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Lockdown: The Inspiring Story Of The 17 Year Old Who Braved All Odds To Feed Her Village!

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Editor’s Note: This post is a part of #EveryOneCounts, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Save the Children, to spark conversations around how in the fight against the coronavirus, everyone counts, and every voice, every action can make a difference. Join the campaign and publish your story here.

When the nationwide lockdown was announced to counter the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the futures and survival of several communities and families in India suddenly became a glaring question mark. The coronavirus, which is already claiming lives in the thousands around the world, has also rendered communities that already lack easy access to basics doubly vulnerable. Among the millions that have been impacted, there is also the family and community of Gayatri, a 17-year-old, who, until now was leading a rather regular life – going to school, and indulging in her favourite hobbies of stitching and reading.

Belonging to a small village in the Sitamarhi district in northern Bihar, Gayatri and her family had heard of COVID-19 from neighbours and trainers from an NGO working to end child marriage in the district. She says, “We found out about the coronavirus from our neighbours and the Didis and Bhaiyyas who train us under the ‘Marriage: No Child’s Play’ program that’s been running in our village for years.”

17-year-old Gayatri. Image source: Save the Children

It was through the same didis and bhaiyyas that Gayatri and her family learnt of the precautions they needed to take to avoid contracting the virus. The family was practising social distancing, which they continue even now. “Our family does not go out of our homes unless it’s absolutely required. We wear masks and mostly try to eat farm grown vegetables.

Surviving The Impacts Of The Lockdown

When the lockdown finally hit, though, life turned upside down in the village. The most urgent issue was food shortage. There were families in the village that went without food for two-three days, and required immediate urgent help and relief.

Rations through the Public Distribution System (PDS) were not being distributed in Gayatri’s village since January 2020, putting her community at an even greater disadvantage, and hence pushing them to the brink when lockdown hit. She said, “The lockdown rendered most families, including my own, hungry and unable to earn. It was an absolutely despicable situation in the first week.”

When with the support of an NGO, Gayatri called local administration in her district, Gayatri received no positive response. She was in fact, told that rations would be distributed again after the lockdown period ends.

All of this is enough to dampen the hopes of a child of seventeen, but not Gayatri. Difficult as it was, she refused to give up on her community and its needs, and decided to take matters into her own hands. She prepared a list of 910 households in her village and details of every single need that they had. With the help of the NGO, her story was shared on social media, but again, this didn’t yield positive results. Finally, she decided to write to the District Collector, which worked and immediate action was taken.“We wrote to the District Collector for help, and within two days, help came. Now we have free food and hygiene support from the government,” she said.

Pinning Hopes Beyond COVID-19 And The Lockdown

As the country gets divided into zones for phased lifting of the lockdown, the question really is, what’s the life that Gayatri will go back to? When asked, she says that challenges won’t end with the end of the lockdown. “We will have challenges to go back to school [once the lockdown ends]. Especially girls, because once they drop out, parents prefer to get them married for less dowry; or to simply not send them back, because it’s a hassle.”

Gayatri with her family. Source: Save the Children

But again, the young girl’s extraordinary courage stands out. “I have hope in my Girl Champion Group. When help was needed they rallied behind me, and we got through it. We are ready to deal with the challenges – we can do anything we set our minds to.”

For lakhs of children like Gayatri, the fight for basics will continue even after restrictions lift post-lockdown. But as we adjust to the new normal, we have a chance to rethink what this ‘normal’ should look like, and how it can better accommodate the aspirations and dreams of girls like her, who look to the future with hope and determination. The question is, will we take this chance and make it count?

If you have a message of solidarity and support for Gayatri and other children like her, or have solutions to ensure children from vulnerable communities are able to achieve their dreams and aspirations in the post-COVID world, publish your story today with #EveryOneCounts. #EveryOneCounts is a joint initiative between United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Save the Children and Youth Ki Awaaz to create conversations around how in the fight against the coronavirus, everyone counts, and every voice, every action can make a difference. 

This post is written by Nitya Sriram, and the interviews were conducted by Sreepoorna Majumdar.

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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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