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16 Young Changemakers Explore Issues Around MHM At YKA’s First Action Network

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This post is a part of Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management in India. Click here to find out more.

It is estimated that nearly 355 million women menstruate in India. While there are a few existing government policies to tackle MHM-related issues in the country, they still largely pay little or no emphasis on the rampant discrimination and the swell of misinformation that surrounds the MHM discourse and its various intersections. 

Youth Ki Awaaz, with its first-ever Action Network on Sexual Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) and Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) issues, decided to address this in some small measure. 

Over 16 young changemakers, primarily from across Lucknow, aged between 18-30 years assembled at the Sahbhagi Shikshan Kendra Centre, in Lucknow on October 18 and 19 for a two-day intensive, action-packed, and fun-filled workshop to brainstorm and collectively find solutions to some of the various intersections around MHM.

The workshop session opened with an energising ice-breaker session of ‘human bingo’ where participants got to know each other a lot better through a gamified activity that recognised their individual expertise and skillsets. 

The opening session on ‘What is a Campaign? looked at the primary objectives behind any campaign—‘mobilising’ and ‘organising people’ to see one’s vision. 

Anshul Tewari holding the first session on Day one: “What is a Campaign”

Day 1: What Is A Campaign

The facilitator for the session, Anshul Tewari from YKA cited examples from Youth Ki Awaaz’s own inventory of stories, like Nikita Azad’s ‘Happy To Bleed’ story on YKA a few years ago that sparked a nationwide debate. It also launched a social media movement—#HappyToBleed—around a woman’s equal rights to enter the Sabarimala temple during her periods, an issue which the Supreme Court recently asked to review as well. 

One of the key outcomes from the Action Network workshops is to empower the changemakers to design their own campaigns and influence policy-makers in the process to act upon their demands. It also aims to identify ways to engage and influence the media to cover issues around MHM.

The next session divided the participants into groups and to identify the intersections of their issue with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. An immersive activity, the participants were really forced to put on their thinking caps for this exercise as Moderator Aditi Gupta, co-founder of Menstrupedia, aimed to frame everyone’s campaign ideas in the larger narrative.

The session lasted for close to 30 minutes and participants drew connections with other SDGs like Goal 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation); Goal 3 (Access to Good Health); Goal 5 (Gender Equality); Goal 10 (Reduced Inequalities) This exercise led the participants to map their right stakeholders for the issue in the system narrative. 

The following activity looked at the campaign design and mapping the problems associated with your issue under certain common themes. The groups came up with different themes such as the ‘need for better awareness campaigns’, ‘making the conversation gender-neutral and involve and members of the trans community in the conversation’, ‘stigmas associated with the issue’.

After understanding the larger context and problems associated with their issue, the participants were ready to start designing their campaign canvas. This session, led by Anshul Tewari, looked at breaking down the four pillars to any campaign: Knowing the Problem Statement, Identifying the Vision. What is the Core Strategy, Monitoring Impact. The first step before identifying a problem statement is to define the vision. Some participants defined their larger vision, and some of the personal vision statements that they came up were:

  • Creating a society where menstruation is considered as natural as breathing.
  • To build a society where all beings are informed, empowered, and have access to their choice for their well being.
  • Every school provides menstrual health (MH) education
Workshop participants

Defining Your Vision And Problem Statement

The next step of the activity was to look at the problem statement and further break that down into two concepts: knowing the core and knowing its effects. In terms of an example, we looked at a ‘core’ situation where every school provides MH education and it becomes mandatory. But as an immediate ‘effect’ if there is no incorporation of MH in the schools’ curriculum around this issue, it results in a situation where the conversation around menstrual hygiene remains a taboo topic and impacts access to services for millions of menstruating girls who are in school, and even after they enter their adults lives. The facilitator urged the participants to pick an issue other than social stigmas or MH taboos.

Once the participants had identified their larger problem statement and set in place their vision, they began looking at the context in which they are operating. Knowing the context in which your problem sits is very crucial for any campaigner so as to know the approach they should follow.

The context comprises knowing the social, technological, cultural, economic, environmental, and political context behind your issue. Working in groups, the participants were able to draw out these various contexts in relation to their issue. All sessions at the workshop were largely activity and learning-based rather than lectures.

