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I Was Laughed At For My Disability, Until I Became An International UN Volunteer

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Today I am the first deaf woman selected to move to Ukraine as an international UN Volunteer for one whole year. And I am the same deaf woman who people in my village once laughed at.

I was born in Nepal, and when I was six months old, I moved to Darjeeling because my father was working there. All members of my family are hearing, and I am the only one who is deaf. My poor parents could not afford to send me to study. They are uneducated but they always tried to understand my needs and did what they could.

My struggle started right from my childhood. When I tried to express myself using self-acquired sign language, people in my village thought the way I used sign language was like a ‘mad person’. They laughed. I was afraid. And I lived my life with this constant fear. I was unable to find my identity among the people who thought I was different. In fact, they thought that I was lesser than them. I knew nothing about sign language then.

When I was 22, I moved to Delhi. That was the first time I saw the deaf community. People in the capital city knew a common sign language and were able to communicate with each other using it. I tried to learn it. I met so many deaf people there. For the first time in life, I found people who would understand me, my story, and my struggles. There were some people who hated me. I don’t know why. But it didn’t matter. I was determined to learn sign language. I was determined to help others like me who waited for years to see even one ray of hope. That’s where my life found new meaning. My journey had started.

As the first deaf Indian woman volunteering with the UN, the opportunity I was given in Ukraine had a life-changing impact on me. I worked towards spreading awareness about disability rights. I traveled across Europe, and exchanged experiences between India and Ukraine; between the East and the West.

Today I know International Sign Language, British Sign Language, Indian Sign Language, America Sign Language, and basic Ukrainian Sign Language. Through learning all of these, I improved my skills and got the confidence I deserved. And I came back to India to support Indian deaf people.

In West Europe, I saw how all public places are accessible to people with disabilities. But it is a sad picture here in India. My motherland, unfortunately, is not accessible for everyone. I went to a museum last month and could find no one to help a deaf person understand the precious history of the place. I felt hurt to the core. When will India wake up? When will India be empathetic towards people with disabilities? I have been to many meetings, conferences where no one cared to assign an interpreter. Yes, we cannot hear. That doesn’t mean we cannot understand. An interpreter knowing a sign language is all we need.

Here I must mention that events by Youth Ki Awaaz were really empathetic and inclusive. There were interpreters, and it is thanks to YKA that some citizens didn’t feel left out. The rest of India should follow this example.

Inclusion is important. It is a necessity, not a privilege. More awareness is needed to give the deaf community quality education, access to universities, and open up colleges to women with disabilities. Indian women with disabilities, including deaf women, need opportunities, to study, and to work. We need social leadership programmes for young people with disabilities. We also need Indians who aspire to understand social issues and bring change to come forward.

Currently, I am studying in Subharti University in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, and looking out for jobs. There are people who don’t even care to reply to the emails sent by a deaf person. Isn’t it the general perception to doubt that a deaf girl can be useful in any way?

One day, I was watching a spider walking on the wall, but falling down repeatedly. It was after seven or eight failed attempts that it finally reached its destination. And here I am doing the same. Just a little push, a word of motivation, and equal opportunity is my right.
I appeared for an interview with a well known development sector organisation, but they rejected me. What is annoying is that they said they would reply with their decision but they didn’t.

Apart from making my dreams come true, I need to pay my bills and rent as well! It is becoming increasingly difficult for me, and all I ask for is a little help.

I salute late Sir Javed Abidi, an Indian activist who served as the director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People in India, and the founder of the Disability Rights Group in Delhi. I promised him I would one day work for the Centre. He hugged me when I left India for Ukraine and blessed me.

The truth is, whatever I try to do, to bring a change, I have realised one thing: we have to change our mentality, our habits, and our actions. A little empathy can change the whole scenario for deaf people in India. Dear readers, don’t we all deserve a change? Isn’t it high time?

Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really: Double your rate of failure. You are thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all. You can be discouraged by failure or you can learn from it, so go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because remember, that’s where you will find success.” – Thomas J. Watson Jr.

Featured Image source: Rupmani Chhetri/Facebook.
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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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