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A First Hand Account Of How War Impacts Education And Every Day Life For Women

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This post is a part of Kaksha Crisis, a campaign supported by Malala Fund to demand for dialogue around the provisions in the New Education Policy 2020. Click here to find out more.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”

-Nelson Mandela

There are some things, no matter how well you were raised, you tend to forget are an absolute privilege. Reading, for example. I remember how when my high-school English teacher gifted me Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill A Mockingbird – a book that would inform my ideas about everything from activism to journalism and from family to community – it transformed me. It rescued me from confrontation, conformity and convention. Confrontation with peers. Conformity about what girls should be like. And convention, the prison we build for ourselves so we can pretend to be like others.

‘Frankenstein’s Erudite Monster’

I grew up in a military family, moving from airbase to airbase, changing schools, changing social circles, changing even myself. Through the maelstrom that was my childhood, from the vast and arid desert of Rajasthan to the bustling metropolitan of New Delhi, from a chilly hill station in Tamil Nadu, to the rain-washed and sprawling suburbs of Maharashtra, the only constant was my education. I wanted to learn; I was ambitious, nerdy and very insecure.

I was shy and introverted and often needed to prove my worth by being smart. Knowledge was my fortitude; a drawbridge of sorts that would only be lowered for those who possessed wisdom, granting them safe passage if they wished to know me better. Intimacy was out of the question but friendship over the latest article in the New York Times or the latest book by John Grisham was possible. Those were my early formative years, my teens; when I could not get enough of books because I was too afraid of people.

Gender-based violence was a recurring theme in my life. And it wasn’t always men who did it; on the contrary, it was both men and women. Friends, classmates, teachers, boyfriends, elders, strangers – I would inadvertently offend society, simply because I refused to indulge in hate, gossip, homogeneity or the qualities of my sex that were most exalted; people-pleasing, boy-chasing and general complaisance.

My individuality was considered provocative, my opinions too loud and my obstinacy, an act of anti-establishmentarianism. So I began by following a simple rule: Never leave home without a book. At social events, school functions and family occasions, I always carried one with me, lest I be overcome by the people around me and feel the need to seek refuge in J.K Rowling’s wizarding world or the Victorian age of Jane Austen.

Self-study was akin to sanity. I became passionate about causes: women, children, animals, climate, democracy – until I finally emerged from that embryonic library through a rather turbulent gestation period as a full-grown activist. One moment I had no identity, the next, I was incorrigibly me. Somewhere down the line, I’d realised that to speak up, one must first learn to think for oneself.

My education played a big role in this narrative. A degree in law, a diploma in counselling and some internships and volunteer work with humanitarian organisations created what my mother likes to playfully refer to as ‘Frankenstein’s erudite monster’.

Wild and willful yet bespectacled and bookish. The only thing that kept me going, was my bibliophilic proclivity. When I started using words like ‘milquetoast’ casually during conversations, my mother knew that getting me married was going to be a problem.

Conflict has a way of getting to you though, in the end. I have lived with mental illness for a while now, and I know that conflict, be it in the form of stalking, harassment, assault, discrimination, bullying, exclusion, or merely existing in a world where terrorism, racism, fascism, poverty, violence and inequality are on the rise, is enough to get me where I am today.

Now here comes the privilege part of it: You think I have it bad. I don’t.

Education In Conflict Zones

Women and children are easy targets and go through untold trauma. Representational image. Rohingya Refugees

Imagine that you are one of 1.3 million refugees trying to escape genocide. You are a Rohingya Muslim from Myanmar now living in an unregistered camp in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. It has been alleged that the Bangladeshi government is prohibiting your children, among 400,00o others from enrolling into public schools and denying them their right to education.

There is no clean drinking water or sanitation. There is no safety for young girls and women. There are no mental health services available to help you recover from the trauma of being persecuted and losing your identity. Without education, your children are going to become a lost generation.

Now imagine you’re a Yazidi woman, who was abducted by the Islamic State during an attack on Sinjar, Iraq. You’ve been taken in as a Sabaya (sex slave) along with other young girls and women from your hometown of Kocho. You are held captive for three months, raped and abused. Your brothers are brutally murdered.

You eventually escape and become a human rights activist, speaking at the UN about genocide, sex trafficking and the weaponization of rape and starting an initiative that promotes education, healthcare, livelihoods, water, sanitation, hygiene and women’s empowerment in Iraq.

As someone who is acting as a lifeline to women and children in distress during the pandemic, I see clients in crisis all the time and often have to refer them to therapists in order to get them the help they need. So I had a few questions about war and its psychological impact on people, the common mental health conditions that often come up in survivors, the ideal mental health programme that would address those issues as well as the role of education in the rehabilitation of refugees.

