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Saluting Volunteerism, A Spirit That Defeated The Pandemic

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On International Volunteers Day, we celebrate the undaunted spirit of volunteers who have gone far and beyond during these tough times to stand by marginalised children

Puja Marwaha (CEO, CRY – Child Rights and You)

 “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not,” Dr Seuss.

This year has introduced our world to one of the toughest challenges we have faced in our lifetimes. The only ‘comfort’ is that we are all in it together – we all are offered with an opportunity to face it collectively. And if we are asked about the silver lining, well, all through the months of the COVID-19 pandemic, kindness has become contagious too – way more than the dreaded virus. We have seen volunteerism to be on a high and so is the spirit of going beyond oneself. In the pursuit of a better world, what can be a bigger ray of hope than this?

My heart fills up with hope when beside the numerous tragic instances caused by the pandemic I do get to find increasing numbers of good deeds by selfless people, even while they continued to battle their own pandemic woes. It seems to my optimistic heart that our world is on the mend, in the right kind of way.

I am also witness to the fact that the common notion of volunteering is an incomplete one. Volunteering is not just an act of giving. It is a process of going through a transformational journey while one goes an extra mile to extend a helping hand to others. From feeling rooted to the community, learning life lessons and skills to improving self-esteem and levels of empathy, volunteers receive invaluable lessons that can be only learnt through great acts of selflessness.

Over 40 years ago, Rippan Kapur, the late founder of Child Rights and You (CRY) realised the power of volunteering, as he started the organization, way back in 1979. He urged every citizen, and especially the young people, to come forward for India’s underprivileged children. Since then, the youth has continued to be the backbone of the organization, taking our vision of a happy and healthy childhood to newer heights every passing day. At CRY, volunteering has always been crucial to our endeavour in reaching out to the community, educating and spreading awareness about children’s rights and issues.

CRY volunteer interacts with children at ICDS centre

The 3700 strong volunteer base of CRY, supported by 800 interns has been working on several innovative activities during the pandemic. Launching social media awareness programmes, organising crowd-funding campaigns, reaching out to children for online recreational and educational activities, roping in experts to mentor children or conducting online classes, arranging e-learning resources to make digital learning easier for children, are some among the many initiatives that the zealous and determined youngsters have taken up to help children.

Vouching strongly for the mantra ‘be good, do good’ the CRY volunteers have remained undeterred during a crisis like COVID-19. Amid the pandemic, CRY’s large volunteer base, spread across all four regions of India, has helped the organisation create a ripple effect and minimise the challenges faced by India’s underprivileged children and their families during the pandemic.

Besides these activities and events, a team of CRY volunteers felt that it was vital to lend their voices to the voiceless – India’s marginalised children. So they decided to capture the lives of children before and after COVID-19, to highlight how the crisis affected underprivileged children from all four regions of India.

Here Are A Few Stories They Recorded

Sultana Razia (name changed to protect identity), a 17-year-old from Ahmedabad, who is in the 12th standard, walking with her friends after school and chatting with them about what she misses the most in the new normal. She also feels bad about not being able to experience the classroom ambience and attend lectures as everything has moved online.

Born and raised in a small room in the ‘red light area’ of Kolkata, 12-year-old Panchalima Saha (name changed to protect identity) lives with her parents and grandmother. The family is under financial crisis since her father, who had a decent earning a year back, lost his job during the pandemic. For the three months of strict lockdown, she has had no other activity other than helping her mother in household chores and revising her previous study material. Panchalima highlighted that accessing online classes was extremely difficult as she has to borrow her father’s older phone which supports minimal internet connection for her education. With the financial crisis in her family, she has not been able to recharge her phone with mobile data and has missed 3-4 days of classes.

For Chhattisgarh’s 14-year-old Shipra (name changed to protect identity), who belongs to a family of agricultural labourers, the lockdown has affected the family in several ways – means of livelihood and their education has been affected the most. Network issues and inability to top-up don’t allow her to learn online. Employment opportunities for her parents who are agricultural labourers have been substantially reduced. She also highlighted there are no doctors available in the village and the closest is about 3 km away while access to medicines is another problem.

From picking up new hobbies; missing school, friends; increased burden of household chores; to awareness about COVID-19 protection protocols; poor/no internet connectivity for online classes; livelihood issues due to loss of jobs/income; and many others; the entire document has ‘children lockdown stories’ galore.

“Talking with children cemented in me the belief that people are just people – we like to tell stories and we like to be heard. Documenting lockdown diaries could not have been a better, more pure project as far as I am concerned,” says Roopkatha Sarkar, a CRY volunteer, who was a part of the project.

Another CRY volunteer from the Lockdown stories project Preneeta said, “It was probably one of the best things that happened to me during this lockdown. I have volunteered with CRY before, but considering the current times, I was really sceptical about the experience, as it was all digital. But my first conversation with the children completely changed my opinion. Despite the paucity of resources at their hands, their enthusiasm was unparalleled and truly infectious. In the process of trying to uncover their ‘lockdown story’, they really did become an indelible part of my story too!”

This is what moves me. Whenever we speak to CRY volunteers, asking about their experience, they always focus on what they receive from the process, and never about what they have to give up. That tells me that we are on the right track with our youngsters.

For me, therefore, the International Volunteers Day is an extra special one this year. Though every year our volunteers keep surprising us with their zeal and innovative thinking, this year they have surpassed themselves. And for me, they have beaten the pandemic in their own special way.

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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.

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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.”

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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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