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After COVID, This Is One Investment We MUST Make For Sake Of Girls

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

I am not an educator, at least not formally. But more importantly, although my non-profit supports education for women and girls aggressively, including funding partner organisations in India, I haven’t had the first-hand, on-ground experience of educating children in India for a decade now.

I live and work primarily in the US. However, I grew up as the daughter of an activist-teacher in a higher secondary government school for girls, and my entire childhood was spent watching her fight to keep these girls, often the children of slum dwellers – many of who worked as house help while also trying to come to school – in school.

Everything she did, from changing the asbestos roof of the school building to getting a proper toilet built (and then a concrete building), to going into the bastis (slums) and pleading with the parents, had nothing to do with teaching. And yet, had everything to do with teaching. That’s what I know, that education can’t happen without commitment and ecosystem.

Girls’ education and jobs of the women were the first to be put on the chopping block. Representative image.

The COVID pandemic has been disastrous all round, but it would be foolish to not acknowledge that the scale of disaster differs for a certain segment: girls.

Even before the pandemic, the reality was that the participation of women in the workforce in India was low. Education rates were low. From infanticide to domestic violence, our charts topped, with some states regularly featuring in international reports for how they fared. The wage gap in India (like in many nations in the world), made women the ones earning less.

The systemic lack of investment in women’s education by families, especially in high-cost high-return professions, caused women to work more, for less, in less satisfying jobs. So, that combined with the global phenomena of believing in women’s supposed superior ability (and responsibility) when it comes to caregiving vs. that of men, when resources would go scarce, girls’ education and jobs of the women were the first to be put on the chopping block.

And then, COVID happened. Most families in India weren’t prepared for online and distance learning – nor did they have a way to provide many of the things that are assumed available. Quiet space. Any space. Internet. Computer. The list is not short. Some of the things I hear the western world grappling with – the mental state and personality of the children to be able to learn effectively from online instructions – wouldn’t even come into consideration when the basics are lacking here. So, it’s heartbreaking but not surprising that we heard of students dying by suicides. The cost of what is happening to them is more than what we will be able to afford.

First of all, India’s GDP growth over the next decade depends heavily on two things: women entering the workforce, and marginalized communities getting uplifted. According to a McKinsey study, India could increase its GDP by $770 billion by 2025 by getting more women to work and increasing gender equality. Also, the uplifting of marginalised communities depend significantly on women’s education and empowerment.

Like anything else, COVID’s fall out in the education sector is expectedly hitting the marginalised and the impoverished population the hardest. For the girls, it is furthermore exaggerated. In addition to the economic impact of this (for India today and India of the future), the social cost is high too.

Lack of access to education and schools increases both short and long-term risks to girls for gender-based violence, early marriage, lower age of consent, and trafficking. This is not a gap that can be reversed once COVID ends. This switch can’t be just flipped back. It will take years – years that India can’t, and shouldn’t have to, afford.

Like anything else, COVID’s fall out in the education sector is expectedly hitting the marginalized and the impoverished population the hardest.  Representative image.

So, off-course we can rely on non-profits, but they are overwhelmed. So we need to do the simple things we can to slow the decline.

  1. First, know about this. Understand that this comes at a high long term cost for all of us.
  2. Second, spread the word. Talk to anyone you can find in your community – from your house helps to the people who come deliver goods. Make it a point that you explain to them in simple terms, their daughters should not be allowed to stop education. When they share their stories – hard decisions they have had to make – help out if you can. If you can’t, tell them to try and do whatever they can to keep the girls learning.

I have seen this even in affluent communities, for various reasons – none of which has to do with lack of infrastructure – students get drop years. Even reading grade-appropriate books on your own for those gap years, keeps the education going.

So, find out what levels the students were at and help out with books. Learning materials you might have or might be able to get.

  1. Third, ask them to talk to others. There is tremendous power in this. Yes, there can be a lot of push back, conditioning, and reasoning to plough through, but if you don’t give up on the education of girls – your conviction to the cause will get other convinced. They will share what they have heard.
  2. Lastly, make sure once schools start you check back. Make sure that the daughters of all the families you know, get back into learning.

These are very simple acts, and if done even in our immediate circles, can help. Of all the investments you can make for society during this pandemic, this one will yield the highest of returns.

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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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