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Fire And Might: How The Women Of Darmar Have Sustained Their Forests

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In 2004 the eco-restoration of the Gagas River Basin in Uttarakhand was birthed under the wings of the Pan Himalayan Grassroots Development Foundation. In its fourth year, the project touched the Dusad gadhera that I happened to visit last month.

Ecology and Livelihood

Looping in women of the hill community, the project initiated the planting of over 2,00,000 saplings, creating check dams and furthering education in sustainable farming and water irrigation systems. The next 2 years traced the restoration of ecological life and development of socio-economic lifestyle.

Landscape
Representative Image.

Through incentive and awareness, the organisation channelised local communities of the basin towards forming an interdependent relationship with their surroundings.

Darmar is one such village in Uttarakhand that was touched by the holistic approach of grassroots and the caring hands of its women. One by one, the land was covered in seeds of hope and trust. Parts of the soil began growing livelihood opportunities in the form of gehu and gahat and parts of it were tended to in hopes of restoring a balance of “give and take” with nature.

I learned that the use of natural resources around here had been usually limited to household sustenance only. Wood, water, freshly grown crops were all used to feed daily survival despite lack of employment to improve the quality of life. Against this backdrop, the development of local gadheras instigated far more than just the environmental interface.

Through self-help groups and skill sharing, the women of areas like Dusad began building sustainable livelihoods, social accountability and self-sufficiency along with a deeply entrenched affinity towards the Earth that fed them.

Calamity and Will

Over 12 years, the women of Darmar had tended to its forest cover, maintaining irrigation; taming wild grass; practising sustainable farming. But in the year of the rain-less pandemic, the lands were left barren while hearts were drenched in dismay.

As Pushpa didi reported their survival, I couldn’t help but notice complacency. A basic subsidy of 5 kgs of grain under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana was enough to keep the people’s spirits going. What came in was accepted with open hands to fuel the drive to keep taking care of the land that reaped well on its best days.

At the time of the latest infernal tragedy, this consistency became the only reason why calamitous fires were contained well in time to save the roots of the gadheras. The grass was cut earlier this month, leaving minimal fodder to burn up to heights.

Uttarakhand Forest Fire Continues, 2270 Hectares Affected
Representative Image.

The land of Uttarakhand was faced with the worst episodes of forest fires in two decades in April 2021. While climate change and natural cycles are factors of concern in this scenario, human-made causes and efforts are just as essential in understanding the gravity of the situation.

As wanton burning runs wild in front of our eyes and government response remains meek at best, areas like Dusad survive purely on intrinsic community discipline instilled with the help of non-governmental forces.

As much as the honest efforts of the community checked disaster, it meant that the villagers were left extinguishing flames with their bare hands. Health hazards mounted as supa after supa of dry soil was thrown in with no sizeable extinguishers in sight.

The loss of fodder, land fertility and workforce went uncompensated at the later stage as social media covered helicopters making noticeable efforts to control conspicuous incidents of fire.

The Need for Holistic Aid and Development

I feel awed, sympathetic and driven — all at the same time. The land of Kumaon reeks of determination and its people sing of sufficiency. When Geeta didi, Gram Pradhan, Darmar, heard my question about why she thought no one came to their aid, she just laughed. She laughed and exclaimed, “Hum hi mahila toh karti hain. Aur kaun!”

While not-for-profit action is helping these local communities stand up on their feet, consistent development in parallel verticals is becoming more and more integral by the moment. Aid in food, education, healthcare, employment and disaster management needs to be provided in accordance with the needs of the people of the land. For this, more forces need to join hands and actively participate in experiencing and understanding the on-ground realities of mountain living.

This is a documentation of experiences as encountered under the guided supervision of Mahila Umang Producers Company Ltd. Umang is a collective of self-help groups and producer members providing sustainable livelihood opportunities to thousands of women in the Himalayas. Their work has touched lives not only at the economic level but also in the depths of women’s spirits.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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
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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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