“The focus is usually on the number of casualties” says Snehal Singh, a mental health professional based out of Mumbai. “But the collateral damage in any conflict is to the mental health of survivors. The fear is unimaginable, it’s literally beyond our understanding.” She tells me over a telephonic interview. “Stress, fear, depression, anxiety, trauma, depersonalisation, derealisation, suppression- these are only some of the issues these people have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.” 

Death, naturally becomes their norm and the lack of mental health support is catastrophic. Women and children are easy targets and go through untold trauma. “Rape becomes a tool of oppression and the violence and abuse can express itself in many ways in their minds and bodies. The central nervous system and endocrine system go out of balance leading to serious disorders and brain injuries can cause permanent neurological damage. Depending on the duration and intensity of the war and the extent of the trauma, their physical health will be at risk as well. Anxiety can show up as palpitations and stress can show up as migraines”. 

She’s talking about PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and when I ask to confirm this diagnosis, she agrees. “PTSD can be in response to any trauma that is life-changing. Nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia, avoidance of triggers, hypervigilance, intrusive thoughts, phobias, irritability, social isolation, self-destructive behaviour, hallucinations, psychotic breaks – it’s a plethora of symptoms that they have to live with every day without any aid” 

Aid is exactly what I want to talk about. What kind of mental health programme needs to be in place for survivors of war?

“It has to be a humanitarian effort,” Snehal tells me. “We are talking about something at the grassroots level involving everyone from the local community right up to the government. Organising conventions and group therapy sessions where psychologists and psychiatrists are in direct contact with those who have been affected and are in touch with the needs of that social group. It cannot be just a standard mental healthcare routine that we apply everywhere to everyone, it has to be customised. It comes down to the way these programmes are implemented, not conceptualised”

More than anything, Snehal stresses on the need for creating educational opportunities for refugees. This is obviously something that I’m very interested in and I decide to pick her brain about the role of education in rehabilitation.

“When we talk about regular education there’s the assumption that we mean degrees and diplomas and while that is very much an integral part of the recovery process we also need to talk about vital life skills that refugees have not been able to learn. For optimising both healing and growth, there has to be a conversation about each individual’s aptitude, their interests and their talents. Like vocational training. This could mean anything from cooking and carpentry to business administration and computer coding. So what they need are guidance counsellors and tutors and therapists who are ready to support their hopes and dreams. In the end, education has to help them be in touch with themselves.” 

Women’s Rights Under An Authoritarian And Patriarchal Regime

Since August 2020, Belarus has been gripped by massive public protests for 12 weeks straight.

Conflict fascinates me and I constantly seek out ordinary people who have found extraordinary ways to continue with their advocacy while facing conflict in everyday life. In a rather serendipitous conclusion to this article, a friend of mine put me in touch with an activist in Minsk, Belarus, so that I could talk to her about her struggle for women’s rights under an authoritarian and patriarchal regime.

Vera Syrokvash, is a sexual health and reproductive rights activist and the YWCA Regional Coordinator of the ‘Young Women Changing Narratives on SRHR and Mental Health’ programme, which is supported by the Government of Finland.

She was working as an SRHR trainer for youth before the pandemic hit. She’d done her bachelor’s degree in sociology and master’s degree in population and development. It was her sociology professor that established the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) centre in Belarus and encouraged Vera to join in 2015.

A green but passionate Vera found an incredible platform to advocate for gender justice. It wasn’t always smooth sailing though, as she found out when she went abroad for her educational training. The women there would often patronise her, assuming that she wouldn’t be able to afford higher studies or dinner because she came from eastern Europe.

In fact, Vera had been a part of the YWCA Belarus project supporter by the U.N Trust Fund to end violence against women, represented European YWCA  in the European Youth Forum, and volunteered for the Y-Peer project for sexual health and reproductive rights education supported by the United Nations Population Fund.

Since August 2020, Belarus has been gripped by massive public protests for 12 weeks straight. Sunday saw the highest ever number of protestors, with around 100,000 people taking to the streets. The public has demanded that the President, Alexander Lukashenka, who has been ruling for 26 years, step down. A people’s ultimatum has been issued, there have been calls for a global strike and the people’s movement is being led by the Opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

The European Union and the United States have come out in support of Tikhanovskaya, refusing to recognise Lukashenka’s government and asking for a re-run of free, fair and democratic elections. This year, the Belarus Opposition was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Human Rights by the European Parliament.

Vera tells me that the flashpoint was the government’s poor response to the pandemic, its complete disregard for their health and safety and the inhumane, cruel and harsh treatment meted out to its citizens. Then the general elections were held in August, which President Lukashenka claimed to have won by receiving 80% of the vote and declaring himself the winner.

