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“From Being A Confident Risk-taker, I Had Become Fearful Of My Own Decisions”

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By Dilip Pattubala

This article is part of Failure Files, a special series conceived in partnership with Acumen Academy, where social change leaders chronicle their failures and lessons learnt.

I am the co-founder of Sukhibhava, a behaviour change-focused organisation with a fundamental belief that ending the stigma around menstruation is the most sustainable way to make menstruation a non-issue. We started working on this in 2014, and after multiple pivots, landed on a convincing model in mid-2016. Once this model was validated in June 2017, there was immense pressure to scale it across regions.

In order to do this, we developed a concept note to run a fellowship programme, which garnered significant attention in a short period of time. It was a first of its kind fellowship programme. A leading sanitary pad manufacturer funded the fellowship pilot, and the results were impressive. They also promised to fund the fellowship.

In October 2017, we launched applications and selected the best talent. Fifteen days before the fellows came on board, we had a value-based conflict with the manufacturer. They expected us to promise and deliver on sanitary product conversion through our programme, and hence, the collaboration fell apart.

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In that moment of desperation, we entered another partnership, this time with a philanthropic agency. It started on a collaborative note and we decided to implement the fellowship together.  Since we had worked with them earlier, there was an assumed sense of trust in taking this journey forward together. We agreed to kickstart the project as we were promised that contracts would be signed and funds disbursed within a few weeks.

Soon after we began implementing the fellowship, the philanthropic partner suggested that we change the programme design entirely. In a span of two months, we went from being a small organisation in Bangalore aiming to work deeply in a few regions, to one that had expanded to six states across India. We went from working in Tier-I cities to rural parts of Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Gujarat, and Uttar Pradesh.

The 16 fellows who had signed up for an urban fellowship were suddenly expected to work in rural India, mid-way through their induction. Some of the fellows were placed with the collaborator’s partner organisations, and once they hit the ground, issues such as differences in work ethics and organisational values started to emerge. This, layered with the lack of safety and support systems in extremely rural parts of the country, led some of the fellows to develop mental health issues.

Whenever there was a difference of opinion or way of functioning, we were told that the collaboration would come to an end if we did not follow the collaborator’s structure. The power dynamics with the funder did not allow us to negotiate the communication and reporting structures, and even after six months, the funds were not disbursed. I was put in a place where I had to decide the fate of the fellowship. I could either choose to end it or make alternate arrangements from different sources to make it work.

Sixteen individuals had made difficult life choices to come on board, and my commitment to them forced me to borrow money from almost every friend and mentor to sustain the programme. I was also very scared to shut down the fellowship or change its structure because I was not confident enough to pull it off without the collaborator. I felt so lost that I could not take a step back and look at the means I was adopting to reach this end.

“The partnership was marked by constant reinforcement of power and fear, and a number of issues including fund disbursement.”

Overall, the partnership was marked by constant reinforcement of power and fear, and a number of issues including fund disbursement, cultural mismatch, and unrealistic demands.

Ultimately, we became nothing but vendors, with no contracts, no official acknowledgement, and no control over our brainchild. My team did not have the capacity to manage and they were not paid for months, which led to physical, mental, and emotional distress in the organisation. Eventually, after following up multiple times, just before the end of the financial year, the funder said that they did not have permissions from their board and hence, they would not be able to process most of the payments.

The increasing loans, ambiguity, and toxic power dynamic made me question myself multiple times over the year. From being a confident risk-taker, I had become fearful of my own decisions. Even now, more than 14 months later, I catch myself being my own barrier, having to remind myself to not operate from a place of distrust. It has been an incredible test of persistence and resilience, with some takeaways for life:

1. The Importance Of Hard Decisions

I was too attached to the original plan, people, and partner. I was not ready to let go of any of them and was paralysed by a fear of loss. I was unable to step back and realise that the journey is much longer. Though we eventually let go of the first funder, we avoided taking this hard decision until it was too late and we had been burnt. Now, I have learnt to keep the women and girls in the communities we work with at the centre, and comfortably say no to stakeholders who dilute our vision.

black and white picture of people in a tug of war_rawpixel
Whenever there was a difference of opinion or way of functioning, we were told that the collaboration would come to an end. | Picture courtesy: rawpixel Representational image.

2. The Value Of A Community

It is so beautiful to be surrounded by people who believe in you, even when you are at your lowest. I am absolutely grateful to have those people. I wouldn’t have survived without the community around me—people from AcumenN/Core, and my own board, team, and fellows.

The emotional, financial, and moral support I received from them made me redefine what a support system means. The unconventional work we do demands unconventional lifelines. How can we make conscious efforts to build communities for ourselves?

3. Role Of Self-care

As the co-founder and CEO, there were many moments when I was unable to differentiate my needs from that of the organisation’s. There was a point when almost all my friends had loaned me money so that Sukhibhava could survive.

I spent most of my time with my team; I was living and working out of the same space; the concept of personal finance did not exist, and I had no life beyond work. I truly believed the accountability for everything that was happening in the organisation was Dilip’s and not Sukhibhava’s.

In the end, I was tired, broken, and burnt. After seeking professional help and giving myself time, I have learnt that it is a skill to differentiate the role from the person, and we don’t emphasise this enough.

4. Staying True To Core Vision And Values

While so many things were falling apart, the team stuck together because we were aligned to Sukhibhava’s core values and vision. In spite of all the churn, 14 out of 16 fellows completed the fellowship programme and 7 out of 8 management team members stayed with the organisation through a very difficult phase. It was fascinating to see what a clear vision and a shared culture can do to a team. This phase validated our belief that ‘work doesn’t drive culture, culture drives work’.

5. Security before scale

We have decided that we will not start any programme without money in our accounts, and this has brought in a lot of stability in the organisation. As much as we believe in the potential of our work, we need to acknowledge that unless we feel secure, we won’t be able to deliver to the best of our capabilities.

In June 2019, we decided that we would scale down and pause for one year. We prioritised professional capacity building, self-care, and organisational readiness for scale. After 12 months of preparation, we were all set to scale in April 2020, when the global COVID-19 pandemic hit—forcing us to relook at everything we have been doing for six years. It has only been a few months, but I can already see a stark difference in how we are approaching and handling the situation, as compared to before. This time, I can say that we have survived and are ready to thrive.

This article was originally published on India Development Review

About the author:

Dilip Pattubala is co-founder and CEO at Sukhibhava Foundation, a nonprofit based out of Bangalore, which works towards making menstruation a non-issue in marginalised communities across India.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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