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Mamata Hai, Toh Mumkin Hai: Girls Outnumber Boys in Schools in West Bengal

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This post is a part of Kaksha Crisis, a campaign supported by Malala Fund to demand for dialogue around the provisions in the New Education Policy 2020. Click here to find out more.

I will wear my favourite pair of jeans and this new pink kurti on my first day of college,” said an 18-year-old Diya from Hooghly, Kolkata, who cannot wait for cut-offs to be out and colleges to begin their new academic year.

Diya Das (name changed), a young, ambitious individual, attempts to create history as she sets to become not just the first girl from her entire family but also from her village to receive a college education. Diya is one of the million other young girls from West Bengal who now finally have the means to live their dream: to get a college degree and work for a better future.

Diya is one of the 94,89,902 girls enrolled in government schools across the state of West Bengal that happens to be one of the few states actively trying to promote women’s education and empowerment. The state efforts become clearer when we notice that the number of girls in state-sponsored schools, as recorded in a recent survey, has actually outnumbered boys, which were calculated to be 92,57,890.

One of the major reasons the West Bengal government has been able to tackle the stigma of girls’ education and check rampant dropout rates has been by the introduction of several statewide welfare educational schemes. However, one scheme that stands out from them all is the Kanyashree Prakalpa (KP) scheme.

Announced on March 8, 2013, and launched on October 1, 2013, Kanyashree is a two-tier conditional cash transfer scheme started under the flagship of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her TMC government to inspire girls to continue with higher education and prevent chances of child marriage and the consequent dropouts. Under the scheme, an annual sum of ₹750 is awarded to unmarried girls from classes VII to XII between the ages 13 to 18. Additionally, a one-time grant of ₹25,000 is awarded upon turning 18.

While the scheme looks very utopic on pen and paper, I had my own reservations regarding its working. Given how our Indian governments and politicians are notoriously stereotyped as being available to the public and making promises only during election season, I wondered if girls across the state were even receiving the promised sum or was it just another of those “potholes will be filled, water taps will be installed” dreams. Luckily, I had the good fortune of talking to a wonderful young girl who has recently benefited from the scheme.

During my conversation with Diya, I understood she received a sum of ₹25,000, the big prize in July 2021 as stated in the KP scheme, because she was unmarried and affiliated with an educational institution. Moreover, being a student of Class 12, she, along with her classmates, received an additional grant of ₹10,000 earlier in the year to buy smartphones or tablets so that they could continue their classes without obstruction and prepare well for the forthcoming board examinations.

As our conversations continued, I learned that the only other condition required for the student to benefit from the scheme, apart from the aforementioned age limit, is to have their own bank account. Transferring the sum directly to the candidate’s account helps in achieving transparency in the system and generates a sense of consciousness and awareness among these girls.

Furthermore, unlike other government-sponsored scholarships, Kanyashree is not competitive. It is not awarded to the fittest, the strongest, or the smartest. On the contrary, it is rather democratic in its work. Every child in need is awarded. Every dream is sponsored.

Expressing her gratitude towards the government, Diya mentioned how “taka kon maash e ashbe seta thik noi, kintu taka ashbe eta thik” (Which month will the money come, that is uncertain. But the money will come, that is for certain). She mentioned how her father, a daily wage labourer in the local Jute Mill, no longer works overtime or takes up odd jobs on the weekend to fund her education because now it’s taken care of.

Similarly, her mother, a domestic worker, could prioritize her health and let go of working in several households as the overall family expenditure has been significantly reduced. Suppressing a sob, she continued how in the early days of the pandemic, when both her parents lost their job and were forced to sit back at home, without any social or financial security, this same money that she had saved over the years helped them sustain their lives and eat two square meals a day.

There are, however, other finer details to this scheme that meets the eye. As Diya acknowledged herself, several students, even some of her own friends, have no intention of continuing with a college education and will probably use this money to get married or for some other purpose.

Additionally, some critics argue that being a non-competitive cash transfer scheme that does not require successful completion of any academic level, the best the scheme does is postpone marriage by a few years. It fails to generate a vigour for intellectual stimulation or an actual interest in academia. A lack of such prolific schemes prompting boys’ education has led to another hysteria where parents fear difficulty getting a groom to marry their much-educated girl.

While the scheme is yet to be full-proof, one cannot simply ignore how several thousand young girls across the state, much like Diya herself, will be first-generation graduates from their family credit due only to the scheme. Another significant domino effect, that if often overlooked, is the general improvement of both mental and physical health of such parents who do not need to overwork now to fund their daughter’s education or live with the guilt of having to force them to quit their dreams because of the lack of funds thereof. The scheme makes education more accessible and economical. It democratizes education and gives everyone a fair fighting chance for a better future.

I believe that the scheme has a lot of potential and, with some technical amendments, can bring wonders and be the flagbearer of a more empowered and educated India.

The author is a Kaksha Correspondent as a part of writers’ training program under Kaksha Crisis.

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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.

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 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.”

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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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