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Mental Health And Freedom: The Cost Of Being A Young Girl In A COVID-Struck India

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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.

The French fashion designer, Coco Chanel rightly said, “A girl should be two things: who and what she wants.” There is no doubt that no avenue is beyond the ability of women and girls. We’ve come across women thriving in many fields, from the arts to politics. Since the dawn of humanity, women have had to play various roles, from food-grower to family-carer. Women are venerated and even celebrated, so much so that during the freedom struggle, the image of Bharat Mata by Abanindranath Tagore stirred intense passions and patriotism. However, I strongly feel that confident and strong women are not born that way, they are made and blossom through experience and the “most powerful weapon,” as Nelson Mandela called it, education.

The pandemic has only aggravated discrimination against girls in a society that has always favoured boys. representational image.

Education isn’t just learning the laws of gravity or understanding the events following the French Revolution. It also means learning from all this, implementing them in our everyday lives, and inculcating the values we’ve learned by bringing them into the flow of ones’ thoughts. Furthermore, education isn’t just studying and learning values either, but extracting a learning outcome from any mundane event or task.

Returning to the words of wisdom by Coco Chanel, today, we can see how girls are not allowed to be who or what they want to be. Gender inequality and discrimination are not foreign concepts. In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have witnessed yet again how girls and women are deeply affected whenever the world grapples with any kind of crisis. The high rate at which domestic violence has been rising to the threat of losing jobs for working women, simply because they need to spare time to take care of their children, are just a few examples.

Adding fuel to the fire, the new digital mode of education, it is observed, disregards the right to education of those belonging to certain economically weaker and disadvantaged sections of society, especially girl students. According to one recent study, conducted in the districts of Assam, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana and Delhi, “only 47% families have the facility of phones, and this number falls to 31% when we count families having smartphones.” This was a study conducted by the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies (CBPS) in alliance with Malala Fund.

With the inability to afford and access gadgets like smartphones and laptops, or facilities like Wi-fi, the children belonging to these sections are being made to compromise on their education. The pandemic has only aggravated discrimination against the daughter and the girl child in a society that has always favoured boys.

Parents are favouring their male child while arranging for gadgets and devices to facilitate online education with their meagre resources. “A release from NEDAN foundation explained that in situations where only one person of the family has the mobile phone and internet access facility, both boys and girls are studying in the family, priority is given to study of the boy child over the girl child.”

As per the Internet and Mobile Association of India report, while 67% of men had access to the internet, this figure was only at 33% for women. This disparity is more prominent in rural India, where the figures are 72% and 28% for men and women, respectively. representational image.

Why is it that the girls’ education is not taken cognizance of? Where does the reverence for girls and women disappear to in such a situation? The answer is simple. Everyone has learnt to respect women only when they are motherly, caring, docile and subjugated. No one has accepted or celebrated women as humans, as equal members of the society, and most importantly, as equal to men.

Christine Lagarde had said, “We’ve heard a lot about the Internet of Things – I think we need an Internet of Women.” There is a dire need to learn the truth about girls’ education today. Girls are not able to attend classes and are not allowed to so that their brothers can. With the loss of education, the extent of freedom girls have is diminishing each day.

It is not just them who are forced to stay inside because of the pandemic, but their thoughts have been forced into quarantine as well. This is leading to many girls battling depression and anxiety, causing them to bend and break.

A Rapid Assessment study was conducted in the month of May in Bihar, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh by the Population Foundation of India (PFI) on the mental health of adolescents. “The survey collected responses from 801 respondents (271 boys and 530 girls) in the age group 15-24 years.” According to the study, “more than half the adolescents the study spoke to confirmed that they had access to information on mental health, and nearly half among them said that they had used some form of mental health service or resource.”

representational image.

“Almost nine out of every ten young women (89%) in Uttar Pradesh sought help for mental health during the COVID-19 lockdown.

In Bihar, 28% of female adolescents surveyed said they felt depressed during the lockdown as compared to 17% of male respondents. Also, 2 out of every 10 adolescents surveyed in Rajasthan felt depressed due to the lockdown,” an NDTV report on the study mentioned.

The stigma associated with mental health and disorders has left young girls drowning in this sink-or-swim situation, and their feelings and desires have been shipwrecked.

From the economic perspective, the pandemic has left many unemployed with the devastating conditions the migrant labourers now have to live through. The financially weaker sections were the worst hit by the pandemic and the subsequent crisis of unemployment. As a result, child labour has been on the rise, with the children belonging to these sections being forced to take up menial jobs at construction sites, packaging, delivery of goods, and more, battling the deadly virus itself.

Something we must pay heed to now is, what the status of girls’ education will be after the pandemic. India could lose its progress made on girls’ education. While there are schools making concerted efforts to install sanitization facilities and maintain social distancing, once the ‘offline’ classes resume after the long break, the sanitation facilities exclusive to girls in terms of personal and menstrual hygiene don’t seem to have been taken into consideration.

According to a 2019 audit by the CAG, over 70% of schools it surveyed did not have running water facilities in the toilets, while 75% were not being maintained hygienically. The CAG audit conducted a physical survey of a sample of 2,695 toilets built by central public sector enterprises in 15 States. Almost 40% of toilets were non-existent, partially completed or unused. When the lack of proper washrooms has been a cause of the drop out rate in a pre-COVID world, is there hope for the ‘post-COVID’ to become any better?

A. Cripps said that “Educate a man, and you educate an individual. Educate a woman, and you educate a family.” Keeping this in mind, we, as vigilant members of society must strive to promote and educate our girls. We must work towards preserving and upholding the grandeur of the history that women have created and strive towards a more gender-inclusive education system.

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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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