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Dominated by Authorities- A Culture Genotype

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Harish Alagappa:

In July 1961, Stanley Milgram performed one of the most important experiments ever, in the history of human psychology. He had recently obtained his PhD in Social Psychology from Harvard University at a time when “the Architect of the Holocaust”, Adolf Eichmann was undergoing trial for crimes against humanity. During the war trials following World War II in 1945-46, Nazi War Criminals had used what had since come to be referred to as the Nuremburg Defense. Simply put, they were not vindictive masochists who enjoyed torturing and exterminating millions of Jews, Poles and Gypsies in grotesque concentration camps; they were merely following orders from superior officers. The Allied Powers refused to admit this defense in these trials as they believed that no human being would follow orders that they found morally reprehensible. Stanley Milgram’s experiment changed all that.

The experiment involved three people: the “experimenter”, the “learner” or the “victim” and the “teacher”. The “teacher” and “learner” have been recruited through flyers offering them money if they were willing to volunteer their services for an hour for an experiment aimed at studying how the human memory works and ways to improve it. The teacher was given a sample electric shock, and was informed that this would be the basic electric shock that is going to be administered on the learner. The details of the experiment are unimportant. The important part is that the teacher and learner are kept in separate rooms with no visual contact. The teacher proceeds to ask the learner a series of questions. The learner answers by pressing an appropriate button. If the answer is incorrect, the teacher is instructed to administer an electric shock to the learner. While the shock received by the learner for the first wrong answer is similar to the 15V sample shock given to the teacher before the experiment, the voltage of the shock is increased by a further 15 volts for every wrong answer; thus for a second wrong answer the learner would receive a shock of 30V, for a third wrong answer 45V and so on. If the teacher wished to stop the experiment at any point of time, he was told to continue four times, with each instruction becoming increasingly stern. If after the four instructions (the last of which was: “You have no option, you have to continue!”), he or she still wished to stop, the experiment was stopped. Otherwise, the maximum shock that could be administered was 450 volts. A 450V electric shock is no trifling amount; most shocks above 200V are deadly.

Of course, this experiment was a sham. The learner wasn’t actually receiving any electric shock. He and the experimenter were investigating something far more important. How much would one human being harm a stranger if instructed to do so, by an authority figure? The only real volunteer here was the teacher, who was unaware of the true nature of the experiment and actually believed he or she was administering real electric shocks to real individuals. And what was the result of the experiment? Out of the 40 people who were unwitting participants in the experiment, 26 administered the 450V shock. 39 of them only stopped after crossing the 300V mark.

How would the Indian youth fare at this particular experiment? Replications of the experiment have come up with a scary average of around 60-70% of people willing to administer the highest shock on a stranger just because they were informed to by an authority figure.

Indian youth are brought up with a surplus of authority figures. We have our parents, elder siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins, teachers, professors, principals, senior students at school and college and even de facto leaders in social circles. At every step of the way, we are told what we have to do. Our parents don’t ask us to study for exams, we are instructed to. We are told that we have to follow our parent’s religious beliefs and share their same ideologies. At school, we are instructed in moral values. Our moral code is an amalgamation of the ideologies of our parents, our school and our social circle.

Yet, how many of us have stopped to think about the implications of the instructions being imparted to us by our parents, teachers and friends? How many of us took a puff of that first cigarette, fully aware of all the harmful effects of smoking, just because the authority figure in our social circle is a smoker and told us to? Or because we wished to impress someone and have been instructed by years of stereotyping that smoking is cool? How many of us have ever had the fortitude to not involve ourselves in something we do not wish to be a part despite authority figures telling us to? How many of us have not blindly accepted the knowledge given to us by our teachers and professors to be true even though even a moment’s reflection will show us that it is tainted with their personal bias?

The Indian youth is the biggest source of power in the world today. We are a land of one billion people with a median age of 25. And it frightens me how easily we can be molded to follow the instructions of an authority. A hundred years ago, highly educated young Indians would end letters to British Colonists with the Valediction: “Your Most Obedient Servant”. We are little different. Subservience to authorities is a culture genotype that needs to be weeded out of our communal DNA if we are to succeed in the world.

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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.

Read more about his campaign.

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.

Read more about her campaign.

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.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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