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How The Abused Untouchable Child In Me Found A Voice, Finally

There are 260 million Dalits around the world, 166,635,700 of whom live in India. In Asian countries where caste system operates, Dalits are born at the very bottom of a hierarchical system. Caste is determined by birth and whilst national law outlaws discrimination against people of low castes, in reality, there is still widespread oppression and violence against Dalit people. Dalit means ‘broken’ or ‘ground down’. Many people still use the word ‘untouchable’ which indicates the extreme discrimination which affects the Dalits. Even today, mostly, members of the ‘higher caste’ community would not get married into a Dalit family, invite them into their house or share food with them.

I am one of those children who was born in a Dalit Family. Being the second girl child in the family, I was not really welcomed wholeheartedly as everyone in the family wished for a boy. My mother had no voice, she only suffered in silence. Extreme poverty in my mother’s family led to her marriage at the age of 12. She never went to school, she didn’t even know how to write her name.

I had no clue what it meant to be born in a Dalit family. We are at the bottom of the caste system that exists in India. We used to be called ‘untouchables’. I had a lot of doubts and questions in my mind about why we were called ‘untouchables’, in what sense were we untouchables. No one could clarify my doubts. I found we were just following customs without any reasoning.

I am from a small village called Chakalta Sahar, located in Bankura district of West Bengal. My father was a farmer and the entire family would depend on the rains for farming. Due to an extreme drought, my father left the village and went to the nearest semi-urban area called Panagarthe in the year 1973. He started working as a daily labourer and we lived hand to mouth on his meagre earnings. After a year he started working in a shop, and gradually after 3 years, he opened his own shop, selling motor parts.

Child sexual abuse is a serious and widespread problem in India and many parts of the world today. The trauma associated with sexual abuse can contribute to arrested development, as well as a host of psychological and emotional disorders, that some children and adolescents may never overcome. When sexual abuse goes unreported and children are not given the protective and therapeutic assistance they need, they are left to suffer in silence. In India, a child is sexually abused every 15 minutes, according to the latest government figures.

I am a survivor of child sexual abuse. My home was not safe and my mother had no voice. Two of my family members abused me over a period of one year and I had to live with it. I had no one to talk to, nor did I have the courage to tell my mother – as I thought no one would believe me. So I kept quiet and tolerated everything in silence. I would feel angry and lived with a lot of stress and fear. My childhood was completely messed up with low self-esteem, and constant rejection from my father made me a stubborn child. I felt caged by people around me. Extreme domestic violence in my home due to alcoholism made me more vulnerable and I went into a shell where I just wanted to kill myself.

My father put me in a boarding school at a very early age. I felt all alone there and could not focus on my studies. It seemed like I was just transported from one cage to another. I still remember I scored 7 out of 100 in Physical Science during my half-yearly exams in 8th grade. Such poor academic performance caught the headmistress’ attention, Mrs Shubra Ghosal. She was my first angel who saw the spark in me and held my hand throughout. Little love from her worked like magic in my life. I scored 87 out of 100 in my final exam. And, from that day I never looked back. It was like a turning point in my life. I realised, if I wanted to see myself in a better position, education was the only weapon. It could bring changes in my life as well as in the others’.

One incident of when I was in the 8th grade, is still fresh in my memory. I was in the rural part of Bankura district in West Bengal. There was a common tube well in our hostel compound for everyone to draw drinking water. It was mid-summer. There was a huge water crisis in that locality. So the school authority allowed local community members to access drinking water from our tube well. One evening, I saw a few community women drawing water from the well. It so happened that I too went there to collect water from the tap. By mistake, I touched their filled water pot. The lady looked at me with anger and threw out all the water in front of me. After that, she cleaned the pot thoroughly and asked me to stand a little far away from them. I was very angry because I just couldn’t figure out what had actually happened. My senior whispered to me, ‘Don’t you know, we are Dalits and they are Brahmins. We are not allowed to touch them’. This was the first time I was made aware of my ‘untouchability’.

My parents didn’t want me to continue my education after 10th grade. But I was meant for much bigger things in life. My headmistress took full responsibility for me. Ever since then, I stood 1st in class, topped in graduation as well as at the post-graduation level. In spite of facing constant discrimination during my school-days and in college-days, I didn’t give up. I stood still like a rock and faced all the hurdles that came my way. The burning desires and the fire in my belly kept me going one step after another.

I found my life partner, (or so I thought) who belongs to the higher caste (Brahmin). Somehow the relationship didn’t work out and we both gave up 20 years of our relationship. As I say, we don’t make our destiny, it’s already been decided. We just simply walk the path and right things appear in front of us, at the right time.

Due to my lost childhood, I always felt a deep connection with other children. Since childhood, I was always connected to children, be it a child on the streets or at home. I always felt like I wanted to protect their childhood. I didn’t want to see another Rupali suffering in silence. Whenever I found a child in discomfort, I rushed to the child to give her/him comfort. My extreme vulnerable childhood made me strong for other children. For almost 13 years now, I have been working with children. Whenever I am with them, I find my real self. I enjoy the most of my life being with children. My passion for children has helped me to heal my own childhood scars. I see myself in every child. Now that I have a daughter who is just 7, I see her face in those children’s face. My present job is to infuse love, passion and compassion in those innocent souls so that they become messengers of love and peace in the world.

The supreme power gave me the tremendous capacity to turn any negative situation into extreme positivity. The more pain I got, the more powerful I became. Being there with children, I acquire a lot more divine energy and that helps me tread beyond my work responsibilities.

My message to the world is that we have one life and it’s a gift to all of us. Let’s make it more beautiful, adventurous, colourful and peaceful. Trust your journey completely. Each one of us is unique and we all have a unique purpose in life. Don’t give up, wherever you are, keep moving. You will surely reach your destination. Enjoy your journey and feel the bliss. Life has so much to offer. Be crazy… be notorious… get out of your comfort zone… and win over your fears.

If you are a survivor, parent or guardian who wants to seek help for child sexual abuse, or know someone who might, you can dial 1098 for CHILDLINE (a 24-hour national helpline) or email them at dial1098@childlineindia.org.in. You can also call NGO Arpan on their helpline 091-98190-86444, for counselling support.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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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