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How My Mother Went Against Society’s Norms And Set An Example For Other Widows

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Akin to the English proverb “it is better to wear out than to rust out”, the Maithili one is “Bais Nai Mari, Lari Mari”, which I often heard from my mother during my formative years, in the riverine village, Sijoul, where a Ram temple besides Lord Mahadev exists. The Geeta, the epic originating from the Hindu scriptures preaches the same with its famous quotation — Karmanye Vadhikareshu Maan Fleshu Kadachna — concentrate on your work rather than fruits of your efforts.

She is popularly known as Maunsi (Maan Jaisee), a motherly figure to one and all in the village, irrespective of their caste, creed or religion. On 25 September, 1938, she was born to Phul Devi and Sahdev Jha, in the village of Raiyam, falling in the Jhanjharpur constituency of the Mithila belt, where Goddess Sita was incarnated in the treta epoch, well mentioned in yet another Hindu epic, the Ramayana. 

Being widowed in her thirties she had no option but to heroically inch up her veil and come out of the confines of the thatched dwelling. She worked on a farm, mowed grass, raised and grazed a calf to eke out a living, setting aside the social mores that women are meant for household chores.

In violation of the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, she was wedded at the age of 7 when a kid is expected to be frisking and gambolling at the playground. She took charge of the kitchen, doing the dishes following the social dictates.

With her leonine courage, the strength of mind, self-respect and resolve, she set an example for other widows and womenfolk in the area to come forward and stand on their feet as work is worship. Known as an epitome of guts and social service, she commanded high respect and reverence from society, regardless of the social strata of the community men. Be it a social ritual or celebration of a varied nature, her benign presence was always marked with awe.   

She is a masterpiece of culinary science, more particularly Mithila cuisines where varieties of dishes are the spices of life. A selection of 56 dishes is found all over the northern Gangetic region where the rivers like Kamla, Balan and Koshi flow, irrigate agrarian land and water flora and fauna in their vicinity.

Once I asked her how she cooked such delicious dishes without onions and garlic, and also without adding too many spices. Citing an eye-opening point, she said, “what matters most while cooking or doing something else is precise time, adequate flame and appropriate seasoning.” This has been a guiding force in my life.

With my father Dayanand Jha passing away in his early forties, her ordeal of life is inexplicable. She was all set to be a sati but for me, whereas I was hardly a year old infant. The cupboard was bare. Life was dark. The silver lining was invisible. Nonetheless, in the course of time, she set an example of how to live a life in the harsh conditions of monetary paucity and other resources required for the functioning of life.

With her leonine courage, the strength of mind, self-respect and resolve, she set an example for other widows and womenfolk in the area to come forward and stand on their feet as work is worship. Representational image.

Until I attained the age of 16, and left the house for Patna, in search of a job and pursuit of possible higher education, she continued to spin handloom to make balls of thread out of cotton, for which she had an account with the Khadigramodyog at Rajnagar, nearest railway station under single gauge. She always commuted on foot around 10 kilometres to deposit the handmade ready products to the concerned authority.

She was able to earn redeemable points for around ₹50 a month against which she used to buy the essentials of Khadi products available in those days. Cash was a rare provision to buy something of one’s choice in the open market. Hats off to Mahatma Gandhi, father of the nation for his idea of Khadigramodyog.

However, thanks to KGU she was able to get clothes, bedsheets and something like those for herself and me. One of the clothes I still treasure in my memory is the Khadi lungi I was provided with which I carried on to Patna in 1988. 

She always gave me a few leaves of basil (Tulsi) to eat and a few of them to keep in my pocket whenever I ventured out of my shanty. However, I came to realize the importance of basil leaves much later, more particularly during the pandemic coronavirus as Tulsi Kadha has turned out to be a panacea. A friend of mine, Vishwanath Jha confirmed me of such curative effects on his recovery from Covid-19 a few months back. 

The pieces of land were inadequate even to run a small family. However, with seasonal cultivation of food grains and vegetables, she managed to make both ends meet. Moreover, being scrupulous and sagacious she would dry a portion of vegetables like cauliflower or bathua for rainy days. What is more, squirrelling food gains and eatables at a time for a year or so was her outstanding house management for which she had manually made large containers of clay known as Kothi in local parlance. At times she would preserve paddy, rice and wheat for uncles selflessly and altruistically. Such was social and family bonding.

Suryanamaskar — offering water to the Sun God and basil plants was one of her daily rituals and cultural ethos she had set for herself throughout life. When it came to accompanying the musical band of village women in folklore at various occasions and rites, she never hesitated to do so. On the other hand, she was very conscientious and meticulous regarding her hygiene. Until she was subjected to bed, she would always keep her house and surroundings neat and clean.

She had to give a thumb impression as she never went to any formal schools and never held a pen or notebook in her hands. But she passed the school of hard knocks in her life with possibly the highest degree of marks. She valued education to the extent that I earned a degree of Doctorate from prestigious Patna University. It was her daily routine to shake me awake around 4 O’clock even in bone-chilling winter so that I was able to study my coursebook during my school days. Her biological clock was well-tuned and synchronized enough to not miss any day. While I studied books she did her household work in the wee hours.

Her medical skills vis-à-vis Ayurveda were excellent. Hardly ever was I administered any allopathic medication as long as I was in the village for 16 years on the trot. Instead, she would always give me certain herbs to keep any ailments at bay; following the adage — prevention is better than cure. She always maintained good health and remained fit and fine till she was overpowered by the carcinoma.

While travelling by Indigo from Delhi to Patna for the first time in 2009, she seemed to be a perfectly well-travelled person. She has been as adaptable to the situation as she is meant for it. She’s lived a life of ups and downs and remained rooted in the Indian values of villages. For the only thing, she’s always prayed to God for our well-being.     

Her hardship began to peter out with my venturing out to town and with the establishment of my social enterprise British Lingua in 1993 in Patna. The time was up for her happiness but then the irony of fate was something different to tell. She is on the deathbed battling for her life, wishing all of us to be alive and kicking. She is survived by three children Madan Jha, Meena Jha and me, Birbal Jha and grandchildren Vandana, Mala, Khushboo, Mimansa and Shabdagya, and daughters-in-law Pawan Jha and Gauri Rani.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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