My Tailor’s 10-Year-Old Daughter Taught Me The Importance Of Thinking For Myself

RoomToReadEditor’s Note: This post is a part of #SkillToLead, by Room to Read and Youth Ki Awaaz to advocate for the empowerment of the girl child with life skills modules at school, so she can take charge of her own future. Share your story with solutions on integrating life skills into school curricula here.

Let’s be friends”, Bhupi looked at Zara and extended his hand. Zara, a young kid of 10 years, is the daughter of our tailor master and was selling handmade necklaces to people coming in for the workshop.

I don’t want to be your friend,” she said, holding my hand and trying to take me away for delicacies that were being prepared.

But, you have to be. If you can be Yukti’s friend, then you have to be mine as well.

I looked at both of them. Bhupi was clearly enjoying himself and Zara had a look of annoyance on her face. Looking at Bhupi, who was a total stranger to her, she said “I don’t have to be your friend and it’s my choice”, and off she went. Watching this young little girl’s defiance as she stood up for herself filled me with pride and hope. A hope that our country’s burgeoning demographic dividend is in safe hands.

But I often wonder, is Zara an outlier because she had the opportunity to be home-schooled by some very talented people? Or does our education system also teach kids to think, ask, and wonder? Sadly, I am inclined to confirm the former is true.

Young people must learn to be empathetic to one another in an age of increasing hostility. Image for representation only.

India will be the world’s youngest country by 2020 with an average age of 29, making it the largest young workforce in the world. It is this workforce that decides the social, economic and political future of our young democracy. It is imperative that these young minds are taught how to think independently and ask questions rather than fill their heads with “facts”. A world where xenophobia and extremism is on the rise, giving way to reactionary violence, are we educating our young minds to be tolerant, reasonable, and kind?

I come from a disciplined and orthodox Brahmin household, where Brahmin supremacy and casteism has always made me uncomfortable. The idea of a person born into a ‘superior’ caste and therefore respected has always eluded me. Conservatives are always inclined to preserve the fabric of society and tout the fortune of being born in a Brahmin family. But shouldn’t our dictum be “Live and let live”? Respect for hierarchy, values, and purity are often hallmarks of collectivist social or cultural groups as opposed to modern, liberal thinking. But can the seemingly dramatic increase in our country’s growth go hand in hand with individual suffering?

I was taught the different sub-castes among Brahmins, and the allowed sub-castes for matrimony. A more liberal mindset and modern outlook has opened the doors for children choosing their partners themselves. Even though I come from a privileged background, I was asked to finish school and college with straight As, get a job, and finally, get married. Luckily, I have complete say in picking my life partner. A right which should be as normal as freedom of speech, but it comes with a few caveats, like not being allowed to marry outside your caste if you are a Brahmin. (Well, you can replace Brahmin with your caste because casteism or regionalism is all pervasive). Also, not getting married is not an option. I am the ‘responsibility’ of my parents. And my gender, again a stroke of luck, matters. He has to be a Brahmin (“He” and “Brahmin” are the linchpins here for the sanctity of my marriage). If I stray, society will not accept me. Unthinking reverence of traditions can easily give birth to an insidious form of ideological coagulation that often leads to oppression and exploitation, as well as stagnated progress, change, and equality.

All daughters are put through that stifling “Good girl conditioning”. It supposedly makes you a likeable woman, but all it does is create a problematic idea of a good woman.

An illustration of Plato’s idea of “The Allegory of the Cave”. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

I always scored well in school because rote learning isn’t a great skill, but a skill nevertheless. I settled into a monotonous but comfortable MNC lifestyle post my engineering degree, and I felt I was losing myself every single day. One day, I came across Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”. It talks about imagining prisoners chained in a cave throughout life, and all they can see are shadows on the wall, they cannot even turn back to look at the fire burning behind them. Their reality is restricted to only shadows. Somehow one of the prisoners breaks free and is introduced to the fire’s light, and eventually sunlight.

And that’s how I applied to a fellowship program in the liberal arts. That’s where I met Zara and other children from low-income households. Fellows worked to provide them with an alternate form of education,where creativity is nurtured and questions welcomed. Further, improving their ability to read and write would (apart from improving literacy rates) equip these children with the ability to think, contemplate, and form their own views.

I learned from these children as much as they learned from me every day. My fellowship introduced me to the world of social sciences and slowly built up my confidence, resilience to make mistakes and own them. The questions I always had finally found a voice.

India has the world’s highest number of 10 to 24-year-olds, (242 million), India surpasses even China (185 million). But as measurable as employability is, the importance of learning life skills is of much greater value.

Education is a silver bullet. We don’t need small changes. We need monumental ones. We need to teach our kids tolerance and empathy in a world increasingly becoming hostile. Decision-making backed by critical thinking and analysis has equipped me to take chances and work on issues that really matter. It has not only made me socially conscious but has also freed me from herd mentality.

Source: Pixinio
There is so much we can learn from the wisdom of young children. Yukti sure did! Image for representation only. Source: Pixinio.

The future of this young secular democracy stands on the shoulders of 242 million young people and allowing them to be the best version of themselves is something we owe them.

The thread necklace Zara made for me is one of my prized possessions. It will always be.

Featured image for representation only. Image courtesy of the author.
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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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