Be the light

Amrita Prasad
Saturday, 14 October 2017

Our joy will become greater if we care to include the not-so-privileged in our   Diwali celebrations.   Amrita Prasad talks to a few individuals who choose to spread light and happiness in the lives of others

New clothes are waiting in the wardrobe to be unpacked, the tea lights/ diyas have arrived, the sweets need to be picked up from the local sweet shop, the gifts have been wrapped or already sent to loved ones. Every year, Diwali brings a lot of joy and happiness, illuminating our lives and creating beautiful memories with family and friends. Like us, do the less fortunate also get an opportunity to take part in the festivities, celebrations, merriment and fun? Perhaps not. For whom survival itself is tough, everyday brings in a new set of challenges. To help them cope or overcome their problems, we — the others — can make an effort to not leave them behind.

Only then can the true essence of Diwali be felt. That said, we can spread the joy and happiness through the year and not restrict it to one day. There are individuals who believe in this philosophy and are making a difference in the lives of others. From giving an education to transgenders, to fighting menstruation taboos to organising collection drives and so on, individuals are doing their bit for society. We catch up with a few of them who are lighting the lamp for others and brightening their path. 

Breaking taboos
Do not perform puja’, ‘Don’t step inside the kitchen’, ‘You must sleep on the floor’, ‘Don’t discuss it with boys’... these are some of the things we have grown up hearing about menstruation. Period is still considered a taboo not only in rural India but also in some of the urban parts of our  country and the world. Most women, especially in the lower income group and rural areas, are unaware about menstrual hygiene and victims of superstition.

Pune-based youth Pravin Nikam through his organisation Roshni’s Period Project, has been working relentlessly to spread awareness among young girls and women, mostly among slum dwellers, regarding menstrual health and hygiene as well as staying informed about their body and managing their periods effectively.

“The aim is also to create acceptance for menstruation and make people aware that period is a natural biological process and  shouldn’t be treated like a taboo. For that, we conduct workshops and training sessions and I also go to colleges and talk about this with youngsters,” says Nikam who is currently Asia’s Regional Representative of the Commonwealth Youth Council.

Under Roshni, Pravin has been running various other social campaigns such as the Right to Pee campaign, the Kitab (book) Express, the Readers and Writers Project, the Pink Project and so on.

Nikam feels that merely distributing sanitary napkins won’t help since the majority of women live in rural areas and they do not wear undergarments. For them, using cloth is more accessible and cost-effective. “However, because of taboo after washing, they do not dry the cloth in the sun, and drying them indoors fail to remove all the moisture from the cloth resulting in painful urinary tract infection. If there was no such shame associated with periods, women wouldn’t suffer so much,” says Nikam adding that in the last couple of years, there has been some change in the mindset.

Nikam, along with his team, also works towards fighting body shaming. He visits colleges and educates youngsters about periods so that they are comfortable talking about it and can create acceptance for the same in their families and society.

Nikam, who has received National Youth Award, says, “Men shouldn’t brush aside periods as ‘a woman’s issue’ but try to make women comfortable talking about the same. Given that the world is male-dominated, imagine if more men become sensitive to women’s period and their hygiene issues, there will be a big change for women and they won’t be restricted from going to school or entering the kitchen.”

Imparting education
What began with an intention to create awareness about hygiene among slumdwellers, slowly turned into an effort to impart education to underprivileged children living near Khadki.

For the past four years, IT professional Neeraj Kumbhar, along with a few roommates, has been teaching economically disadvantaged children.   
“Education is the foundation of one’s future and it is said that some are not fortunate enough to get this gift. We, as educated human beings, should ensure that no child remains uneducated. Out of 24 hours in a day, I manage to take out 2-3 hours for these children who either go to the municipal school or simply do not attend school as their parents do not encourage them. Rather they are made to work,” says Kumbhar.

He says that the toughest job is to convince the parents. “Mostly, a girl child is discouraged and dropout rates are high once they reach the age of 10. In municipal schools, they are not taught English or due to the lack of good infrastructure, they are not able to understand certain concepts of Science. Hence, we meet the kids daily (whenever possible) and clear their doubts and help them with English and other subjects,” adds the 27-year-old.

Kumbhar, who strongly believes that a single flame of light can remove darkness, urges everyone to come forward and help underprivileged children by educating them.

“A good education is a must and let no one be deprived of it because these children are our leaders of tomorrow,” he concludes.

Every bit counts
We blow up huge sums on eating junk, watching movies, going shopping on, say, a single weekend, then why is it so difficult to part with a hundred rupee note and make a difference in someone’s life?’’ questions Mridula Gaikwad, city-based homemaker who has been helping the underprivileged. She believes that although it is not possible to transform the lives of hundreds at one go given our limited resources, but it is possible to collect and donate through the year.

“It is not always necessary to join an NGO to help others, you can always do it at an individual level with your given capacity. I make it a point to donate my son’s extra stationery and toys and clothes he has outgrown and my husband’s outfits to security guards, gardener, cleaning guys working in our residential complex. We all have plenty of things that we no longer use, but refrain from giving them to the needy,” points out Gaikwad.

She also encourages her neighbours to donate. “It is not always possible for everyone to visit orphanages or old-age homes so we collect all the giveaway and utility items after which one or two individuals from our apartment complex visit the NGOs to donate them. Some of the NGOs need funds. While I alone cannot donate large sums, what works for me is seeking a minimum hundred rupees contribution from neighbours and after collection, we buy a month’s grocery and give it to the less privileged,” says Gaikwad emphasising that no matter how small the contribution is, it certainly helps.

The mother of a ninth grader also collects old newspapers, sells them every three months and utilises the amount to help the needy.  

No gender bias
Gauri Sawant is a well-known face today. The transgender mother featured in the recent Vicks advertisement has been working for the rights of transgenders and children of sex workers in Mumbai through her NGO Sakhi Char Chowghi. Gauri adopted her daughter Gayatri when she found out that the child had lost her biological mother, a sex worker, and would be sold off. Gauri’s motto is to ensure that the children of sex workers do not get caught in trafficking and land up in sex trade.  

“Motherhood is a behaviour and a mother has no gender. Although, people are praising me for adopting Gayatri, what they fail to understand is even transgender kids are human beings and they too deserve the same upbringing, treatment and opportunities like other kids. Just like Gayatri, transgender kids and my students are my children and hence it is my duty to try to give them a better life. Two of them are in college. I have been trying hard to help them complete their education so that they do not have to beg or get into  sex trade. Education will certainly open more doors for them,” says Gauri who says she struggles with funds and monetary support to run her NGO. “Yahan log sirf dharm ke naam pe hi paise donate kartne hain,” she adds.

Gauri is also building a home called Aaji cha Ghar for abandoned girl children and destitute senior transgenders. But the path is full of obstacles as people are not willing to change their mindset. “We worship female goddesses, but look at women with lust, especially if she is a daughter of a sex worker. Many want them to get into the flesh trade just like their mothers. Is it justified? Why shouldn’t these girls get a better life? Life is beautiful and these girls too deserve one,” says Gauri whose undaunted spirit and compassion is impacting many lives.

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