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Confused, In Denial, Depressed: This Is What The Pandemic Has Done To Young Girls

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This post is a part of Back To School, a global movement supported by Malala Fund to ensure that access to education for girls in India does not suffer post COVID-19. Click here to find out more.

TW: Suicidal thoughts, domestic violence. 

Suruchi (name withheld), daughter of a fruit seller, a student who has high expectations for her studies and career, a teenager who is barely 16-years-old, about to enter into class 10, was having sleepless nights after the day (March 20) PM Modi announced a nationwide lockdown.

For other privileged kids, the lockdown meant a long, much-awaited and uninvited vacation, sweet serendipity, lots of free time to play video games and help mom bake cakes in the kitchen.

For children like Suruchi, the lockdown meant no tuition classes that she attended with minimum fees, no school, and no extra help from anywhere. Suruchi was upset, depressed, and didn’t wish to live anymore as she saw her dying future in front of her eyes.

She has stopped eating and became weaker than before, which caused more health issues, her parents revealed to me while I interviewed them. Why would Suruchi fall into such a condition? Why not? She belongs to a Dalit community, a historically marginalised community, supposedly ‘doomed’ since her birth.

We all must be aware of the incident that happened in a Southern state of India, where a Dalit teenager saw no other option than to die by suicide as she did not have means to study online. Neither did she have the financial capital to purchase a desktop/laptop/smartphone, nor did she have any scope to get help from anyone.

In India, where economic inequality is not only high but is also multi-layered, affording a television or a smartphone for a daily-wage worker is next to impossible. Students and activists took to the streets of Kerala to show solidarity to the deceased soul and to protest against the Brahmanical inequalities that the marginalized suffer in India, right from food and education, to medical aid.

Social distancing has affected the marginalized children to an extent that cannot be imagined even in our dreams. Economic, social, and gender inequalities have created such a unique gap in their access to regular education, that they have fallen prey to depression.

Marginalised Indian families, that cannot make their ends meet, often dream of educating their daughters and sons to an extent that they lead a decent life in future. When a child sees that her parents’ and family’s expectations are ending and there is nothing in their hand that can save them, they can fall prey to depression. For a child to dream big from a disenfranchised position in India is difficult, when the government is ridiculously callous in creating and solving loopholes in the system.

As of now, there has been no news of any ‘mental health foundations’ that are working to cater to the needs of the poor children. Indeed, mental health problems can be said to be viewed in India as a “rich man’s illness”. Moreover, I feel like children in India do not have agency of their own. Either they are not listened to or misunderstood. Children in India seldom have their own voice and platform that makes them even more vulnerable to all kinds of mental illness.

Image of a child holding a phone and writing in a notebook while studying.
Representative image.

Social distancing and quarantine measures have affected toddlers, primarily due to the lack of structure that is associated with schools and educational institutions. Children remain disciplined because of the daily and regular work-routine and structure that give them ample scope for their physical, psychological, and emotional development. The routine life of school-going children not only inculcates self-discipline in them but also helps them in their daily academic challenges, physical health needs, and creativity.

When a child’s routine is disturbed due to certain external stimuli, coercion or unavoidable circumstances, the child can develop behavioural issues. Often, kids who have a history of mental illness can fall prey to the situation due to lack of structure, uninvited loneliness, and tensions from family.

Unfortunately, many children in Indian families witness or become victims of domestic violence. The home becomes a dangerous place for them, and schools are usually a place of respite. In the lockdown situation, domestic aggression in India has risen to an extent that children (and senior citizens) have become very vulnerable to such abuses. Therefore, homes turn to be an unhealthy place for the child to grow academically, psychologically, and emotionally. The illness has different manifestations for every child. Eating and sleeping disorders, regressive behaviour, uncontrollable emotional outbursts, and hyperactivity are some of the examples of such manifestations.

Reema (name changed), a class one student (whom I personally interviewed) saw her mother getting thrashed by her father everyday. Reema felt helpless due to the situation and runs to her grandmother’s room out of fear and anxiety. Reema’s mother claimed that such events have made Reema* vulnerable and she often soils her clothes whenever anyone yells or shouts around her.

Representative image.

The sudden behavioural regression in Reema* is a matter of fear for her mother. When I spoke about accessing mental health professionals for Reema*, her mother was reluctant as she believed that her daughter’s reputation might be ‘stained’ if the colony (para) comes to know. Being an Indian and surviving amidst such prejudice, I have internalized the fact that mental illness has always been a taboo in Indian society, and these innocent souls suffer, with the harrowing pain inside them, in silence, without anyone’s notice.

Every age group develops and reacts in different ways. According to mental health experts from SRCC Children’s hospital, children below ten years, who have not yet developed a complete understanding of the whole situation, have been learning about what’s going on through the television and family conversations. Children who are above 10 years have developed a nascent fear of death that is affecting their studies, a regular routine, eating, and sleeping pattern.

Many children have lost their loved ones which can lead to depression and negativity. Kids whose parents have been quarantined have shown extreme emotional outbursts due to the absence of their caregivers. Adolescent boys and girls feel out of place due to the lack of space at home and a smaller social circle. They have had to resort to online activities that can have harmful consequences, such as getting into illicit online relationships and becoming an easy target for predators.

I feel that children in conservative, South-Asian societies are less heard and understood, so the lockdown period has become a ‘menace’ for them. Often, the psychosomatic symptoms in children are overlooked by parents and family members. The uncertainty of reopening of schools/colleges leaves a big question mark on their academic life and career, and this is only making things worse.

Komal (name changed), the seven-year-old daughter of a police inspector who succumbed to COVID-19 is not ready to admit that she has lost her father forever. She keeps clinging on her mother, cries most of the time and soils her clothes. Komal believes that if schools are opened quickly, she would again see her friends and is looking forward to it. Komal has been supervised by a mental health professional and she has given positive signals to the counsellor. Komal often complained that she felt upset and unwell. However, with the support of the counsellor, she feels better now and wishes to continue with her.

Rahul (name changed), a fifteen-year-old cricket enthusiast, who has been locked in his house for almost four months, found it difficult to sleep at night and often talks while sleeping. Rahul was scared to disclose this fact to his father as he was ashamed of it and thought that he would be ridiculed. He has also stated that a helping hand, who would become a bridge between him and his father to discuss this issue, would help him tremendously.

Are we giving attention to our kids at home? Do we ever sit beside them and talk freely and openly about the matters pertaining to COVID-19 and the link with mental health? Do your kids feel shy to talk about mental health issues? If these are some questions you often come to mind, then it means it is high time to change priorities.

The mental health of children, irrespective of their caste, creed and sex, does matter and is important.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has launched a national helpline number 080-46110007 (toll-free) to reach out to children and the elderly facing anxiety or other mental health issues due to the pandemic. Parents need to break away from the taboo around mental health and give an opportunity to their little ones to breathe freely and dream happily once again.

Note: The names of children have been changed to protect their identity and ensure privacy.

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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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