Utilising constitutional tasks, rural immersion, and volunteering experiences, Uttar Pradesh based YES Foundation is changing the narrative for thousands of rural youth
“Imagine opening up a book on sexuality and sexual health in a train compartment filled with men who eve-teased girls coming to Lucknow on a daily basis. The thought itself was stifling to me. But, when I did that, the outcome was unexpected, to say the least. I was expecting belligerent mockery, but what I got was dialogue”. Zeeshan (founder, YES Foundation) paused with a sense of pride as he said these words, probably contemplating the unprecedented response of those men at a time when eve-teasing was considered as harmless.
Zeeshan Mohammad grew up in the Sitapur district in Uttar Pradesh, but studied from Lucknow University, 90 kilometres from Sitapur. After completing his Bachelor’s degree, he moved on to the corporate sector. His remuneration was good, life was stable, and respect from society was rolling on a constant flow. But, it was a constant itch to explore that led him towards social work. He decided to enrol in the Masters in Social Work course at Lucknow University in 2008 and eventually quit his job 2 months later. It was during this time that Zeeshan gained clarity on the fact that good exposure for the youth in and around Lucknow was tremendously less compared to those of the young people in Delhi or Mumbai. The constant harassment he saw on railway platforms, and the eve-teasing that he saw during his daily commute, confirmed this as a fact. “I felt a need to do something drastic. Something fundamentally different from what young people were used to and the results were unprecedented. A lot of this was around the sexual taboo, abstinence and prevalent miscommunication in our society. So, I took the help of the book to raise eyebrows and open eyes. Over the course of a year, more than 35 young people, who were constant perpetrators of rampant eve-teasing, started to have a conversation. Every day, while coming back from Sitapur to Lucknow, we used to talk. Eventually, they understood that what they did was wrong, leaving an indelible scar and fear in the subconscious of the girl. This was the first opportunity when I was able to mobilise youth for a larger, positive outcome.” says Zeeshan.
Banking on this success, Zeeshan eventually settled in Lucknow, deciding to work in the youth space, striving for exposure and vouching for change. During this time, in 2010, Zeeshan started a campaign called Safe Safar. “Now, when I settled in Lucknow, I observed that eve-teasing and harassing were again common in another means of frequent transport – Auto Rickshaws. This was a time when many women from rural areas and far away towns were coming to Lucknow to study and Autos were their primary means of transportation. The autos were often filled beyond their fledgeling capacities and women became subjects of harassment from fellow male passengers.”, Zeeshan recalls. Now, creating a platform for both women and men to come together to create an understanding of the issue was proving to be difficult. So, Zeeshan decided to sensitize the autorickshaw drivers, making them part of the conversation and helping them realise that their occupation has inadvertently become a part of a larger circle of oppression and harassment.
The initiative was appreciated by all stakeholders and got the attention of Community – The Youth Collective (CYC). “With the help of Commutiny – The Youth Collective’s learning and leadership journey we were able to push this idea to a larger scope. In the span of several months were able to run sensitisation drives with over 60 Auto-Rickshaw drivers in Lucknow. The response from the drivers was stupendous too. They became a part of the conversation, and uprooted any activity of harassment or eve-teasing they witnessed, in their autos”, said Zeeshan.
“It was also during this campaign that Shariq – YES’s co-founder – came to the forefront. We used to work together, and when the campaign began, I felt he might be a right for it. And Shariq didn’t disappoint. May it be outreach, initiating conversations with all the stakeholders, or networking, Shariq was immaculately pro-active. For almost a year and a half, Shariq without any remuneration. We connected and this led to YES”, Zeeshan added.
The success of this campaign laid the foundation of Yeh Ek Soch (YES) Foundation in 2012. It is a youth-led organisation started by Zeeshan and Shariq that strives for a society in which young people are informed, empowered, encouraged and supported to participate in marginalized community and for a society where every young person is engaged in powerful, purposeful and positive social change.
This year, YES foundation was also an anchor for Be a Jagrik – Samvidhan LIVE!… Live the SDGs! Initiated by Delhi based Community – The Youth Collective. This initiative aims to build young people’s capacities to meet the challenge of living the constitution and sustainable development goals as they refl-act (reflect+act) in the real world. Using their experiential discoveries provided by a fun-filled game, played over six weeks in their own area, young Jagriks will develop an understanding of how fundamental rights and duties play out in reality.
YES Foundation anchored this initiative in Uttar Pradesh, cohesively mentoring 10 organisations. “You know people used to chide, criticise the fact that how can an organisation take the risk of supporting another organisation, running in parallel in itself. We knew that this thought was unprecedented in its own ways, given the possessiveness of many organisations with their concepts, ideas and impact. Today, 6 years from the day we started, we and the other organisations – all of us are thriving and striving hard to create impact. YES foundation is the UP Hub for Pravah and CYC. We have been mentoring and supporting 10 organisations for the Be A Jagrik campaign and the regional collectivisation process has been very fruitful, bringing in new opportunities every day.” says Zeeshan.
“We are working with organisations that have been running for more than 25 years and also supporting organisations that are just a year old. That is the beauty of this collaborative effort, especially in the case of Be A Jagrik. A renewed bridge of mentoring is being established every day, as we learn from them and they learn from us.” he adds.
YES Foundation is also spearheading Pravah’s – a 25-year-old organisation based in New Delhi that works with young people to impact issues of social justice through youth citizenship action. – SMILE IN-TURN-SHIP. SMILE IN-TURN-SHIP is a 3-6 week rural internship and immersion program work for young people with rural organisations and movements in different parts of the country working on diverse issues such as education, child rights, tribal rights, women rights and gender-based violence.
The numbers showcase the strength of YES’s involvement in the complete campaign. In Uttar Pradesh, under YES’s guidance, all the organisation reached to more than 5000 people directly with Be A Jagrik and the SMILE Internship and more than 37000 people were reached indirectly. In the process, 1731 tasks were completed by 383 Jagriks, 12781 promises were collected, and 16 office bearers were engaged in the process.
“Numerous volunteers of ours were seen counter-questioning the topics that were being taught by their professors. Often the professors would get irritated to a level, that they would prohibit the students to volunteer with us. But, the students still came in and volunteered. When I see young girls, who had been often stymied and not let beyond the edges of their households, going to different villages and cities to understand and create impact, we feel content. We feel that we are at a path to understanding young people, their convictions, and how they can be a bastion of larger change”, adds Zeeshan.