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How Greater Youth Participation Will Bring ‘Serious’ Issues to the Political Forefront

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Representational image. In India, such discussions on popular science and social questions began in 1848 with the establishment of the first Students’ Literary and Scientific Society by several educated young men including Dadabhai Naoroji and Naoroji Furdunji. This increased sense of awareness among students also vests them with a great responsibility to effectively utilize the power their unity bestows on them.

They need to realize that the power of student movements is such that it can bring radical political changes and even topple down long-running governments. In our recent past, the student-backed Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) movement against the 1975 Emergency declared by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is one such example. This movement was successful in installing the first non-Congress government at the centre after years of Congress rule.

International examples of powerful student movements include the Civil Rights Movement in the United States of America (in which the youth played an instrumental role in challenging racism and advocating for voter rights and civil rights legislation), the Tiananmen Square Protest in China (in which the youth demanded economic liberalization and democratic reforms), and the 2010’s Arab Spring which started in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, and other Middle Eastern countries (in which the youth protested against police corruption, economic troubles, oppressive regimes, and human rights violations).

All in all, youth-led protests with well-informed motives have always directed the political discourse in the right direction and significantly improved the lives of citizens across the world who now enjoy a better standard of living than they did before. This makes it essential to encourage youth activism to transform young people into important advocates for change from their formative years itself.

The ‘Youth Parliament’ is a great way of channelizing the voices of youngsters who have a multitude of suggestions on crucial issues but are too young to take part in the parliamentary debate or other political platforms. In the Mann ki Baat address of 31st December 2017, the Prime Minister unequivocally expressed his desire to organize mock parliaments for students between the ages of 18 and 25 (who are eligible to vote but cannot stand as candidates in the election) to openly express their views on various issues concerning the country.

The National Youth Parliament festival’s ultimate objective was to encourage dialogue among the youth, enable them to articulate their viewpoints, and document their opinions on Vision of New India in 2022. This is a remarkable and progressive step as it encourages the youth to actively engage with public issues and present their unique perspectives with full confidence, instead of merely being ‘robots’ who can only reproduce facts and rote-learned information from the school textbooks.

This will also substantially improve the quality of debates that take place in various political forums as the skills of wide-reading and argumentation will be developed in our future leaders at a very young age.  This makes it imperative to encourage school and college-level platforms to discuss relevant motions for debate, such as ‘Ayushman Bharat: Revolutionizing the Health Sector’ and ‘Enhancing women empowerment: Beti Bachao to Sukanya Samridhhi to Mudra’ as they will make socio-economic, environmental, public health, education, and other related issues, mainstream political concerns.

Education: The Fundamental Building-Block

After 34 years, we see a revolutionary transformation in the education sector in the form of the New Education Policy (NEP) 2020 that addresses the entire gamut of education from primary schooling to the postgraduate level and beyond. But the main question that we need to ruminate on is whether, in these last 34 years, our education system was functioning in its most efficient state and was the need for universal access to education (which includes accessibility and affordability) not realized? Then, why did it take so long to bring this sweeping change in our outmoded education system with its umpteen flaws that every single individual who has ever been accustomed to the workings of this system moans about? 

