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The COVID-19 Fight No One’s Talking About

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

As the devastating second wave of the Coronavirus rips through India, the country is once again left to face a perfect storm of multiple crises. The chickens have come home to roost, as systemic underfunding of the healthcare system has left people scrambling for basic necessities like hospital beds and oxygen, in both urban and semi-urban settings.

While the healthcare crisis rightly takes centre stage during this time, with all resources and efforts being focused on reducing the death toll, something that is not being spoken about enough is the impact this is having on the education system in India.

As teachers try their absolute best to keep children engaged and involved in learning, what this pandemic has brought to light is the glaring inequality in access to education for millions of school children across India.

It will come as little surprise that India has one of the sharpest rich-poor divides in the world, with the top 1% holding over 40% of the national wealth (Oxfam, 2020). This rich-poor divide was always evident in the education system as well. While most of the middle class, so as to give their children the best start in life, try all possible routes to ensure their children attend convent schools with ICSE and CBSE syllabi and multiple extra-curricular facilities, the public schools are left to languish with minimum facilities, limited staff, and dilapidated semi-pakka buildings.

online classes-girl-student-class-phone
Representational image. Image credit: Getty Images

While most people in cities have been comfortably attending classes at home, often complaining about the choppy Wi-Fi that is interrupting their lessons, it is sadly the poorest population that is suffering. Their lack of access to resources, teacher-provided or online, makes them susceptible to dropping out of the education system altogether.

Due to repeated lockdowns and lack of facilities to conduct online examinations fairly, students have been promoted to the next year for the second time, which may spell disaster in a year or two when several students will have to take their board exams without being adequately capable to appear for them.

Already, over 54% of graduates in India are deemed to be unemployable, and allowing students to move onto the next academic year without examinations is sure to further precipitate this figure.

It is easy to chalk up the problem of education inequality to years of systemic underfunding and low prioritisation (which is not entirely untrue). However, there is still a way out of this problem, but it requires strategic action and serious intervention.

Increase Funding For Public schools

India has one of the lowest budgets for education, with only 3.1% of its GDP being spent on education in 2019-2020, as against the national policy’s recommended 6%. Thus, funding needs to increase to ensure that public schools have their basic needs met. This means not only improving physical school structures such as the classrooms and toilets, but also hiring more staff. Due to budget cuts, it is not uncommon to hear staff in public schools performing multiple roles, such as that of a clerk, cleaner, bookkeeper, P.T. teacher, etc.

Due to the pressure to perform all these roles competently, time spent on creating lesson plans or tending to students and quelling their doubts reduces drastically, leading to lower quality of teaching, and a disengaged and disinterested class. More funding will also ensure that students are allowed to focus on other extra-curricular activities as well such as theatre, sports, elocution, etc.

school children

Increase Incentives To Stay In School

While going to school and staying in school may seem like a ‘no brainer’ to several parents in India, the fact is, in rural India, the school dropout rate is quite high. According to the MHRD report on Educational Statistics at a Glance (2018), the school dropout rate stands at 6.93% (2014-15), which may not seem like much, but translates into lakhs of students leaving school at the primary level, that is, leaving school before they can barely read and write.

This goes up dramatically to 24.68% at the secondary level, which means, nearly every one in four children in India is leaving education before entering high school.

Thus, there is a need to provide parents and children with incentives to stay in school. This includes not only making school interesting and engaging enough to ensure children won’t drop out of their own accord but also educating parents of the benefit of keeping their children in school.

While the introduction of mid-day meals is a great idea in theory, the poor execution has marred its benefits. Repeated national scandals regarding mid-day meals, whether in the form of provision of low-quality food or lack of provision of food altogether due to theft and corruption at multiple levels, has mired this venture in controversy and needs to be thoroughly investigated and resolved at the earliest.

Increase Internet Access In Rural And Semi-Urban Areas

While it may be unimaginable for most of us to survive without the internet or to stay updated with the latest news and social media trends, the fact is, a majority of the Indian population is unaware of the potential, or the effects, of the internet on our daily lives due to their complete lack of access to it. The provision of computers and internet facilities will help revolutionise education at the grassroots level, as it will improve access to more information than that provided in barely-affordable textbooks.

Computer education also equips people to easily move from rural to urban settings for job opportunities. Lack of computer literacy is a major hurdle, that needs to be addressed at the school level to ensure that when it comes to employability, rural adults are not left at a complete disadvantage.

While these suggestions may seem obvious to some, the fact is, in the hallowed halls of decision-makers in India, they seem to be falling on deaf ears. As soon as the pandemic is over and schools resume, teachers will be pressured to provide catch-up lessons, over and above covering their usual class syllabus, leading to added workload which may affect student performance.

In the meantime, it is hoped that those in the education sector heed the furiously blinking warning light now before the education crisis becomes a bigger problem than the pandemic currently precipitating it.

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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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