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From Kalighat To The CM’s Office: The Story Of Mamata Banerjee

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Anyone who faces struggles in their life is in a continual battle and stands firm through all the barriers will be victorious in the end. I believe Mamata Banerjee’s life experience of acute privation during her formative years as a person and as a political activist is at the root of her identification with the poor and the vulnerable.

She was born into a lower-middle-class family in a somewhat run-down neighbourhood of south Kolkata. Her family was pushed into poverty by her father’s early death, which happened when Banerjee was in her mid-teens. The large family, consisting of six brothers, two sisters and a widowed mother, subsequently faced much hardship. Unlike many others in a similar situation, she forged ahead with her education and between the mid-1970s and the early 1980s she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Calcutta University and a law diploma. Before joining politics full time, she worked as a stenographer, a primary school teacher, a private tutor and even as a salesgirl.

Mamata Banerjee’s personality is equally defined by a strongly held sense of cultural identity, she is a proud and passionate Bengali. This deep attachment to Bengali culture – the region’s history, language and traditions, underpins her politics and manifests itself in many ways.

Another, a more private manifestation is Mamata Banerjee’s immersion in the arts, music, and literary heritage of Bengal, in a manner very typical of educated middle-class Bengalis. Non-Bengalis and cosmopolitan people might find hard to understand and appreciate her cultural tastes and aesthetic sensibilities that are squarely within a traditional Bengali framework. She likes to sing Rabindranath Tagore’s songs and recite his poetry — in public and private — but her main hobby is painting and sketching. She does this prolifically, partly as a stress-relieving activity. Her elegantly spartan office in the Writers’ Buildings has a small studio attached to it, cluttered with easels and other artists’ paraphernalia.

Entering Politics As A Teen

She has risen from the grassroots of politics. She became involved in politics when she was only 15. Mamata Banerjee began her political life as an activist of the Congress party’s student wing in West Bengal in the mid-1970s as her parents were also staunch Congress supporters. During college days, she established Chhatra Parishad Union, the student’s wing of the Congress Party, and won the Chhatra Parishad elections defeating the Democratic Students’ Union of the Socialist Unity Centre of India.

She carried on with Congress Party in West Bengal serving a variety of positions within the party and in other local political organisations. She quickly made an ascent in the ranks of the local Congress group and remained the general secretary of Mahila Congress, West Bengal, from 1976 to 1980. She became one of India’s youngest parliamentarians ever, defeating veteran Communist politician Somnath Chatterjee in 1984 General Elections. Losing her seat in the 1989 general elections in an anti-Congress wave, she was re-elected in the 1991 general elections, having settled into the Calcutta South constituency. She held the South Kolkata seat during 1996, 1998, 1999, 2004 and 2009 general elections.

Founding Member Of The All India Trinamool Congress

She was appointed the Union Minister of State for Human Resources Development, Youth Affairs and Sports, and Women and Child Development in 1991 by Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao. As the sports minister, she announced that she would resign, and protested in a rally at the Brigade Parade Ground in Kolkata, against the Government’s indifference towards her proposal to improve sports in the country. She was discharged of her portfolios in 1993. In April 1996, she alleged that Congress was behaving as a stooge of the CPI-M in West Bengal and wanted a “Clean Congress” state. So in 1997, she left the Congress Party in West Bengal and became one of the founding members of the All India Trinamool Congress, from that time she never stopped.

Currently, she is serving the second term as the Chief Minister of Bengal and she is doing a great job as a Chief Minister. Recently, she started the Didi Ke Bolo outreach program to collect and resolve people’s grievances and suggestions. It is a very unique outreach program aiming to improve West Bengal’s people participation and engagement between the government and their citizens.

The success story of Didi Ke Bolo has started on the same day when the campaign was launched for West Bengal people’s virtue. No political campaign across the country has got this much popularity. Within a month, lakhs of people approached Mamata Banerjee by calling and registering through the website to explain their problems.

Multiple cases have been resolved till now through Didi Ke Bolo. Especially during medical emergencies, people are getting help from the government as financial assistance for medical treatment and getting basic amenities. Many patients who are unable to bear their medical expenses for the surgery are getting financial support from the government.

A heart patient was unable to get a bed at Medinipur Medical College but after calling Didi Ke Bolo their problem got resolved. Even MLAs and party workers are trying hard to resolve their problems. An MLA from Hooghly district came out in the street to solve water clogging problem in Champdani. A story came from the media houses that a Bengali couple were stuck at home during floods in Karnataka. Their relatives tried everything but nothing worked. At last, they called Didi Ke Bolo helpline number and immediately the state’s disaster management department asked Karnataka government to look into the matter and they got rescued within hours. Similarly during Kerala floods, after losing hope in local administration, 14 people got rescued after contacting Didi Ke bolo.

Mamata Banerjee has assured the people that the party is willing to work overtime to resolve their grievances as soon as possible. In 214 cases,  people who are in distress reached out to Didi Ke Bolo campaign instead of calling conventional emergency helpline numbers. All these cases were resolved on priority and that is the reason why people of West Bengal have utter trust and confidence on Mamata Banerjee.

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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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