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‘Balak Times’ Portrays The Gorakhpur Hospital Tragedy In An Interesting Way

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By Shawn Sebastian:

-How a group of young independent filmmakers, journalists, and social activists came together to make a rural investigative film, employing non-professional child actors from the villages of Haryana. 

Inspiration for cinema can come from diverse fronts. Some employ their imagination to the wildest range of possibilities while others look around for real-life stories that are intriguing and inspiring. For some, cinema is a commercial media form meant to entertain and entertain alone. Others see cinema as a powerful tool which can start a dialogue on contemporary social issues.

We belong to the latter category of filmmakers.

As a group of filmmakers, journalists and social activists, our past experiences of criss-crossing the rural heartland of India led us to conclude that there needs sustained activism and advocacy to achieve the true essence of girl child empowerment in India. Through films and media advocacy what we strive to achieve is to give a voice to the voiceless and inspire and instill in children the infinite powers their actions and reactions have.

About “Afzana”

After a few years of working on documentary films, In 2017, we began our first fiction project by telling the real-life story of “Afzana”, a 14-year-old girl from rural Haryana who defied social norms to pursue education. Our idea was not to limit the film to festivals and among viewers online. Coinciding with National Girl Child Day, we held a screening in Delhi with the participation of over 500 people including Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia. During the event, we raised over Rs. 1 lakh, which was later used for the education of 20 girls in the Haryana village where the film was shot.

We took the film to communities across the country and held over 50 screenings. The short film was also an entry to Jagran Film Festival ’18 & New York Youth Film Festival ’18.  The film was a starting point to discuss issues around child marriage and girl child education. The experience proved to us that films have the tremendous power to start a dialogue.

About Balak Times 

Inspired by the success of “Afzana”,  in our latest venture, we have broadened the canvass by making a feature-length film titled “Balak Times”, which is a story inspired from two real-life incidents.

The first is the tragedy at BRD Medical College, Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh in 2017 in which over 60 children died due to lack of oxygen supply. The sheer negligence of the government administration led to the death of children-many of them diagnosed by encephalitis-a brain inflammation caused by an infection which is sporadic in that region of the country leading to several deaths every year.

The second is the fascinating story of ‘Balaknama’-a street children-run newspaper in Delhi in which children write on issues affecting their daily lives. Publishing a newspaper would be the last thing anyone would expect from a child growing up in the streets of Delhi. But with the support of a non-profit organization, the monthly newspaper has been successfully running for the last many years, receiving attraction globally.

Combining both the incidents, “Balak Times” film tells the story of three school-going girl children in rural Haryana who publishe an underground newspaper to bring the culprits of a hospital tragedy to justice.

Set in Mewat region of Haryana, known for its skewed gender ratio and patriarchal norms, the film’s main cast are girls from the community who don’t have any prior acting experience. Rather than relying on a big cast or known faces, our idea of filmmaking is to give opportunities to children from marginalized communities to express themselves. Without the support of any production house, we pooled in money from known sources and conceived the film on a shoe string budget with limited resources.

The inspiration behind the film came from our strong belief in the power of independent and community-led media at a time when media is fast becoming commercialized. We live at a time when stories are picked and pushed based on their potential to attract a ‘click’ or based on TRP ratings rather than considering the merit of its contents.

We see how media of all sorts are budging to pressures of various kinds while forgetting the purpose of their existence – to inform public in a non-biased and objective manner. At a time when social media and digitisation is transforming the information flow in rural India, fake news is a menace that is wreaking havoc.

Even at this digital age, we know rural stories are under reported and villagers are often at the mercy of mainstream media to report their issues. We wish to change this scenario.

In these dangerous times, we believe media needs to be decentralised. Rather than being a consumer, people should have the power to be the creators – creators with ethics and responsibility.

Why Children? We often ask why not ? We all know innocence is inherent to children and they are not corrupted by many external influences. Through our fictional story, we wanted to shed light on the reaction of a group of children when something terribly wrong happens in their village. They could have kept silent and went on about their lives like everyone else.

But what if they react? What can they achieve? Can they stand up to the powerful system? This is what the film tries to communicate.

About The Premiere Event

The film “Balak Times” would be premiered in an event organised as part of National Girl Child Day celebrations on Feb 3, 2019 at Jesus And Mary College Auditorium, New Delhi (03:00 pm). Around 500 invited guests from universities, NGOs, government agencies and media will attend the event.

Post the film screening, we would have child reporters of ‘Balaknama’- the street children-run newspaper in Delhi, who would share their experience with the audience. Video interviews of child reporters from Chhattisgarh, Meghalaya and Telangana would also be shown in the event.

The idea is to bring children’s media representatives together and listen to their stories and struggles. Through this, we would like to create a discussion on the relevance of independent media initiatives.

Future Plans

During the event, we plan to launch a crowd-funding project which would enable us to complete the post production of the film, which would help us match our film to industry standards.

Apart from that, using the funds generated from crowd-funding, we plan to launch a year-long pilot project in the villages of Haryana where we would give media training to children in the locality where the film was shot. The aim would be to setup a community media platform exclusively led by children where they would be making films on issues affecting them. We want to make them story tellers independent of others. We look forward to a time when mainstream media would be relying on the stories brought out by the children to understand the ground realities of the region.

After the pilot project in Haryana, we would like to expand this project to other regions in rural India.

 

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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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