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‘We Need On-Ground Facility For The Disabled Not Sloganeering’ : Shams Aalam

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By Saurabh Sharma

Mohammad Shams Aalam Shaikh, popularly known as Shams Aalam, is sure to rekindle the imagination of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) by infusing confidence in them with his inspiring 10-minute talk at 2019 Youth Ki Awaaz Summit held last weekend.

Para-athlete Shams Aalam at YKA Summit 2019

Beginning his address by taking his audience in confidence by being truthful of his cluelessness of what to say in front of them, he said, “Thanks for being cheerful, I was waiting all this while thinking what would I say.” But if you ask anyone who listened to this fastest-Ganges-river swimmer—2 km in 12 minutes—and a World-Record-Academy holder, they would say that he’s just being modest.

Becoming Shams Aalam, The Para-Athlete Sports Icon

Hailing from Madhubani, Bihar, Shams Aalam completed his mechanical engineering from Mumbai, where he currently stays. During his talk, he mentioned that till 2010, he had 40 medals in his kitty– he’s been active in sports from early on, participating in Karate and representing his school, university and state in various events, besides representing India in international events.

While such achievements are worth celebrating for, there’s something that jolted and left him shaken the same year; he found that there’s a lump in his back. “I got operated,” he recollects the memory and shares with the audience candidly, “and did what the doctor said and believed in him when he said that I’d be fine within next 10 to 15 days. We’re educated folks, aren’t we? And we believe in doctors. Only if I wouldn’t have, I’d be standing on my legs.” It’s heartbreaking to hear that and reminder of a crude fact that even in modern times our lifesavers’ carelessness can rip our whole life apart.

The statement you’re expecting is probably this: “But it’s far from stopping Shams Aalam in achieving his dream.” It’s not a typical story. Shams Aalam was modest enough to tell the audience that that’s not when he decided, being on a wheelchair, that he’ll again engage in sports and chose swimming out of the will. He did it because he didn’t have enough to pay the physiotherapist, who, in turn, advised him to do swimming as this will help him with exercise too. In order to avoid shelling a lot of money on physiotherapy, he started swimming. And that’s how we got our para-athlete icon.

Are We Doing Enough For PwDs?

Para-athlete Shams Aalam at YKA SUmmit 2019

Shams, taking his U.S. trip as an example, shared with the audience what’s the difference between the treatment of para-athletes in the U.S. and India. He says, “I was one of 17 people who were selected by the U.S. Department of State Global Mentoring Program. When I went there, I noticed the talent-selection system of U.S. People from all ages were present at the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA), and as many as 956 to precise wheelchair users.”

Wondering what so many people were doing there, he inquired one of the officials who told him
that each one of them is interested in participating. A screening process is going on to select the best of the lot who’ll be representing the U.S. It’s not an out of the blue procedure now, is it? But the very presence of so many people was a testimony of the fact that people knew that there exists a platform and that no effort will go unnoticed. He felt that missing in India. A platform for PwDs.

Shams reminded the audience that when India won four medals in the 2016 Rio Paralympics—our
country’s best performance so far—the sports minister announced that there would be an international center that’ll be built in 2017 for para-athletes. Mockingly, Shams Aalam says, “It’s 2019. And recently, I heard the sports minister announcing this again.” The audience laughed.

It reminded me of a chapter from Josy Joseph’s book A Feast of Vultures where when someone from Bihar reported to an inspector that there’s no road, as promised, in his village. He told the inspector
that work was supposed to begin and there’s huge money allotted for this as well. The inspector
rubbished the complainant and produced a file and showed him that the road exists in his file. That must be there. Some things in India exist in files, but not in reality.

Shams Aalam was not far behind in giving us another reality check. He says that we have all sorts of slogans like “Khelo India” etc. However, he says, “all this sloganeering is good, but there’s nothing on grounds for para-athletes. We can continue doing sloganeering, but we need to implement what we say.” Leaving everyone with hope, he said that he feels if he can cross the sea, then people like him, with little incentives, can also achieve significant feats. But I find that such conviction is rare in most of us. Those who have it are the Shams Aalams of their field!

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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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