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The Story Of A Young Changemaker Working Tirelessly To Empower People In Rural India

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I am Ankit Raj and I belong to the Gopalganj District of Bihar.

I belong to a remote village where multiple opportunities are often out of reach for the youth and hence, generally, the students either pursue government jobs or remain underemployed in the unorganised sector. In our society, business is something which does not have a  history of much appreciation. On the other hand, apart from being cultivators, both parents and students of my society are highly ambitious and that’s where their life lies. Now when we try to be in sync with redefined ways of achieving good living conditions, it produces several success stories each day but there is a long way to go!

From the very beginning, my family was also very ambitious for me and wanted me to be an officer in the Indian Army and carry forward the legacy of my previous generations, who are dominated by officers of the Indian Army. The first competitive exam which I had taken in my life was the entrance exam of the  Sainik School in class V. I tried for Rashtriya Indian Military College (RIMC) Dehradun after class VII and again the lateral entrance test of the  Sainik School after class VIII. 

Destiny opened the door nowhere. I was adamant and got into the National Cadet Corps (NCC).  Having performed exemplarily, I bagged a leadership position from the school level itself and this went on till the end of my graduation. By the time I reached class XII  in 2012, it was also the last year of my NCC career. I was selected for the Officers Training Academy of NCC under the Ministry of Defense and I was declared as ‘Pride of the Battalion’

This brought me immense confidence to crack any entrance exam of my choice for whatever reason it may be. Immediately after that, my academic calibre was boosted by my score in AIMA-UGAT 2012. It was 93.8 percentile at the national level. I got into a good management college but I couldn’t complete the course and I left after six months. 

The reason behind that destabilising step was that during that time, I couldn’t trace any way of doing something good for my villagers directly. I chose to pursue a B.A. Honours in my favourite subject i.e. English Literature, remained close to my village and worked for peoples’ welfare there. That drove me to student politics, RTI activism and citizen journalism. Fortunately, I successfully solved some problems and that ignited in me the need to work for impact on a larger scale. On the other hand, I always wanted to be independent and I used to teach students of class X immediately after I had passed class XI.

The Gandhi Fellowship That Changed My Life

During the last semester of my B.A., I came across a magazine called Avsar which mentioned a brief detail about Gandhi Fellowship. At the same time, I had also cleared the preliminary exam of M.Sc. Cognitive Science from IIT Gandhinagar. By chance, the interview dates of the Gandhi Fellowship and the IIT entrance were clashing, hence, I chose to get myself interviewed in Ranchi and then travel to Gandhinagar for the other interview.

This was the time when Gujarat really impressed me with its cleanliness and peaceful lifestyle. Although I couldn’t make it through the interview for the course at IIT Gandhinagar, in my return train journey from Gandhinagar, I got the results of my selection for Gandhi Fellowship. I was not really hopeful about the positive result but yes, I was clear that was my interest. Because the Gandhi Fellowship was all about working with people directly as per your own wish. 

I left all things and just jumped into it with Gujarat as the desired location. I got into the District Transformation Programme at Surat. I still remember the days of our induction at our location when we were asked to express our desired next step and pin it on the board. I took a paper, pinned it on the board and it read I want to take charge now. Now when I reflect, this showed the level of fire that I carried and that platform gave my fire constructive shape. It simply turned out to be a game-changer which facilitated my empowerment from the very core. 

I broke the ground until I was exhausted with ideas in my brain and lived each moment of the fellowship.  I could achieve all of this because of sheer dedication, hard work and perseverance.

The fellowship at the same time was a platform to understand the dynamics of team management and the nitty-gritty of professionalism. It was the journey which gave me scope to figure out my journey of life. Operating in remote villages, engagement with government functionaries and elected representatives and a push to take initiatives to engage all of them was a tremendous opportunity to get hands-on experience of the convergence of systems. 

I could see this tough journey unfold right in front of my eyes and it let me conclude that the ultimate convergence takes place on the ground and the systemic bodies over there are ‘Gram Panchayats’ in rural and ‘Mohalla Sabhas’ in urban areas. Keeping in mind the pollution and population explosion, due to huge permanent migration of villagers to cities, I chose to work for the empowerment of rural population so that they trace a way out for opportunities without migration. 

‘Empowerment Of Youth To Be Panchayat Leaders’

My Public Service Project (PSP) was focused on ‘Empowerment of Youth to be Panchayat Leaders’ and it was named Avsar. Along with a very good friend of mine named Suhasini, I started this campaign with the official permission of block administration in two blocks and worked with more than 200 college-going students. My other friends and fellow mates, Asheesh and Dinesh joined us and we also organised ‘Boot Camp of Designing Own Panchayats’ with students studying in a very remote hilly village named Umarpada in Surat district. 

