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What Explains Low Civic Knowledge And Participation Among Youth In India?

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In 2019, a survey found that 77% of youth would not vote for a popular candidate with a criminal record. Yet, only 19% actually knew how and where to access this information. Studies have highlighted evidence of low civic knowledge and participation among urban citizens, even as voter turnout in elections continues to rise. The Democracy Index by The Economist consistently ranks India low on political culture and political participation. In this blog, I explore the phenomenon of low engagement and look at the different efforts being made across the government and civil society to change this.

The question of civic participation in youth is particularly important today. Even for those of us who, by virtue of privilege had managed to steer clear of the influence of the state in our everyday lives, have witnessed the impinging nature of the state on our lives in the last couple of months. A dangerously polluted city, a series of citizen protests across the country, and the pandemic have all brought the focus back on the relationship between citizens and state.

What Explains Low Civic Knowledge And Participation In India?

Firstly, it might be useful to attempt to define what is meant by civic knowledge and participation. Knowledge here refers to a citizen’s basic understanding of political and civic affairs as well as the fundamental citizenship values they embrace, such as being aware of when the next election is or of grievance redressal mechanisms like the RTI. Civic participation refers to civic involvement, which can range from solving neighbourhood problems such as attendance in local area meetings to participating in other forms of citizen activities like rallies or petitions.

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There are many possible reasons for low participation. How civics and political science is taught in Indian schools might be one. It has long been argued that teaching-learning must move from rote-learning to a more critical thinking-based, and practical approach. Even though there is increasing recognition of this gap, change is slow. A study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies has found that close to half of Indian youth (46%) sampled have no interest in politics.

Some studies suggest that another reason for low civic participation might be that citizens actually have a negative perception of the state. Engaging with it is not expected to be fruitful. In other cases, it is argued that the cost of civic awareness and participation is too high. This could mean that information about civic processes is complicated and hard to find, or the fact that navigating through government systems may require bribes or intermediaries.

It also may be the case that opportunities for urban citizens to participate in local area issues are hard to find, given that no city in India has functioning ward committees or area sabhas city-wide. All of these means putting in time, money and resources for the urban citizenry, who are in turn, dis-incentivised to participate.

Across the country, efforts are being made to fix the problem of India’s low civic participation. Different approaches to encourage civic knowledge and participation are being experimented with. These include leveraging technology, youth engagement, and knowledge generation.

According to a report published by the Omidyar Network and Village Capital in 2019, India is home to over 450 civic tech startups. Civic tech seeks to create impact at the intersection of governance and technology. Many seek to bridge the gap between the government and citizens. Haqdarshak runs an app with ready details of different government benefit programmes that a citizen is eligible for. Civis helps citizens understand laws and submit feedback to government officials.

Even the government has made attempts to encourage civic participation using technology such as the Swachhata App for citizens to connect with their urban local bodies on issues of cleanliness and sanitation. India’s smartphone penetration is estimated to hit 83 crores by 2022. With the push towards Digital India, this is a ripe opportunity for such initiatives.

Other initiatives believe in harnessing the transformational power of the youth. Janaagraha’s IChangeMyCity programme delivers practical lessons on urban civic life and challenges. It has reached 2 lakh students in 50 cities. Recently, the Delhi Government launched a special module on constitutional values across its schools. The idea stemmed from a desire to change the prevalent, uninspiring way of how social science is taught.

These are unprecedented and unpredictable times. It is of paramount importance now, more than ever, that citizens become aware of the institutions and systems that shape their everyday lives and how to navigate these. Innovations to augment citizen participation (among many other efforts) offer hope. However, they are still at a nascent stage, and widespread acceptance and institutionalisation remain.

About the author: Aamna is a Learning and Development Associate at the Accountability Initiative

Also Read: The Progress Made in Rural Citizens’ Participation in Governance

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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, 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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