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Converge 2019: These Young Changemakers Spoke Up On Inequality, Re-imagining Elections And More

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Launched in 2014, Converge, the flagship event by Youth Ki Awaaz, has emerged as a platform for young changemakers to break stereotypes and create an impact by sharing powerful stories on issues that matter.

Converge was re-launched on Saturday as a multi-city event, with the inaugural session held in New Delhi. This edition’s theme brought together four individuals who have, and continue to, address different aspects of inequality and talk about instances from their walk of lives.

We took away a number of important lessons from the event, about what needs changing to increase citizen participation to address all forms of inequality. For those who missed it, here are the 6 most important takeaways from the event:

Bilal Zaidi, Co-Founder, OurDemocracy.in

“The role of citizenship only grows in a democracy.”

Bilal is the co-founder of OurDemocracy.in, which describes itself as “India’s first crowdfunding platform compliant with India’s strict political fundraising norms.” He started by talking about the generation gap that is reflected through the kind of discourse we engage with. He then connected this aspect to the political representation India has to offer. Looking at India’s demographic their representation in the parliament is extremely low, he said, adding that, issues that we talk about strongly, and even wrote about on YKA, they aren’t spoken about in the center stage. The entry point into politics is sealed and difficult to penetrate, and only people belonging to certain families can get through,” Bilal said. He pointed out how when it comes to decision-making, it is dominated by a group of people who have crossed a certain age demographic. Dr.Manmohan Singh was in his 70’s when he became the prime minister, and current PM Narendra Modi has already crossed 40 years since his foray into politics. “What is the problem in our political system which requires an individual to invest so much time and energy, after which you are able to access it?” he asked the audience.

He then spoke about how through the crowdfunding initiative, many young leaders like Jignesh Mevani, who would not have “muscle or money power“, have found a way to gain public support and funding to conduct their campaigns. The crux of his talk was that through an initiative like OurDemocracy, ordinary citizens have a chance to become ‘active citizens’, and “to channelise their support into something more concrete“. Bilal, in ten minutes, emphasised the importance of being an ‘active citizen’ in a democratic setup, and how if enough people come together, we can change the (status quo) discourse.

Lusi, Child Champion – Save The Children

“I am the voice of children in my locality.”

What followed were ten minutes of sheer inspiration as Lusi spoke about how she, as a child from the streets, wants to be a voice for children, and girls from her community, who are just like her. Lusi campaigns for better sanitation facilities, safety measures, infrastructure, and access to healthcare in her slum community in Kolkata’s Tiljala. Adolescent girls in Lusi’s locality not only face the risk of catching an infection because they have to use a common toilet. There is also a lack of privacy and safety, as both men and women use the same toilet.

From addressing gender inequality in her community to talking about it at Britain’s House Of Commons, Lusi worked hard (and played harder!) to break each obstacle that came her way. Having overcome self-doubts, and doubts of others who said “ladki hai toh kya khelegi,” (what will this girl play), Lusi spoke about how she cleared all the selection rounds to prove that girls can play. Lusi concluded by saying that it is not enough to only be aware of the condition of street children. “It isn’t enough that I speak about this,” she said, adding that it is so important that we join her in amplifying this issue.

Divya Jose, Public Policy Officer, International Justice Mission (IJM)

“We live in a culture of impunity.”

Divya works at the International Justice Mission (IJM), a global organisation working to end violence against the poor. Her talk centered around everyday instances of violence, that we might not even call out. Instances that most of us would have faced. The first was a personal anecdote from when she was commuting to college. A man who was touching himself demanded that he sit next to her. Her refusal to let him sit next to her was met with silence from her co-passengers and instead, she was asked to move. “Why was that man so confident in a situation where he was so wrong?” she asked.

The second incident was from a study into dropout rates among girls in a village down South. It showed the way caste and gender dynamics in the form of taunts, to bodily violence, by a group of men from the upper-caste community during their daily commute formed a major reason. Through these two instances, Divya highlighted the “nature of everyday violence, which is so entrenched that it becomes had to call out.” They are hidden in plain sight, encouraged by people who would rather these stay unaddressed. Divya said that change would be possible only when we work with the system.

Rubi, Girls In STEM Program, Feminist Approach to Technology (FAT)

“Bring changes within your community, don’t just talk about change!”

Rubi works with Feminist Approach to Technology’s (FAT) JugaadLabs, in their ‘Girls in STEM program. She is also a member of the board at FAT. Her inspiring talk started with how her interest in working with computers and getting a good salaried job turned into a need to help girls from her community. She narrated how because of JugaadLabs, she used a drill machine for the first time. “I never heard or imagined that a girl can use this. I fixed a whiteboard to the wall by myself!

My elder brother had the right to control my freedoms, but I didn’t. He could stay out till late at night but I couldn’t,” she said. She spoke about how interning at FAT gave her, and many others like her, the chance to learn and make decisions for themselves. “We work with girls who experience violence in everyday life…and how they can help other girls in their community.” This didn’t, however, sit well with some people from her community, who threatened those attending the program. “Kuch log karne se change nahi aayega…aapne community mei changes laye” (Change won’t happen because of only some people, you need to bring change in your community also).

The speakers addressed crucial issues like inequality, violence and the importance of sustaining dialogue. One common strand between the speakers was that we, as ‘active’ citizens, need to go beyond just talking about inequalities and all its manifestations. Young leaders like Lusi and Rubi, drawing from their experiences showed how it isn’t enough for them to be speaking about such issues, but it is our collective responsibility to join them in bringing about the change we want to see!

Spread over the next 12 months, gear up for more path-breaking conversations, coming to 12 cities. Watch this space for powerful stories of how young people, from different walks of lives, are stepping up and breaking this culture of silence.

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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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