Representational image.
Source: Reuters

The need for a multidisciplinary approach and flexibility in the teaching curriculum of highschoolers was certainly pronounced as they were (and still continue to be) constantly pressured by the society as well as the education system to decide at a very young age, with a lack of exposure to varied vocational fields in the form of internships, their choice of career. For instance, a student opting for the ‘science-stream’ in the CBSE education board is automatically considered as either pursuing medicine or engineering in the upcoming years. This assumption comes from a lack of flexibility in choosing subjects under the rigid system which repeatedly differentiates the sciences from the arts and ignores their interwovenness. This, in turn, hinders innovative thinking which usually comes with an exposure to a plethora of fields. An engineer without any understanding of how the society functions (sociology) or how individuals behave and make optimal decisions in different circumstances (psychology and behavioural economics) cannot innovate in accordance with the needs of society. This lack of trans-disciplinary approach defeats the very ethos behind the innovation: ‘to improve the quality of human life and society’.  The goals of achieving universal literacy and numeracy by 2025 and providing adequate support to ensure that no child is deprived of education irrespective of his/her socio-economic status are definitely bold steps that have recently been taken by the NaMo government. But the progress on these ambitious objectives crucially depends on the support from states and the promise to spend 6% of GDP as public expenditure. Member of the Opposition- Dr Shashi Tharoor- has pointed out that though this policy is remarkable, there must be an elaborate plan that clarifies its implementation process, which seems to be vague in its present form. Otherwise, this new policy may just benefit the private sector, driving up costs substantially and leaving out children belonging to the ‘non-creamy layer’ of society. This makes me wonder if there was stronger and regular participation of the youth in politics, for whom the memories of the drawbacks in our education system would be fresh, then there would have been prompt action aimed at changing a system which merely rewards ‘rote-learning.’ In such a hypothetical case, the much-needed reforms would have taken place decades ago.

Environment: Our Shared Responsibility

Over the past few months, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) has got a lot of flak for giving clearances to several mining, industrial and infrastructural projects in important wildlife habitats, including the biodiversity-rich Dibang valley of Arunachal Pradesh and the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve in Assam, to name a few. The objective seems to be economic prosperity at the cost of the environment.

Source: www.greenhumour.com

The COVID-19 crisis has certainly made the prospects of our economic growth bleak but the argument of ‘unleashing coal’ as a solution to boost our falling economy is baseless since the potential costs from this investment will be realized in the near future in terms of worsened health of residents near the coalfields and subsequent increase in public health infrastructure spending by the government. It is the youth that would be bearing the ultimate brunt of any policy initiatives taken in the present times, especially interventions concerning the environment. The construction of the new Parliament building (‘Central Vista’) is also under much scrutiny for the same reasons despite the government’s strongly-held argument that the Old Parliament building, being around 93 years old, needs urgent renovation and expansion.  Recently, the Ministry’s ire towards sustained protests organised by young environmental campaigners was also highlighted. The ease with which the government quashed ‘Fridays for Future India’- a youth environmental collective- by issuing a notice accusing it of committing offences under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, is terrifying. This youth-led protest was organised against the reform presented by MOEFCC to fundamentally change the existing model of environmental impact assessments (EIA) in India. In Richard Rogers words, “The only way forward, if we are going to improve the quality of the environment, is to get everybody involved.” The marginalization of any one of the stakeholders (in fact, the most important one- the youth) and the unwillingness to ‘talk-out’ the slightest acts of dissent, will certainly have deleterious effects on the ecology and our lives in the long-run.  On the bright side, there are many initiatives which highlight the inclusiveness and the openness of the current government to converge on the issue of ‘sustainability’. The International Solar Alliance (ISA)- a joint initiative of France and India launched during COP21- is one such positive initiative promoting solar energy for a sustainable future. Similar initiatives need to be encouraged and the youth need to be extensively involved since they are the ‘inheritors of this planet.’  As the UN World Meteorological Organization pointed out, global temperatures are on the way to rise up to 3-5 degrees Celsius by 2100 and if we do not take immediate action in the present, we will have to suffer traumatizing consequences. If the current pandemic was not a good enough ‘clarion-call’, there will be many more in the coming years as a result of global warming.

Youth: The Harbinger Of A Better World

If the youth is industriously involved, the debates will centre around more pertinent and real issues such as eradicating poverty, improving rural livelihoods, transforming the outdated education system, investing in public health infrastructure and green technologies, instead of merely focusing on caste or religion-based politics and creating factionalism and partisanship. We need to move beyond the ‘realpolitik approach’ and address some fundamental ailments of our society if we really wish to see India thrive as a nation, and this can only happen when the cognizant youth actively voices its opinion and is involved in every stage of the decision-making process. As the Filipino nationalist José Rizal aptly said, “The youth is the hope of our future.

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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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