My Journey From Dropping Out Of School To Representing India At The Nairobi Summit On ICPD25

Looking Back To The Nairobi Summit On ICPD25

My name is Dipanjali Swain. I am 19 years old and I was chosen as one of the youth participants who represented India, at the Nairobi Summit, on ICPD25 or twenty-five years of the International Conference on Population and Development. 

Why is that such a big deal, you may ask. Simply because, I never imagined, I, of all people, would one day be able to step out of Jagannath Basti in Bhubaneshwar, where I live, leave alone be one of the delegates representing India, at an international conference, where I got to speak in front of thousands of people.

Today, I lead the youth club, where I talk about issues like violence against women and girls or the why talking about sexual reproductive health is important.

I remember the day I was told I had been chosen to represent India at the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25 last month, in November. I hadn’t heard about this conference – I heard about it only after receiving the participant invitation letter. When I started to search for it on the internet, I was even more shocked. It was a conference that was being held to mark 25 years of the International Conference on Population and Development [ICPD] that took place in Cairo in 1994, a conference that convinced world leaders that women and girls need to be given importance and priority in all the decisions that a country makes for itself. 

I Don’t Remember Ever Being This Excited!

And I never imagined I would be chosen for something like this. I am a school dropout, the second of six siblings from a family in Bhubaneshwar. I didn’t think people like me would get these kinds of opportunities. I was totally surprised and also speechless. Because I am the first person in our family and community to be given an opportunity like this and to actually go to another country. When I told everyone, they were surprised, of course, but they were so very proud! My neighbours told their children, they should follow in my footsteps and become like me. 

Let Me Start From The Beginning

But let me step back a little bit, to tell you why this means so much to me, and why I am talking about it. After I dropped out of school in 2017, I didn’t think my life would amount to much. But my life changed dramatically the same year when I was trained as a peer leader, to work on gender-based violence, and issues related to sexual reproductive health.

Till this happened, I never gave much importance to questions like why women and girls should be treated as equal, or that it is important to learn about basic things like menstrual hygiene and then pass on the same learnings to other women my age and to women in my community. This happened after I was chosen by the Bhubaneshwar Smart Cities Programme, to work with people in my community, as a peer leader or a mentor to people of my age and in my community. Today, I lead the youth club, where I talk about issues like violence against women and girls or the why talking about sexual reproductive health is important. 

Over the last two years, I have been able to get my life back on track. I resumed my education and joined a Bachelor of Science programme at Centurion University in Bhubaneswar with the help of an NGO. Today, I am part of the work we do with the communities in slums as part of Bhubaneswar’s Smart City Initiative.

But I never thought this work would take me to the African continent! I’m the first person from my family and my society to step outside the country, and that too, to represent India. 

I had never got on a plane before and the feeling was scary as well as exciting! It was my first domestic flight, first international flight and first international conference. I travelled alone, up to the domestic airport in Mumbai, from Bhubaneswar airport. And due to delayed flight of my teammates, I had to reach the international Airport, Mumbai by a prepaid taxi. Everyone, from the taxi driver, to the immigration officials and even at the currency exchange – everyone had the same question: Are you travelling solo?? And why are you travelling? I told everyone, I was selected for the Nairobi summit for my leadership work. They all looked a little shocked, but they all told me, “best of luck”.

I stood there at the entrance for a while, trying to imagine how I landed up there, and how lucky I was.

I felt extraordinary and proud of myself to participate in an international event where I got the chance to talk about women’s safety, skill development and equality, and the work I was doing to create safe spaces for women, adolescents and girls to help my community.

Nairobi was at first, a little confusing. When I reached the conference venue, I was sure I would get lost. There were nearly 10,000 people there from all over the world – Prime Ministers, Presidents, Queens, women’s groups and so many young people! I stood there at the entrance for a while, trying to imagine how I landed up there, and how lucky I was. 

Sharing Experiences Made Me Realise I Was Not Alone

I was worried language would be a problem but everyone told me my English was good! The other youth participants who had travelled with me also said the same thing. At the conference, I met other people from other countries, men and women my age who were doing similar work in their communities. Sharing our experiences made me realise I was not alone. 

The day I was to speak, I was nervous. I was performing a mono act, where, through actions, I demonstrated the work I do within the community. At first, I was conscious but when I saw the look on everyone’s faces in the audience, I knew they were interested in my story and the change that I had brought about. When I was done, they all clapped loudly and many people wanted to take selfies with me. They also sent me friend requests on Facebook. 

Nairobi made me realise, young people like me, can make a difference to the communities we live in. Everyone’s story there gave me courage and strength to do better. I realised what I have done is very little and I have an enormous role to change my society and lots of things to do. So I have decided that I will play my part to make everyone aware of how it is important that everyone has equal rights and choices.

25 years ago world leaders promised to make the world a better place. The world is a better place today because of work that was carried out after that. Now it is up to people like me to carry forward that progress. 

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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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