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Over 500 Young Changemakers Discuss Climate Change Innovations With UN Deputy Secretary-General

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During the visit of the Deputy Secretary-General Amina J.Mohammed to India, and in the run-up to the Secretary-General’s Climate Summit in September, the United Nations, in collaboration with Youth Ki Awaaz, hosted a powerhouse session with many inspiring changemakers on innovative approaches to combat climate change.

YKA’s Founder, Anshul Tewari. Image Credit: UN India/Twitter

What is it that we can do to take action, to change our future for the better. Is conserving energy in our households enough? Is not wasting water, or refusing to use single-use plastics enough?” asked YKA’s Founder Anshul Tewari, setting the tone for the evening.

Image Credit: UN India/ Twitter

We took away a number of important lessons from the event, on taking the conversation beyond just talking about change, and taking ‘sustainability’ to operational levels. For those who missed it, here are some key takeaways from the event:

Five phenomenal climate champions who have led the way, and become an example of what an individual can do to impact an entire community, and in turn, the world, spoke about their innovations.

Shikha Shah, Co-Founder, And Co-CEO, Canva Fibre Labs

Shikha co-founded Canva Fibre Labs in 2017 with Shreyas Kokra, her classmate from Babson College, USA. Her Keywords are ‘sustainability, scale, and viability.’ Given the intensity of climate change, sustainable choices for high consumption basic needs, like textile, is crucial. Sustainable textiles, like hemp, are definitely required, but, sustainability doesn’t sell at scale if it isn’t economically viable for producers and consumers.

75% of our textiles are made of polyester or cotton. The choice of textile impacts everything that follows: from how it’s made to how it will be disposed of. For example, polyester disintegrated into microplastics, a problem that needs no introduction. Out of 20 trillion pieces of microplastics, a couple of them are right now sitting in your own gut and damaging your health in ways yet unknown. Consider cotton. It takes around 2750 liters of water to make one t-shirt,” she said. Textile seeks alternative materials, and that’s where Canva Fibre Labs steps in. “We convert agricultural waste of certain kinds into textile-fit fibers that can be used to make anything, from shoes to hats!

These materials are environmentally sustainable, socially inclusive, and a valid business proposition. Sustainable materials already exist, but, only scalability of technology can bring impact“, Shikha said.

Tarun Bothra, Co-Founder, And CTO, Saathi Pads

Tarun is a co-founder and CTO at Saathi, which looks to develop fully eco-friendly, compostable sanitary napkins. They use locally sourced banana fiber from Gujarat, where Saathi is based. He believes that sustainability is important for our survival, and wants to make sure to give back to society. He implored us to think about why ‘menstrual waste’ is such a big problem. If only 16% of India’s population is creating around 150 tonnes of plastic waste every year, emanating from menstrual products, it is an alarming figure. “Why are we using plastic to make a product which is such a necessity?” Tarun asked.

One in six women in India today has access to sanitary napkins…high school drop-outs, hygiene management, they are not eco-friendly, they contain chemicals, because of which, they have a lot of health impacts. What we have to give is 100% compostable and biodegradable sanitary napkins made out of banana fiber, which is cheaper, better and faster. We don’t just have an innovative model, but we follow a circular economy in which we take care of all the stakeholders in our supply chain.

Arun Krishnamurthy, Founder, Environmentalist Foundation Of India

Arun, the founder of the Environmentalist Foundation Of India (EFI), has initiated many campaigns to clean lakes across India. EFI has over 212 volunteers in Chennai and over 1000 across India. To date, they have been successful in cleaning around 93 lakes in India.

He asked the audience, when the last time was they drank from a lake, let alone swam in one, or just sat by one? “Solid waste and liquid waste get dumped into freshwater bodies as cities and urban centers are rapidly growing. If you are drinking water out of a plastic bottle (here), we need to make sure that it isn’t getting dumped into one of our lakes. Liquid waste of varying kinds, shampoo or car wash, drains into these lakes,” he said. “We can agree on the fact that you and I are a part of the problem. Can the solution be without us? That’s where science and community-based collaborative conservation effort is important,” he implored. “This includes removing the trash from the water bodies, plugging in sewage that flows into them, and scientifically reviving the water bodies through several hydro-geo-morphological standards.” We need to make sure that impact is sustainable, he reiterated.

