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What If We Could Choose Who We Love And Live With?

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I’ve always found the concept of families odd. But then, families are based on the concept of procreation and I’ve found that odd, too.

Not a state-approved position for someone working in mental health and mostly with families, perhaps. However, the more intimately I work with other people’s families, the more I realize that the idea of a group of people, being forced to live together, and participate in a collective process of forced socialization, based upon common descent (a euphemism for the accident of birth) is strange and odd and, well— ethically and morally murky.

Of course, oddness is far more easily apparent to the gaze of an outsider, and that may be why other people’s families seem strange and odd and dysfunctional whereas one’s own appears reasonably sane by contrast. Sanity, like beauty, of course, lies in the eye of the beholder and fades with progressive degrees of separation.

But then again, mental health work maybe where the family (of origin and of procreation) bears the most scrutiny. And what collective organ in society ever acquitted itself well on prolonged and public scrutiny? Democracy certainly didn’t. What hope does a smaller unit such as the family have?

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Image Courtesy: Avneet Sharma, Local Love

But let’s examine the whys, first.

Why create a family? For the purpose of social insurance. Why raise children born to you? Why endure the chain-gang that is siblinghood? Why make another person’s life, another person’s achievement, the core aim of your own life? Why give up your career, and ambitions, and wild, clawing desires to care for another when they become sick?

In the hope that we pile enough social and moral obligations on other people in our vicinity that they feel obliged to care for us when we ail and mourn for us when we die. Of course, this manner of social insurance comes with its own nature of payment, in the form of the festering, broiling resentments we then bear each other, for placing, and, in turn, being placed under a morass of obligations.

If this is a social experiment, and if happiness and success (again, state-sanctioned) are it’s objectives, it is clearly not a very well designed one.

I work in dementia care, where we get to peer down the wrong end of the periscope and look at half a century of poorly concealed resentments play out when someone is asked to resign themselves to caring for a person with a degenerative disorder — for no other reason than an accident of birth, followed by a slow, incremental accumulation of obligations and debts. Not a good look on either the therapist prescribing family-based care or on the hapless family who can spy no exit. If they could, they would be out of this situation in a thrice. Heck, if I could, I’d help them escape this long, slow erosion, too.

Which then makes me think. Perhaps it isn’t the act of forming a social collective that is wrong. Homo sapiens are clearly social animals and thrive, nay, flourish in groups. The long COVID-19 (and it’s actually acceptable to say that right now) has clearly put our lone wolf “I’m too hip to need anyone” posturing to an end. We clearly need each other. We positively bask in the idea of belonging to and possessing other people.

But, by that definition, collectives in jails and concentration camps should be happy places. They might be, for some, for all that I know to speak of. But the idea of those large social collectives scares us. The idea of having our liberty taken away, of being subject to rules and laws outside of our making, and to associate with people in the absence of choice — is terrifying.

It might be then, that the element of choice in forming our own personal social collectives, or the absence of such a choice maybe what is most important in defining our contentment. The luxury of choosing whom you live with, who you love, whom you bunker down and share a meal with — that might be the greatest luxury of all, riches vastly to be coveted.

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Image Courtesy: Enid Blyton, The Faraway Tree

Jones-Wild spoke of families of choice as encompassing all the relationships that one chooses to be in, whether inherited or formed, and which are maintained voluntarily. The people we are with because we want to be with them. The prototypical relationship that we build our families of choice around is the least structured, the least defined ones — friendships — the archetypal relationships of choice.

The presence of a choice, and further, the recognition and validation of these choices may not make our lives any easier or our social obligations any less overwhelming. They are, however, one would hope, less likely to feel like a noose and more of an overtight collar, which one may, in true Dickensian fashion, pop a button off of, after a too heavy meal.

They might not prevent the people in our lives from developing and struggling with degenerative diseases, but they might make the long, slow walk into the night that families make with them, less of a nightmare. The knowledge that it is a choice, to care for someone, and that one may choose to stop if one so desires.

The other, sheer, indescribable beauty of one’s family of choice, is knowing that the people who are with us, are with us because they want to be, and vice versa. That luxury of choice makes this slice of companionship all the more fulfilling. The slice may not age well, the choices may change, but while they lasted, they lasted because people wanted them to.

And if there is anything I would want the world to cherish this overwrought month, that we fixate on love in, it would be finding and celebrating our families of choice. For as long as we have them.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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