things I did during my fellowship and will continue doing it forever. Books are your mentors. In the past one year, I mainly read books on development. Fortunately, online retailers like Amazon and Flipkart deliver to Bhawanipatna, where I live.

4. Gossiping – A big NO

Just like the corporate culture, gossip is pretty much common in this sector as well. After all, people are more or less the same everywhere. The only tip is to listen and ignore. Things can get pretty ugly, and your reputation (also mental peace) is at stake here.

5. Respect the field staff

Most of the field staff, like community workers, are locals, who are relatively educated in their respective areas. Believe them to be equal and not underlings, treat them like one and they will help you with everything.

6.Using your other skills

I’m just okay when it comes to drawing. It was only after a few months that I realised how useful it could be in my organisation. I drew posters, charts and other material for Malaria, Nutrition, Maternal Health and Reproductive Health, which are still being used by the staff.

7. Village life is amazing

As someone who grew up with an urban lifestyle, the village life was filled with culture shocks. Initially, it was very overwhelming as I had issues with open defecation, taking a bath outside and washing clothes in a river which cannot be called clean, or even fresh like the ones in Ladakh. However, the best things I loved about village life were a natural beauty, isolation, and simplicity. It was a pleasure to live without any cellular network or any media entertainment, as it made me reflect on my priorities in life. I was happier by just walking and enjoying the scenic beauty. During nights, I could see the sky lit with sparkling stars, and once even spotted shooting stars. I realised how the full moon was truly spectacular, and even witnessed fireflies dancing on the trees for the first time.

I was amazed by the simplicity of villagers who never had any preconceived notions about my appearance. I go to OPDs (Out Patient Departments) wearing a t-shirt and shorts, and nobody cares!

8. What’s the problem? Ask the villagers

If you want to understand or solve any problem, don’t just assume and start giving advice. Ask the residents to define and explain what challenges they face. More often than not, there is a vast difference between what we’re doing and what they want.

9. Don’t forget to Enjoy!

Last, but not the least, enjoy this year. A year like this will never come back, and you’ll only re-live it in memories. Travel, take a chance, do crazy things and make your fellowship worthwhile. I truly enjoyed mine.

About the Author: Sandeep Praharsha, 28 years, Masters in Global Health. Practised for a year with Airport Health Organization, GOI. Works at Swasthya Swaraj, Kalahandi, Odisha supporting the overall health program of the community – both, practising as a doctor as well as capacity building of the team and community awareness initiative.

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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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