Smita Singhal, Founding Director, Absolute Water

Smita started Absolute Water in 2013, as a water management company to ensure turnkey solutions for water and wastewater management. It adopts the technique of vermicomposting, the cultivation of worms to consume and decompose sewage waste. This forms the top-most layer of a bio-filter that lets the water pass through different layers of wood, sand, and carbon, filtering the water in an eco-friendly manner.  At the final filtration stage, the water is passed through a membrane, segregating contaminated water from drinkable water.

The way things are progressing in the world right now, in the future, only a handful of us might be able to afford clean water. Most sewage flow, untreated, into water bodies, in villages across India and even in metropolitan cities like Delhi. Countries around the world are in the process of treating sewage water into drinking water, but they use chlorine for purification. That water, if drunk enough, is something that can slowly kill you from the inside, she said. “Can we do better in India, where 62 billion liters of sewage is produced every single day? Our vision is that we can drink water, straight from the taps, without thinking twice.” This technology is simple, accessible, affordable, can be operated by unskilled labour, Smita explained. Our technology imitates nature she pointed out while explaining how the technology works.

Nivedha RM, Founder, And CEO, Trashcon Labs

Nivedha founded Trashcon in 2016 after she and her friends had cleared a trash-filled lane near their college, only to find it filled with trash again in a week’s time. Trashbot segregates mixed municipal solid waste: from food waste, plastic, cardboard, meat, blood, diapers, sanitary napkins, and so on, into biodegradable and non-biodegradable components. Once segregated, the biodegradable component is given to farmers to be used as manure, or as biogas.

Nivedha pointed out how 95% of the two lakh tonne of municipal waste ends up in landfills and dumpsites, rivers, oceans, and because there is no space left, in front of our homes. Other than this, it is burnt. “The world said it is impossible, but someone had to do it,” Nivedha said. “We’re driven by a very simple dream – where I can tell my daughter, 20 years down the line, ‘once upon a time, there was trash.’ And my daughter answers, ‘mama, what is trash?’.

Amina J.Mohamamed, in her keynote address, emphasised the need to talk about and amplify efforts by the youth. “The Climate Action summit has an incredible youth-led agenda. I don’t think we’ve had a summit yet that is opened by young people for two days. Young people are really up there in front,” she said. The DSG also emphasised the importance of turning political will into conservation efforts. “It only remains impossible till it is done,” she said. 

Image Credit: UN India/Twitter

The Deputy Secretary-General said, “India’s new generation, of young leaders, are agents of change.” Her address reflected the UN’s push to amplify the action being taken by young changemakers. Young people are already taking action, but are not being heard, she said, adding that this is the juncture where the UN wants to help. 

We need to make countries champions so that they make pathways and open doors. Take for instance the SDGs, they are voluntary, yet we are all acting on them,” Amina J.Mohammed said while interacting with youth during the Climate Action dialogue. “Don’t wait to be asked, just act on it,” was her message to the youth. The audience, in the venue and those watching the live video, were asked to tweet questions they had for the Deputy Secretary-General.

Image Credit: UN India/ Twitter

For the UN now, it is about operationalising what we have promised to the people. This COP (COP14) should not be just any ordinary meeting, but we should be able to take away something useful from it,” she said. “Come back to your countries, hold your leaders accountable, make them the champions,” she implored. The DSG also reiterated the value of not leaving anyone behind, and remaining inclusive, in our approach to sustainability.

For me, young people being proactive and thinking creatively is very inspirational and hopeful, Deputy Sec-Gen, Amina J.Mohammed said during the Q&A session with Heeta Lakhani, Youth Leader for climate action.

We need to realise that regardless of where we’re from, we have the power to change things for at least 2 people if we talk to another person. You will not solve global problems overnight, fix something that is easy and possible,” Heeta said while talking about making innovation and sustainability a part of the discourse for the youth.

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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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