The conversation began on a sombre note! I was half expecting it. I had briefly read about the story of Monica Majumdar and was prepared for a conversation accordingly. However, the unexpected came in at a few minutes in the conversation and lasted till the parting words, a full hour later. It was the persistent persistence in Monica’s voice and story.
Born in Bangladesh, Monica’s family moved to West Bengal when she was 2. Growing up in New Barrackpore, West Bengal, Monica’s family finances never saw a better light. A father who worked as a construction worker, the family’s poverty was exacerbated by his fits of rage. “ My father had a pungent, angry temperament. The law of the house was that his word is the last and there was no space for insubordination. You know, I always felt a searing pain. I could not go out. Even if I could, the thought of staying late was essentially a cruel afterthought. I didn’t utter a word at home and my expression was almost none. I remember my father breaking things in fits of rage. So naturally, the atmosphere in our house was nauseating.” recalls Monica.
Monica Majumdar must have been in the 6th grade when her mother gave birth to a son. To supplement the family income her mother started working as a nurse. The burden of taking care of her brother fell upon Monica. Juggling between household work and looking after her brother, Monica’s education went for a toss. She had to drop out. “ A normal childhood was not on the cards for me. My parents didn’t even bother to pick up my 6th-grade results. To date, I didn’t if I passed or not. And, I was always growing up in constraints. Even if I had gone to the market, the time of shopping and travelling back was prescribed. The responsibility of domestic work and my brother’s welfare came upon me. I was just 13 then. But, for every mistake, I was thrashed and barked upon. It never dawned on my father that I too am just a kid.”, remembers Monica somberly. This went on for a few years and by the age of 17, Monica was married off. Although her in-laws were traditional, Monica had larger freedom of expression there as compared to her parents’. “My in-laws understood what I felt and my husband was supportive of me. But, eventually, I started getting frustrated with my largely traditional routine – The same household responsibilities. The same cooking routine. It felt like the outside world was always unknown to me. Almost 10 years, the situation moved on like this, unceasing. But, a chance encounter with local party politics changed this”, says Monica.
Monica used to intermittently attend local party meetings of the then ruling political party of West Bengal, CPI(M). It was during such interactions that she was nominated as an SHG Leader by the local municipality. The experience was profound for Monica. For the first time, she was felt free. For the first time, it seemed her actions mattered and did so for the larger good of others. The SHG helped 20 underprivileged women learn new skills, save money, and take small loans for their households.
In 2007, Monica’s work gained notice and she was selected for Anjali’s, a local NGO’s, Janamanas program supported by the Rajarhat- Gopalpur (RG) Municipality – Monica’s local municipality. Janamanas is a pioneering community mental health initiative of Anjali, which works for the rights of persons living with psycho-social disorders.
Monica and her team run a community mental health kiosk in partnership with the urban local body of Kolkata. From the kiosk as their work base, they fan out into 35 wards to conduct door-step identification and counselling of persons with mental illnesses. They then facilitate hospital referrals and medication and follow up on treatment adherence. Most importantly, they create empathetic community spaces where people can identify and discuss their mental health challenges and seek timely support before the intensification of their condition. ‘
“Our work was primarily based on counselling. It was to ensure that mental stress and pain must not turn into a mental health issue. We went door to door, ran awareness campaigns, and did counselling of at-risk men and women, who often pass undetected through the conventional filter of counselling. In between the local municipality took up the task of running the kiosk. Those years were difficult, as often we didn’t even get the prescribed basic stipend of Rupees 1500. But, we were undeterred. We kept running the kiosk on our own – the 6 of us.” recalls Monica.
Despite constant difficulties and impediments, Monica Majumdar and her team kept the program and the counselling kiosk running. Anjali saw their determination and again took up the financing responsibilities of the program in 2015. It has been 11 years now since the program and the kiosk opened up. The work of Monica and her teammates has reached out to thousands. They have directly impacted more than 3500 persons living with acute psycho-social distress, through their counselling services. Besides, they reach out directly to 3000 community members through their campaigns every year.
The subject of mental health has finally come to the forefront of a larger urban social discussion. But, in a more rural, underserved context, the discussion yet needs a larger dialogue. Barefoot mental health workers like Monica Majumdar are opening-up this larger dialogue, utilizing their struggle and vulnerabilities as an appropriate context. Her work is a monumental testament of that and re-examines the question of mental health in the most underserved, and appallingly difficult, parts of India.
This mental health warrior Monica Majumdar was selected as a finalist of the CII Foundation’s Women Exemplar Program, supported by Due Diligence Partner Start Up – India. You too can nominate a women grassroots leader for 2019 – http://bit.ly/womenexemplar
CII Foundation’s Woman Exemplar Program recognizes exemplary grassroots women change agents who are working to transform excluded and disadvantaged communities of India in the fields of education, health and micro-enterprise in India. Every year 15 finalists are chosen, and 3 are declared winners, with prizes of Rupees 3 Lakhs to the winners and access to a six-month mentoring and leadership process to all finalists. Click Here to know more.
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