What My Work At The Indo-Pak Border Taught Me About India Achieving SDGs

I recently had the opportunity to visit four villages located near the India-Pakistan border, situated in the States of Gujarat and Rajasthan. The status of development in these villages alarmed me and served as reminders for the commitments we have made in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that we are aiming to achieve by 2030.

India’s path to achieving the SDGs is always being monitored via numbers and statistics by various surveys and evaluation reports, but every field experience that keeps in mind the development perspective really matters when we are working towards common goals.

So here are some narratives and observations I had come across that will serve as a ‘reality check’ for us as to where we stand on our commitment to achieving the SDGs:

Case #1: School And Drop-Out Rates

A Reminder For SDGs 4 And 5: Quality Education And Gender Equality

Dhana (Name changed) is a 14-year-old boy living in a village that is at a 10-kilometer distance from the border. He wants to study further and aspires to become an engineer. His village has a school only till the eighth standard. He along with two of his friends have chosen to continue their education in a nearby town. His father works as a labourer in a medium-sized farm and they both wish for a school inside their village.

The rainy season brings with it a lot of difficulties to commute to school, with salt-mixed, sandy kachha (dirt) roads that constantly flood. Dhana ends up missing school a lot during the monsoons. Dhana also shared that many girls in his village, who used to be his classmates till the eighth standard have (had to) stop their education after the ninth standard because the town school is far away. He said that most of his female former classmates now are helping their parents on their farms.

Case #2: Women’s Participation Or Non-Participation In The Public Sphere

Reminders For SDGs 5 And 16: ‘Gender Equality‘ and ‘Peace, Justice And Strong Institutions

Experience #1

We need to talk to some men and some women. We can have a meeting in the Gram Panchayat building only,” I said as I was trying to schedule a meeting with the village people.

Sir, how can women come here? They don’t come to Gram Panchayat meetings,” the village leader explained.

Experience #2

I am Talathi (village accountant) for this particular village and in my native village, my wife is the Sarpanch (village head). But you can ask me whatever you need information about both villages too. I am the one who overlooks the governance for both the villages. My wife is not so educated, she doesn’t understand these things,” he laughed, trying to show his capabilities. And his ‘namesake‘ Sarpanch didn’t (or couldn’t) turn up, even after the Gram Panchayat meeting ended.

Experience #3

The document says that there are 3 Sakhi Mandals (self-help groups) in this village. Can someone tell me how many members are there in each Mandal and how much money saving happens annually?,” I asked.

All the (only male) villagers in the meeting, including the old and new Gram Panchayat members, were uncertain and just looked at each other. Some were just sharing their guesses as to what the estimates could be!

Case #3: ‘Good’ Health For All Or Only For Some?

Reminder For SDG 3: Good Health And Well-Being

One can see the image of Goga Maharaj (their ‘Snake God’, as a local lad explained) everywhere in the villages. The images of Goga Maharaj were on the front gates of villages, on state transport buses, vehicles, and shops. According to folklore, he is considered as a god or saint or ‘Pir’ (among Muslim communities) who protects people from snakes and snake-bites. That’s evident in the image itself, which also has a snake in it behind him.

The Rabari and other agricultural communities who worship him, often face high instances of snake-bites and are considered to have a fear of snakes.

However, the contrast in the ‘development situation’ is evident when one can find temples dedicated to Goga Maharaj everywhere, but on the other side, one of the most common demands by the villagers includes basic healthcare facilities, doctors, and equipment which can cure snake-bites!

Case #4: Narrative On Climate Change And Its Effects By The Villagers

A Reminder For SDGs 6, 8, And 13: Clean Water And Sanitation, Decent Work And Economic Growth, And Climate Action

A villager who engages in farming spoke to me about the effects that climate change has been having on the environment and on their livelihoods.

He said, “The pattern of rain is changing. Every two years we could see a pattern of intense rainfall in our region, but nowadays one cannot guarantee anything about the temperament of the nature god. The salty desert (semi-arid) land cannot hold the water and so the water runs off. There is no groundwater and our agriculture, our animals are completely dependent on rainwater.”

For representation only.

He went on to lament that, “On the other side, summers are unbearable and heat is rising. We can’t even plant trees because they are not held by water and don’t survive. So, the heat increases even more. If the rain is delayed, our crops are gone. Many villagers move to nearby towns from the month of November till almost the month of June. They work either on farms where irrigation facility is available and labour is needed or on construction sites.”

The villager who wished to remain unnamed also said how, “One of our leaders has taken a separate house in the city and he moves there every summer because here, is no drop of water even to drink. Many households have toilets built today but unless our water problem is solved, the toilets are of no use.”

Sustainable Development Goals. Credit: UN.org

There are positive as well as negative remarks about India’s roadmap towards achieving the SDGs. For example, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), in his review, highlighted several concerns regarding the country’ s preparedness to fulfill the SDGs. The SDG India Index 2018: A Baseline Report, on the other hand, ranks the states based on their performance and strongly recommends strengthening data systems to create better evidence.

Through this article, I want to highlight how the grassroots realities and checks, beyond numbers and statistics, are also important in order to keep the integrity within the ‘sustainable’ dimension of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program

Author’s Note: I have chosen to not name the villages I have visited to protect the identity of the people I spoke to and for security reasons. 
Featured Image Credit: Abhishek Baxi/Flickr; Dinesh Bareja/Flickr.
Featured Image For Representation Only.
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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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