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How Can We Work Towards Building A Holistic, Fair And Inclusive Learning Structure In The Midst Of A Pandemic?

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On 8 July, the University Grants Commission (UGC) announced revised guidelines stating that colleges and universities are required to conduct final year/final semester examinations. This was followed by a flurry of outrage across social media with students claiming that the governing body seemed to show little concern for the well-being of students. These concerns didn’t remain restricted to the student community as university authorities and faculty members too vocalised their “shock and disappointment” at the measures taken by the UGC. 

The concerns go beyond what the government is labelling as merely “populist” given that there are States wherein the rate of COVID-19 cases could make it difficult for institutions to conduct offline examinations while maintaining distancing norms. 

While the commission has offered the option of online examinations, the other associated concern is that of digital divide and accessibility. A large number of students from many public and also private institutions might struggle with the process of writing exams online, owing to lack of adequate access to personal gadgets or stable internet connection. 

This isn’t just a requirement for people to “write” their exams but also to “prepare” for it. Hence, going completely online might not provide an entirely level playing field to students depending largely on university resources. The question of the digital divide and accessibility has been at the centre of many debates since the pandemic. 

Right from April, most colleges and schools started conducting online classes for the ongoing or new semester. Students writing their board examinations were caught in a dilemma with some papers pending for many. Most colleges and universities consequently also had to defer their entrance examinations. 

Herein, I’m reminded of one particular instance that a university junior shared with me. An undergraduate student of economics, he had applied for the public policy program at NLSIU, Bangalore. Fortunately, the university authorities devised a method of conducting entrances online with the webcam on the candidates’ computers functioning as “invigilators” which would detect any sudden movement or sound. 

Several questions arose for me. Firstly, how could this be foolproof in ensuring a fair process given that even for something as basic as solving a math problem a person might have to look away from their screen for a considerable amount of time. Secondly, I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that such a method would exclude thousands of potential and perhaps deserving candidates. They might not have access to any device with a webcam or even steady internet connection. 

For many, online exams are inaccessible.

Are we then going ahead and assuming that such students wouldn’t be interested in or capable of getting into programs at some of the most premier institutions in the country? If we are, nothing could reek more of classism. This is one of the numerous issues that students are facing across the country. Many schools made it mandatory for students to have their webcams on during classes. I know of a middle school student from a prestigious convent institution in Calcutta who was not allowed to attend classes for a while because she didn’t have access to a webcam on her device. 

On 12 July, the Ministry of Human Resource Development released the Pragyata guidelines for digital education. It puts a cap on daily screen time, with the bracket for students of classes 9 to 12 being within four sessions of 1 hour each. The guidelines also put forth suggestions regarding class arrangements, planning and assignments for teachers and administrators in the form of eight steps. The aim is to ensure cybersecurity as well as mental and physical well-being, adequate resources curation and a healthy balance. 

The move has been lauded by people from both the teaching and student communities. As well as parents, for whom the sedentary lifestyle and amount of time spent online by children was concerning. Teachers are required to conduct a thorough survey of how many students don’t have access to internet connectivity, a smartphone or laptop, and if they do, for how long. They are supposed to communicate with students through their parents or classmates if necessary, have doubt clearing sessions and maintain a datasheet of all progress. 

The use of webcams in most schools isn’t mandatory. In this midst, several state boards, as well as the Council for Indian School Certificate Examination and All India Senior School Certificate Examination have released their 2020 results. While there have been sincere efforts in the direction of optimising the fruits of school education right now, some problems remain. 

For one, many of the measures suggested by the HRD might not be thoroughly followed across all schools uniformly throughout the country. Public schools, wherein the likelihood of more number of students having accessibility issues is more significant, might see its teachers struggle to cope. Often children from low-income families might not have the healthiest learning environment at home or their families might be heavily reliant on programs like mid-day meal schemes which stand redundant now. 

Also, in a bid to help students cope with academic pressure in these trying times, the Central Board of Secondary Education decided to revise and reduce its syllabi for classes 9 to 12. Topics removed from different subjects include challenges to democracy, caste and religion, citizenship and India’s relations with neighbouring countries. 

Chapters deleted from the Class 10 syllabus are democracy and diversity, gender, religion and caste, popular struggles and movement, challenges to democracy. For Class 11, the deleted portions include chapters on federalism, citizenship, nationalism, secularism, growth of local governments in India.

There has been much discussion on the rationale and potential ideological politics behind such a restructuring of syllabi, which ultimately leads to the question: how can a country work towards building a holistic, fair and inclusive learning structure amid a pandemic? A commonly proposed solution is to defer the entire existing structure by a year, to give the current graduating batches a fairer chance, while also offering more time to all intermediate batches. 

The politics of capitalist economy might dictate otherwise, which could be seen as a reason for the HRD Ministry’s concern with the question of employability amid the present crisis as primary in their decision to make final year examinations mandatory. And yet, this might be the time to rethink our entire system of education and what purpose it serves. 

For starters, the pandemic has been a period of mental health crisis alongside the physiological aspect of it, which is something that school curriculum could begin to incorporate. Again, there is likely to be a disparity in terms of structure between private and public schools and the government must convene committees to ensure adherence to guidelines regarding safety and inclusivity in the digital learning space. 

Term papers or report-based assignments could serve as a viable alternative for final year students in colleges that can’t conduct exams in the regular format, be it online or offline. Governing bodies of education, in consultation with university faculty across the country, should also devise student-friendly guidelines for the upcoming semesters of intermediate batches. Given the disruption of normalcy, the looming uncertainty regarding the future, and for some people just the sheer fact of staying home in environments that aren’t the healthiest can be a massive burden on mental health.

With institutes like NIMHANS offering services via their helplines and several other organisations pitching in to offer free counselling services it is the ideal time for institutions to start including mental health within the scope of their curriculum. 

There’s no going back to normalcy because normal as we knew it no more exists. What we can do is adapt to circumstances in ways that might compel us to question how we think of education, employability or academic credibility. And restructure our approach to pedagogy in a way that is more inclusive than divisive and more holistic than being merely about acquiring a degree.

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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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