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Civil Organisations At The Grassroots Must Be Supported In Their COVID-19 Efforts

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

Since the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns began in March 2020, millions of lives have been thrown out of gear. At this time, larger civil society organisations (CSOs) have been making valuable contributions, and this has been rightfully recognised and applauded. But the critical role played by community workers at the last mile often goes unnoticed.

Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) recently launched a report that highlights the different kinds of support that CSOs are providing to vulnerable communities in this hour of need. Faced with severe physical, monetary and human resource constraints themselves, 89% of the CSOs are carrying out activities such as relief material distribution, 19% are involved with information collection, 47% with awareness and campaigns, and some with generation of livelihood opportunities and liaising with local administrations.

I also realised the extent of involvement when I saw the WhatsApp group of the Hum Aur Humaari Sarkaar (Accountability Initiative’s flagship capacity development programme for grassroots development professionals) course participants, and the messages being shared on the different kinds of activities carried out by them.

A conversation with the Hum Aur Humaari Sarkaar alumni revealed how grassroots-based organisations are adapting to an unprecedented situation caused by the pandemic.

CSOs are not only facing new challenge of working in the midst of contagion, which hampers their visits to villages, but also meeting roadblocks when it comes to getting support from local administration. In fact, this has emerged to be an overarching theme in our conversation with CSO workers, and also been mentioned as a challenge by 93% of the respondents in the PRIA report.

As the threat of the pandemic looms large, it is imperative that CSOs and grassroots groups on the ground are given as much support as possible. Image has been provided by the author.

CSOs and Government Support

Also, most of the relief and awareness activities carried out by organisations require government support or backing in some way or the other, be it in the form of access or information. Even problems with seemingly simple solutions (such as issuing of passes) have tended to go unanswered. While this can be because the administration is already stretched beyond capacity and is working overtime, this does hamper the much-needed relief efforts of CSOs on the ground.

For example, the problem of mobility and lack of passes needed to travel during the lockdown emerged as a serious complication, affecting both material distribution and awareness creation work. Our alumni working with CSOs told us that this was a persistent problem during the earlier phases of the lockdown.

In one instance, the team at a Rajasthan-based CSO shared how mobility of their staff and volunteers was restricted because government functionaries feared that their movement would lead to the spread of the virus. As a result, they were forced to limit activities during the time. Teething problems such as this were ironed out after the initial phases. Towards the later stages of the lockdown, CSO workers did not report this problem.

As more and more people are displaced and out of work, the need for material distribution such as ration remains crucial. However, CSOs are grappling with financial constraints themselves, and struggling to meet the needs of all those who are vulnerable. Facilitating linkages between families that are in dire need of basic supplies with government assistance is also far from seamless. Even after providing the government with a list of people who require it, ration hasn’t been able to reach some of the intended recipients. While some got only wheat, others got rice, dal and oil, our alumni said.

Another challenge that CSO workers have faced is the gap between grassroots reality, and the union and state government directives. Even though work under MGNREGA was allowed to start in the later phases of the lockdown so that employment could be provided to returning migrants, CSO workers tell us that they were quite unsuccessful in securing entitlements. When they went to the panchayats to facilitate this process for community members, they were told that the panchayats would be unable to sanction any work due to lack of funds.

Local NGO workers are often deeply embedded in the communities they work with. In such a situation, when these communities are under duress, inadequate or lack of support from the administration can leave workers helpless and frustrated. For example, a staffer in an organisation for migrant workers tells us that she was in touch with 50 migrant workers, including three pregnant women, who had set off from Ahmedabad on foot towards their home states. Her lament was that no one from the administration she approached, including the Sarpanch, could find a way to help.

As the threat of the pandemic spreading even further looms large, it is imperative that CSOs and grassroots groups on the ground are given as much support as possible, making sure all safety norms are followed. The NITI Aayog’s Empowered Group 6 recently called upon the large network of NGOs and CSOs in India to contribute to relief efforts, and it is now important that an enabling environment is created at the grassroots level. Mutual trust and strategic cooperation must be the way forward.

Note: The Accountability Initiative at the Centre for Policy Research will be hosting a webinar for managers and staff  of CSOs on 31st July, 2020. The event will explore the contribution of CSOs during the COVID-19 pandemic, and will discuss their solutions.

To participate, kindly send a mail to

About the author: Aamna is a Learning and Development Associate at the Accountability Initiative. This article was first published 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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, 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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