Soon after completing my Master’s in Philosophy from the University of Delhi, I was looking for a PhD in India and outside when I came across different fellowship opportunities. So, after deep contemplation, I joined the Gandhi Fellowship. My parents, like other Indian parents, were startled but supportive. Later, after recognizing my efforts, their perspective did change, and their concerns changed into admiration.
I was assigned to the Aspirational District Transformation Program in partnership with NITI Aayog at Block Pokaran, Jaisalmer, which changed my life for good. My journey started with the allocation of GUPS Nai Mangoli, Pokaran. This school was located in the interiors, 15 kms from the city, with sand instead of roads and no direct means of commuting.
This panchayat comprised mainly of the Muslim Community, who accepted me as their own, made me feel at home and tied me with lifelong relations with them. Unfortunately, on completing my tenure, I had to leave behind the feeling of leaving home once again, with sad young faces and teary little eyes, standing in front of the school waving goodbyes, with millions of unsaid promises of meeting again.
During different activities during my tenure, like field support, I observed that even though Jaisalmer is amongst India’s most beautiful (and one of the largest) desert districts, it holds its culture and traditions well. Still, somehow these traditions being so close-knitted creates social barriers that hinder social change and thus give birth to social evils like child marriages, early pregnancies, and health issues for young mothers (pre and postnatal).
During my primary research in more than 33 schools and their communities, I observed that young girls drop out after class VIII, at the onset of puberty. This gave birth to ‘आओ बोलें PERIOD‘, an awareness campaign for Menstrual Hygiene Management and Gender Sensitization.
District Magistrate Namit Mehta recognized the campaign and later was implemented throughout the block by the Chief Block Education Officer on International Women’s Day, 2020. The campaign also collaborated with other stakeholders like the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the Chief Block Education Officer.
In just three months, the campaign impacted 3600+ school girls, 512 block-level teachers, 265 anganwadi workers, and 360 community members in 14 panchayats at block Pokaran by conducting seven block-level events and workshops.
But true satisfaction came when a mother and a grandmother extended their blessings, saying, “I wish there were someone who could have told me about the biological cycle, periods and how I was not impure while I was growing up.” I would visit schools and community centres, where young boys would come up to me with stories of their sisters being married at an early age or who were forced to drop out and help with household chores. Still, their brothers were encouraged to study even if they had to send the boys to far off cities in private schools. Brothers were keen to share their books or notes with sisters, but the impact was little.
The Fellowship did allow me to meet strong women too, who would keep the reproductive control in their hands as they were sensitized to the benefits of having a small healthy family. They would mention their experiences while growing up and how being educated has made them aware of themselves and the importance of saying ‘No’.
During my various workshops, I would find young girls curious and shy while asking about their bodies and changes. But I would also find girls who would come out and ask me about pregnancy and the concept of virginity. Being engaged at a very young age creates questions in young minds about sex and related taboos. With me being present there, answering their queries without any judgment, initiating conversations with taboo subjects in a place known for ‘women under veils’, I provided them with the opportunity to find me as a trustworthy yet unconventional person, which somehow proved beneficial.
The most exciting phase of my journey was when I got the opportunity to facilitate in front of 150 B.Ed interns, block-level teachers, and anganwadi workers. I felt like I left my mark in the hearts of young children, community and front line workers amid the Thar desert with a loving name of ‘Rakhi didi aayi hai‘, to be remembered by. Moreover, the two weddings that I was invited for, dressing up in Rajasthani attire, really made me embrace the culture to the core.
Being a Philosophy student, I understood the theories of Buddha, Aristotle, Descartes and Socrates. The journey also created a self-reliant attitude within me, which made me prone to the need for external validation. Lastly, I feel indebted to the love and support of students, teachers, community members, and my Gandhi Fellowship family, which transformed me as a human and made my journey fruitful with a treasure of life lessons, memorable remembrances experiences, and lifelong relationships that I would cherish.