It was an amazing experience to have the dream villages of students of classes VIII and IX absolutely far away from the social sins like discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, class or sex. We could ensure that each one of them could come up with a vision for their localities. We, as a team, were of the mind that if everyone takes care of their own houses and neighbourhoods and villages, we can definitely ensure a living condition loaded with compassion and happiness. After all, the system is driven by the will and wish of people.

Later on, I figured out that this process of citizen empowerment is called ‘Good Governance in the related sector. With all realisations about self and prospective aligned opportunities lying in the field, I made an analysis that  – People need to be empowered to understand their role in the development and that can be done either by policy intervention or by multiplying activists’ efforts. I studied several books about the change that is happening in India so far, including the nature of processes. I inferred that we need a silent revolution to let the change sustain. 

Hence, I chose my future to be in policy implementation, being part of the government either fully or partially. The PSP which I had consolidated in the blocks of Surat, a national project was being conceptualised at National Institute of Rural Development (NIRD) and Panchayati Raj and the Vision India Foundation, found me to be the appropriate candidate for it as a partner organisation. 

I was appointed at National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj as an Associate at the National Programme Monitoring unit of the project which envisages to create a pool of young passionate people as Panchayat Entrepreneurs and help the elected representatives to make the development of their respective panchayats in a professional, planned and participatory manner. 

These beacon panchayats would do  inspiratory osmosis of development through demonstration to their neighboring panchayats across the nation. This is how we envisaged leveraging the existing systemic opportunities to facilitate entrepreneurship in panchayats and make them generate their revenue by themselves. This idea got validated as and when we got  our Panchayats and Municipal Corporations as Local Governments in the Constitution of India which was nothing by the 73rd and 74th amendment acts of 1992; we were clear that no government can be a government in the truest sense and take care of its people by being dependent on some other body for resources and funds. 

The outcome appears to be a pressing need especially in India with all its diversity and it also proposes solutions to several problems pertaining to livelihood, health and education which are inevitable for basic habitation. I believe myself to be very fortunate to be a part of this project from its very inception and also the only 22-year- old man in the team of Secretaries, Additional Chief Secretaries of Ministry of Rural Development and professors of decentralized planning and sustainable development.

After one year of engagement, the team realised that we have not yet developed a knowledge bank for our Panchayat Elected Representatives and functionaries to refer to in case of any confusion. We decided to develop a reference book for all the functionaries at ground level in the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) mode which will help them to understand different schemes, their objectives, the interconnections of different policies and how to have complete and correct knowledge about the governing affairs of rural and urban local bodies. 

I am more than thankful to the team for providing me with the opportunity to write a detailed chapter on Mission Antyodaya: A Convergence Framework’. The handbook will be circulated to all the 2.5 Lakh Gram Panchayats of India by the Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India.

During this journey, the vision-driven work brought me to several unconventional opportunities and appreciation at several local and global platforms. I got invitations from Asia’s renowned think tank Observer Research Foundation multiple times to attend and participate in several global conferences with delegates ranging from Head of the States, Authors, Bureaucrats, Military veterans and distinguished professors.

I got the membership of another think tank named Global Counter-Terrorism Council, which works with military veterans from the across the world to save the world from terrorism and maintain a competent counter-terrorism mechanism pan world with the exchange of knowledge, experience and inputs.

The development has never been an isolated process and hence I keep a keen eye on global development and affairs. This outlook has given me the opportunity of being a speaker at China India Youth Dialogue – 2018 organised at the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in India which was jointly organized by the Embassy of China and Confederation of Young Leaders. The dialogue was endorsed by a letter from the Honourable Prime Minister of India Shri Narendra Modi Ji and was inaugurated by the Honourable ambassador of China in India.

Acknowledging my interventions on the ground as well as in the policy formulation for poverty reduction, Global Action on Poverty recognized me as a Changemaker.

Very recently, I have been nominated to be the Chairman of Collectors Conference at the National Youth Dialogues in Chhattisgarh and I am expected to deliver a lecture on pushing the debate initiated by the Honourable PM on Simultaneous Elections, EVM issues and challenges for the bureaucracy’. The dialogue will be attended by the Honourable Chief Minister of Chattisgarh as Chief Guest.

At this point in time, when a career has just begun, I envision myself as a responsible citizen of India and a resource to the world in the long run. I believe that our actions should match our words and if development has to reach the last person standing at the length of the societal landscape, it has to be done with ‘the people’.

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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.

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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.”

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.

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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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