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Moving Away From Conventional Activism..!

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Few months back I went for an interview. The board members saw my resume and noticed that I had mentioned myself as a disability rights activist, they asked me where and how many times have I marched or done protests against the government’s failure in restoring the rights of disabled. I replied in negative and after a long pregnant pause a quick question came up. “What kind of an activist are you? Are you not aggressive?” With suspicion and doubts about my credentials their questioning eyes labelled me as ‘passive’ for the cause. They continued asking, “Tell us what you are doing for the movement”. When I replied that my activism is mostly online or through social media and I write a lot and have prepared manuals for persons with disabilities on various topics, another snapping reply came, “You should be out there. If you’re not out there, you’re not impacting people as well the government agencies. If you want to write you must sit at home and continue writing”. Though the position demanded many other capabilities like administrative and organizational skills, leadership and communicational prowess along with absolute dedication towards the cause, I lacked conventional form of activism. I was rejected!

And lo! Here again I confronted a typification, though of different kind. Activists have to hit the roads!

I thought it was not their fault. The culturally established role of an activists demands hitting the streets. According to usual standards, an activist begins and ends at gathering and protesting at the places which have been assigned for the same objective since ages. And so they expected to see my ‘that’ kind of activism.

For many days I internalized the pressure to participate in this particular way, not only because of its importance and historical roots, but also because of the embarrassment that I had felt for not participating out in open.

Frankly speaking, I have been a life-long activist who has not taken up ‘traditional’ protests.

 I do not want to demean or minimize anyone’s movement work. Hitting the streets and collective protests are also important, powerful and transformative.  We all have witnessed the impact of marches and actions since time and again – raising public consciousness and bringing together groups of all people protesting discrimination and injustice.

I understand it very well that the organizers of such protests and gatherings need a crowd of people to show strength in order to impact the government agencies about the demands of the community. But let us be honest with ourselves. When we talk about Disability Rights, how many of non disabled people would really be comfortable with this idea?  When majority of people don’t even like to talk about disability how would they know what actually Disability Rights mean? When hundreds and thousands of us go out on the streets to ask for our legitimate rights, how many non disabled would voluntarily come and join us looking at disability from the human rights perspective? The bystanders and onlookers gather just to stare at us sympathetically with their charity mode on or they completely avoid looking at us because the sight of disabled people makes them feel awkward.  People would look at them and feel sorry for them, rather than thinking to offer them jobs or ask them out on a date, which is the kind of inclusion we want from other people. And even among the disabled people who attend such gatherings, how of many of them actually do understand what they have gathered for!

Rather I feel it is nothing less than an ableist approach that everyone can march and hit the streets. Having a disability can make it difficult to attend. Thousands of people in the streets may face the risks of police action, tear gassing, arrest or a possible stampede. Some of us simply don’t have the emotional or physical capacity to attend such gatherings. Some cannot stand for a longer period of time, some with chronic pain can feel discomfort, some with intellectual disorders or psychosocial disabilities can feel overwhelmed by huge crowd around them.

I believe that there is no right or wrong way to be an activist. It is more important to look at the actions being undertaken rather than how individuals define themselves.  Defining ourselves as activists’ means that we are able to take a firm stand to bring a required change. Activism in conventional sense is based upon a fallacy that it is only activists that bring social change. If our actions point towards our commitment to diversity, inclusion, and social change, we all are activists.

I have never remained silent. I have always been the voice of those who cannot speak up for themselves. In no way I have submitted to oppression of any kind, but I do believe we all have the right to choose our engagements. I was the first one to start free online counselling for persons with disabilities in India. I released the first ever mobile application for disabled; I started virtual classes; I launched the first ever Comprehensive Sexuality Education Online Course for which I prepared more than 400 lessons; I wrote manuals for women with disabilities and I did everything without asking for any monetary benefits in returns. Is this not activism? There are a myriad ways to be an activist. And to be a disability rights activist we need to choose the way that is the most accessible for us.

I have chosen to write. It is my form of activism. Though it may seem passive, writing is the most powerful form of activism. And I believe that my writings reach out to people and places where I would never reach physically. We must never underestimate the power of words. Activism and writing are connected by the common bond of language.

History can testify that writers have the capacity to draw massive attention. We can look back and see that totalitarian governments have always imprisoned authors and writer after coming to power.

And when I am mad about an ableist or derogatory comments in a movie or an offensive plot on a television show, I don’t hesitate to write a review. Feedback and our inputs are important to the those who are producing content. So in this age of technology we can very easily pick our digital pens and revolutions can be blogged.

Writing does not always mean writing lengthy articles. One of the easiest ways to speak up is on social media. If we need to smash the system we must engage in it thoroughly and consistently. Repeated posts with proper hash tags can serve the purpose. Sharing important links, news pieces, and opportunities to act on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr etc can reach number of people.

There is no doubt that marching sends a strong message about our political agenda and the issues we care about. But how we march in our personal lives is also equally important.

Marches are also not the only way to communicate with politicians and public figures. Signing petitions or starting your own also has the power to effect change. To me activism also means to educate people in self-advocacy skills. To make people aware of their rights in the manner that is easily comprehensible to them.  We can foster a sense of belonging for those who may otherwise remain on the margins of this social structure.

 Activism can be varied and diverse, but in Disability Rights Movement the underlying universal themes are of inclusion, respect and dignity, which each one of us strives for.

Protesting on the streets isn’t the only way individuals can make noise. There are many ways to speak out and all of them have their own significance. We all can add something to the movement and play our own part.

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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.

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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.”

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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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