Each group was given about 15 minutes to identify the context map around their issues, which resulted in interactive and lively discussions in the room around the current context of MHM in India. For some, the larger political context represented in the form of “a lack of female representation in politics“, while for some the economic context revolved around the “vested interest of business organsiations in pushing for the use of sanitary pads.” The conclusion of this exercise led to the emergence of many intersectionalities with the political, economic, cultural, environmental contexts for each group. By now, the teams had a pretty firm grasp on the concept of how to map their individual contexts and systems, which they operate in and the impact it has on others.

Mapping The System

As a part of the core strategy for the participants, it is also vital to define a ‘system narrative‘ for each project/ campaign, which shows how the larger change will take place.

For this, again, the participants worked in groups tackling their campaigns and mapping the systemic change that is required.  For instance: If one eradicated the taboo or stigma around menstruation it would not mean that we have solved the issue around choice in sanitary products. Big co-operations focus on products and they have their personal interests too. So it is vital for any campaigner to recognise these deficiencies in how the system works and also make a strategy accordingly.

The ‘system narrative‘ does exactly that and the next session before lunch looked at how to strategise to change the system. By knowing the right strategies to draw out the campaign narrative, one can influence the system using different media platforms like social media tools, videos, etc. As a follow-up exercise, the last exercise for Day One looked at how to categorise different stakeholders within the system as those who are: 

– Most Influential 

– Least Influential 

– Strongly Oppose

– Strongly Support

End Of Day 1

The participants again worked in groups and plotted their stakeholders. By the end of Day 1, the 16 participants had a fair enough idea of what their campaign canvas was going to look like with a well-defined problem statement, the larger context of the issue, how they will tackle it and who will they have to influence in order to bring about a change.

The session concluded with brief presentations within the groups of the campaign narrative.

Day 2: Understanding The Economic Impact 

While the first day focused on looking at the skills required to build a campaign and the steps to be followed that go into breaking down an issue, the next day was dedicated to more first-hand knowledge-sharing by experts on different issues. The first speaker was Mitali Nikore, a leading gender economist working at the intersection of understanding what goes into budgeting for gender-related issues in India and how that impacts the on-ground situation.

She joined a moderated Q & A via Skype and spoke about how innovation, infrastructure, and economic policy are all interlinked. “Government allocates up to 3 to 5% of total annual Union budget towards gender equality related schemes,” she said while answering a question on how the government addresses gender in its economic policies. 

The importance of having good reliable data sources to back one’s argument and asking for accountability from the state leaders cannot be ignored either. “Any government data source is always reliable while building your case and it will always add weight for making a convincing argument,” she added. Addressing the participants, she further said while working in the space of MHM and other allied issues, there is also room to fill in the misinformation gap and the lack of data around key issues. Mitali spoke about how we can start awareness campaigns on various issues and address the information gap. 

The next session looked at how to influence the media narrative through individual action. Joining us for this session was Arshana Azmat from Hindustan Times, who has been writing on gender-related issues for a long time. She acknowledged how mainstream media coverage around the issue of MHM has only become restricted to World Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28 and there was a need to break this narrative, “But it is difficult,” said Azmat.

The session addressed how individuals could influence the media through their work and what tools and techniques they would require to influence the media narrative. While it is important to get coverage in the mainline publications, it is not the only thing and reaching out to smaller regional publications who are more invested in publishing social issues might be a better approach.

After these two intensive expert sessions, the participants were all charged up as they got avenues to think out-of-the-box and think more pro-actively about the campaign-related skills they had learned the day before. The next session called ‘Information to Action’ looked at how to use information to create some form of tangible action.

This action could either be in the form of writing a petition, writing on the issue on an online platform, etc. The participants learned the importance of using a piece of information and developing that further in their own way. Some important tips shared with participants as a part of this session were:

– A key message and one agenda: have one ask, and make it clear.

– Build curiosity for the audience.

– Visualise your message. 

– Amplify personal stories- relatable, shareable and reliable.

– Try to focus on people who are neutral and influence them to support the agenda.

Over the next few hours, the participants looked at designing their individual campaigns using all the tools and techniques they have developed over the past two days. The session concluded with individual presentations by participants on their campaign ideas and how they wish to create change on the issue.

As a part of the Action Network on MHM, all these participants will get one month to further develop their campaigns or tweak their ideas to develop other narratives. About 3-4 good campaigns will be awarded monetary fellowship support from Youth Ki Awaaz to develop and sustain their campaigns to create impact.

In case you are keen on becoming a YKA Action Network Fellow on MHM you can apply to one of the nine workshops happening over the next year across the country. Here is a link to apply for the YKA Action Network.

Find out more about the #PeriodPaath campaign here.

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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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