Opposition leaders by then had either been arrested or exiled. Tikhanovksaya’s husband was originally intended to run but was also arrested prior to the elections and is currently in jail awaiting trial. A housewife and an English teacher, Tikhanovskaya did the paperwork, got her husband’s signature on the proper documents and filed for her candidacy.

Backed by the United Candidate Headquarters, she became a symbol of women’s empowerment. In reality, independent research has shown that the Central Election Commission’s results do not correspond with what is going on and that the government is most likely trying to hold on to its power.

After the election results were declared, there were three days of utter chaos in which the violence was absolutely unprecedented. A source from inside the public prosecutor’s office revealed that men, women and children had been detained, sexually assaulted and tortured. This was what, in fact, resulted in public outrage and galvanised the public to take action.

When I asked Vera about the protest on Sunday, she told me that it was an overwhelming moment of solidarity. People walked, waving their red and white flags, singing songs, chanting slogans, holding up placards and forming human chains. Vera insists that Belarusians know how to march for human rights in a completely peaceful way.

Terrifying footage has surfaced online, of protestors running away from the riot police and taking shelter in the homes of friendly families.

There was no breaking of windows, looting of shops or setting of fires. In fact, it was the government which retaliated through a brutal crackdown. Sunday saw the riot police throwing stun grenades into the crowds, pelting them with rubber bullets and detaining them indiscriminately.

Police barricades were set up, metro stations were shut down and mobile internet was restricted. Students were arrested, taunted, bullied, expelled from colleges and asked to beg for forgiveness if they wanted to be readmitted. This disenfranchisement of the youth comes in the wake of the government’s decision to derecognise foreign degrees and diplomas. According to the Viasna Human Rights Centre, nearly 15,000 people have been arrested so far.

Terrifying footage has surfaced online, of protestors running away from the riot police and taking shelter in the homes of friendly families. In one video, police officers have broken into an apartment and are dragging the protestors out while women scream and children cry. To add insult to injury, the President has openly referred to protestors as “drug addicts, alcoholics, lunatics and prostitutes”.

I wanted to know why the international press has been describing the Belarus protests as a women-lead movement and Vera told me that it wasn’t just about women but all the marginalised communities coming together. Women, children, LGBTQ folks, disabled persons, pensioners- everyone who has ever borne the brunt of an autocratic government has joined in.

Women have always been progressive in Belarus and have been advocating for gender equality for a long time now. In fact, during protests, women have been known to intervene and shield men from the riot police.

When I ask her about the remarkable courage that women have shown in Belarus, she tells me about the impact of this conflict on everyday life. Women are the ones who have been doing the caretaking, counselling and homemaking. They’re also the ones juggling unpaid care work with education and activism. For women, everything is at stake and therefore it is no surprise that the opposition leader is a woman and this campaign for human rights has been spearheaded by women.

Belarus just signed something known as the Geneva Consensus Declaration that denies abortion rights to all women, and as an SRHR activist, I was interested to know how Vera reacted to the news. She told me that abortion is still legal in Belarus and everyone knows that the declaration is more of a political instrument that aims to dehumanise women and treat them as property.

There are four essential elements to this declaration: women’s health, protection of the right to life, family values and preserving national identity and sovereignty. It was this fourth element that surprised me, and Vera said, ultimately, the declaration is a scare tactic, meant to polarise public opinion and play on political divisiveness. According to Ipas, barely 31 countries out of 193 in the UN have signed it which is poor show indeed.

As our conversation wound down, I asked Vera about what education and mental health meant to her during these dark times. She reminisced about the time she was in high school and how peaceful Belarus was if it felt like a powder keg sometimes. The first time she heard about any conflict was a terror attack that took place in 2011. In 2014 the Russo-Ukrainian War happened and so it was easy for the President to take that as an opportunity to play mediator.

Now, under his regime, Vera believes it has become much harder for women activists to survive. When she was in Moscow, doing her post-graduation, she recalls getting a sense of what was to come, a storm brewing, she called it. Now she feels grateful for her education which has been like a safe port and enabled her to apply her lessons to life. For mental health and self-care, she reaches out to her family and friends and speaks frankly to them about how she’s been feeling. She recommends the Flo tracker app that has provided free premium subscription to all women in Belarus and monitors their menstrual cycle, does guided meditation and helps them sleep.

When I first interviewed her, I asked her if she was safe and she laughed, telling me not to worry. At the end, I asked her if she ever feels afraid being a woman in Belarus. She told me that if education has given her anything, it is faith in people and the hope that things can change.

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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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