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Connecting The Disconnected: Helping India’s Marginalised During The Pandemic

This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

COVID-19 is perhaps one of the most lethal humanitarian disasters the world has witnessed in the last hundred years. The trajectory of the pandemic, which has rapidly expanded across the globe within a very short span of time since it was first announced in China, has been much talked about.

The virus, in its tremendous zest to touch millions of rich and poor lives across countries in the world, has also made its inroads into India— the country where almost 70% of the population dwell in rural areas. Despite the remarkable increase in telecommunication footprints and internet-based connectivity, a vast majority of this population remain disconnected from the national mainstream in every respect. They continue to live with limited access to basic amenities like water, sanitation, healthcare facilities, and the benefits of various social security programs.

Representational image.

But, if India has to emerge triumphant in this struggle against COVID-19, then the rural population cannot be left disconnected anymore. After all, as economist Siddharth Chandra rightly pointed out, earlier precedence of a pandemic like the 1918 Spanish Flu took almost 50 million lives globally, approximately 20% of whom were Indians, and apparently disconnected with the world outside.

A striking similarity between the two pandemics, the 1918 Spanish flu and COVID-19, spaced almost a century apart, is the tendency of the diseases to enter the country through people, who can be termed as carriers returning from other affected regions of the world, and later on having an increased likelihood of community outbreak, especially in areas with high-density populations.

In 2020, the government’s attempt to control the spread of COVID-19, at an early stage of contamination in India, by imposing a national lockdown, promoted stay at home in isolation, and avoiding unnecessary contact with others. Simultaneously, this has led to a sudden halt of all sorts of economic and social activities, with very few exceptions. As suggested by scientists and medical practitioners, a successful lockdown will ensure breaking the COVID-19 chain and cease the spread of infection.

The pandemic has also placed the country on the verge of an unprecedented economic catastrophe, creating widespread unemployment and poverty. Representative image.

But, an exceptionally large number of the rural population, being daily wage earners, will lose income and sources of livelihoods, leading to a greater crisis in the country’s economy. Delayed harvesting or sowing in agriculture will likely lead to food scarcity in the future.

Under such circumstances, the pandemic is not just a health emergency; it has also placed the country on the verge of an unprecedented economic catastrophe, creating widespread unemployment and poverty.

At this juncture, it is crucial to remain connected with the disconnected rural population of India not only through provisions of better healthcare facilities and support, but also by ensuring proper implementation of government programs, many of which are modified to fight the current emergencies, such as the free-of-cost supply of ration at the doorstep under Targeted Public Distribution System, coverage of testing and treatment for COVID-19 under Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana, and direct cash transfers by virtue of remittances to women account holders of Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana, to name a few.

Emerging Role Of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) In Combating COVID-19

Despite concerted efforts by the national and the state governments in India to control the entire situation, a huge percentage of the rural poor still remains excluded and vulnerable. Primary challenges that rural India is afflicted with include the inadequate and dismal state of healthcare facilities, generic lack of awareness about do’s and don’ts to control the pandemic, shortages of basic ration and other essential commodities, among others.

These challenges bring the poor and marginalised sections of the rural population to multiple crossroads. What to address first—healthcare or hunger? Social distancing, isolation, or falling prey to rumour-based panic attacks? And, it is here that the role of CSOs emerges to be a very critical one—to connect with the disconnected!

In the initial phase of the emergency, the role of CSOs in providing support and relief to the rural populace has been multifarious in nature. From relief feeding to converting anganwadi centres and schools into quarantine centres, from awareness generation on do’s and don’ts, sanitising the villages in collaboration with gram panchayats, to the use of indigenous ingredients in making protective equipment like masks and sanitizers—the ideas have been innovative and actions apt.

