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Self Help, Trust And Solidarity: How Women Of Kumaon Get By

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tarr tarr, tarr tarr, tarr tarr, tarr tarr“, didi goes, describing the rain that followed the onset of her husband’s diseased death. Drooping skin covers her eyes so that I have to squint my own to look into them.

The sun is scorching but her arms are used to it. She is 60, but her life has known only this stony porch as home.

Kumaoni is a tough language to write. The verbal dialect however is flushed with more emotion than technicality. Every piece of information is acknowledged with a “hoy” of understanding. But when didi shares how her day ends at three in the afternoon, there’s nothing I can think of to express my condolences.

Kafra, a small village in Eastern Uttarakhand, is barely visible on the road to exciting treks we all feel destined for. But it’s where the lives of many women like didi are spun.

All that marks its existence is a basic green signboard about 400 steps below its inhabitants – nothing to give away the solidity of the homes built from scratch on desolate fire-prone grounds. The cluster of small houses is built with simple craftsmanship – found warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

I visited this local labyrinth as a volunteer for Mahila Umang Producers Company – a collective of Self Help Groups (SHGs) and producer members providing sustainable livelihood opportunities to thousands of women in the Himalayas.

Women’s days here are spent making their family’s life better, except when the samuh needs attention. This group of ten women sits together then, radiating power that transforms Kafra from a village into a communion. So eyes are dried off, and didi walks in to find a perch on the ground.

Amidst the flurry of calculations and complaints at the annual audit session, she loses her sense of loss for a moment. A bowl of bhujia is passed around and her thoughts drift towards enjoying the bite of the day (quite literally).

In a land where livelihoods are bare minimum and ambition is based on happiness rather than achievement, women find joining hands a sacred way to get by. Dearth is ample, but contentment flows in rivers.

Self Help Groups like those run by Umang Himalaya then become a great channel to imbibe values, yes, but also to make life a little more comfortable by knowing that they’re not alone. There is accountability, but also trust.

This savings and credit system runs in groups of 10-20 women. Each woman saves a fixed monthly amount into the group’s joint bank account.

The interest helps them get by in times of dire need, and monthly meetings to account for the transactions build solidarity among women that are struggling with common issues of daily survival.

The bookkeeper is currently taking account of the loan taken by didi to sustain the cost of her husband’s passing. With no fixed income and the Coronavirus pandemic letting misery hit the ceiling last year, didi’s family took a loan from the same to get by. In such a scenario, each woman willing to act as a guarantor loan her share of savings to the one in need.

This builds a sense of trust in dire straits and a safety net is woven for each other to rely upon. The borrowed money has been paid back to the joint account in instalments.

SHG Audit Session
The bookkeeper.

The women of Kumaon, like many unacknowledged parts of the world, are no different from you and me – with their fair share of gossip and longing to share a load.

But along with the social and moral obligations every milieu is replete with, the culture here comes riddled with terraneous complexity. Lack of employment, low accessibility, and difficulty in fulfilment of basic needs outline the contours of daily living. What seems to set them apart against this backdrop is the bareness of their soul.

All adornments are shed in times of need, and the people come together, all alike in their natural state of survival and drive. From a heap of hassles rises their Sun each day, but they seem to worship it with a smile on their face.

A balance seems to be lacking in the metropolitan culture in contrast. No matter how deep you look, souls are never visible from behind the veils of social reactions. Striving for higher luxuries and meticulous personal goals, the urban lifestyle seems devoid of such basic camaraderie, belongingness, and general fulfilment. Where would Maslow identify us in the pyramid of hierarchy?

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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 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.

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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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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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