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Will Our Political Parties Rise To The Occasion And Make Mental Health A Priority?

Two thirds of India currently is less than 35 yeas of age and suicide is the second leading cause of death among those aged 15-29. These statistics are alarming. Additionally, several young people are coming out of the closet regarding their gender and sexual identities, but society’s response often makes it difficult to live life on one’s own terms. When social structures extinguish the possibility of living an authentic and fulfilling life, suicide feels like the only course of action. Being from the queer community myself, I view suicide as preventable deaths. It can be stopped if we become a more aware and inclusive society. If there’s a way of shaping a better world, I wish to be part of it.

The ‘right to mental health care’ has become a legal provision for the first time in India due to the Mental Health Care Act 2017. However, the government must implement the law in letter and spirit for provision of quality, affordable, accessible mental health care. Thus, Centre For Mental Health Law and Policy, Anjali, Mariwala Health Initiative and Anubhuti Trust formed a coalition to make this a priority issue during an election year. The initiative invited everyone associated with mental health across sectors to join a nation-wide campaign on ‘Bridge The Care Gap.’

Having joined as the Chief Advisor at Mariwala Health Initiative, it has been a privilege to be associated with Bridge the Care Gap. Though I was not an active part of the think tank, the campaign has become close to my heart in the way it has approached mental health from a psychosocial lens and given particular emphasis to voices on the margins. This has been a major first, and as a queer feminist who believes in social justice, this campaign ticks all the boxes.

A painted mask made during an art therapy session to relieve post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. Image courtesy of Cpl. Andrew Johnston/Wikimedia Commons.

As political parties were currently working on their election manifestos, our coalition members met with political representatives to explain our demands and provide inputs for use in political manifestos. Bridge the Care Gap also asks for people to sign an online petition to say that mental health matters to their vote.

As a queer mental health practitioner, I would say, one of the critical elements of this campaign are the video-documentaries of first-person accounts from user-survivors, and influencer voices. With the videos in English, Marathi, Bengali and Tamil, there is a significant expansion and reframing of the mental health conversation. We have three mental health professionals with lived experience, including a queer and trans narrative. The videos talk of multiple paths towards resilience, such as psychotherapy, medication, art therapy, and how support is important.

Bridge The Care Gap has also seen support from over 50 organisations, many of whom work on mental health. They are the Live Love Laugh Foundation, White Swan Foundation, Banyan, Iswar Sankalpa, and Bipolar India, with their work areas ranging from knowledge on mental health, service delivery, and user-led advocacy. Notably, we are joined by multiple organisations who do not work directly on mental health, but on child rights, women’s rights, law and policy, LGBTQ concerns, human rights, and livelihood. This participation is crucial and resonates with my politics, for it follows an intersectional and intersectoral approach—looking at systemic and structural barriers and highlights inclusion, social justice and human rights.

With nearly 8,500 signatures and two political parties—Congress (I) and CPI (M)—including our demands in their manifestos, this campaign has become a landmark, with mental health being mentioned for the first time in political manifestos. We had reached out to other national and regional parties, but mental health did not get included in their manifestos. However, we are continuing to engage with others who are yet to publish their manifestos.

This campaign has meant that we will be able to hold two political parties accountable to their promises, as well as widen the stakeholders who work on mental health. Reframing the discourse around mental health and situating it in the psychosocial is key to not only improving mental health outcomes, but working on social justice. But most importantly, we must recognise that any one of us could have mental health issues and therefore we must be involved in creating quality resources that we can bank on.

To participate in this historical campaign, head here to sign the petition.

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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