  • Emergency Ration: Families who are dependent on old-age pension, daily wages, or have members with disabilities are being provided with ration kits with sufficient food grains and cooking mediums for ensuring basic food and nutrition. In some cases, cooked food through community kitchens is being supplied to the neediest ones who are not in a position to prepare food for themselves (elderly, persons with a disability), or are staying in isolation.
  • Creation Of Quarantine centres: The creation of quarantine centres are being done in the villages to help make staying arrangements for the returning migrant workers so that they don’t end up spreading the diseases to others. The CSOs are working in tandem with the gram panchayats and local administration to convert panchayat buildings, health centres, and local school buildings into the quarantine or isolation centres.
  • Making Of Protective Equipment: Apart from the distribution of protective items like masks, soaps, gloves, and sanitizers, one remarkable contribution has been home-based production of safety items, using locally available ingredients.
    Keeping in mind the existing shortage and prevalent black-marketing of items like sanitizers, masks, and gloves, this particular initiative is of the outmost importance. One has to rely upon traditional wisdom, and compromising the safety of the locally produced hygiene equipment should never be encouraged. The CSOs, based on their deep-rooted engagement and acquaintance with the communities, are innovating solutions and coming up with alternatives of branded hand sanitizers, soaps, and masks.
  • Sanitization Of The Villages: Sanitizing the villages, in collaboration with gram panchayats, will be a very necessary intervention with the voluntary contribution of empowered communities who have been trained by CSOs under its various community empowerment programs. Furthermore, proactive measures include identifying vulnerable families in a village and place them in locally created isolation centres, spraying of disinfectants in the village, and financial contributions made by mobilising community-owned resources, gram panchayats, CSOs, and the village volunteers to achieve complete sanitization of the villages.
  • Awareness Generation: Generating awareness about dos and don’ts during these trying times through community sensitisation drives is extremely crucial. Introducing the concept of social distancing, proper steps for hand-washing, control of rumours/ panic, and other dos and don’ts, using community radio as messengers, mobile vans, showing short documentary films on television, and other audiovisual mediums like YouTube, are areas which the CSOs can champion with support from local communities and gram panchayats.
  • Surveillance Of Villages: Surveillance of the villages is also a key to ensure all immigrants are sent safely to quarantines/isolation centres and that COVID-19 does not assume the spectre of a community threat by mass infection. The local youth should also be sensitised and employed by the CSOs to do this surveillance. Any person in the villages, if found with preliminary symptoms of the virus infection, should also be screened, and if required, quarantined.

NITI Aayog’s recent directive has further reinforced the critical role CSOs can play in collaboration with the local government institutions in rural India.

As part of this collaborative effort in the coming months, actions like setting up of health camps, distribution of personal preventive equipment (PPEs) like sanitizers, masks, soaps, gloves for community health workers and volunteers, have been highlighted.

Also, the promotion of social and behavioural changes with a focus on good hygiene and sanitation practices in daily life, the practice of prevention methods like social distancing and isolation, and fighting the stigma among local communities are also specifically highlighted.

The Way Forward: Multi-Sectoral Partnership

In the months past the preliminary emergency phase, creating connections with the disconnected rural Indian populace will be a prerequisite as well as a challenge for the central and the state governments in India. To address this issue, the government’s primary emphasis should be on generating trust in the psyche of the vulnerable rural masses—You are not the left-outs!

CSOs in India, with their last-mile reach and ability to associate with millions of rural poor, have the potential to serve as a connecting link between local communities and the government institutions. Hence, they can become a primary actor by helping people learn about and access the benefits of government programs, including immediate relief plans like health fairs and food camps, to mention a few. Their role in promoting general awareness and preparedness by mobilizing the local communities, including the youth and school students in future, will also be vital.

Creating linkages and channelising CSR funds is another action point for the CSOs.

Innovative ideas, such as the use of mobile vans to raise awareness levels of local communities, further use and promotion of technologies like community radios, and Interactive Voice Response System, with a focus on awareness-generation, using local dialects, provision of testing kits to detect COVID-19 apart from distribution of PPE items, among others, can be implemented through CSR/CSO collaborations.

Promoting multi-sectoral partnerships involving local governments and corporate/private sector investors, CSOs can spearhead the process of containing the pandemic in rural India as well as create an environment of prevention and protection in the months to follow.

Turn the pages of history: during the late nineteenth-century plague outbreak in India, more specifically in Bengal, the earliest manifesto was published and implemented by Swami Vivekananda and his followers of Ramakrishna Mission, one of the oldest CSOs of the country, to safeguard the local communities from the idiosyncrasies of a hitherto lesser-known epidemic!

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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.

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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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