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Safer Spaces And Saner Attitudes: Are We Asking For Too Much? #UnManifesto

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By Pooja Malhotra:

In the land where the idols of Durga (the Goddess of Shakti), Lakshmi (Goddess of wealth) and Saraswati (Goddess of knowledge) are worshipped, women are often violated and ripped off their modesty & self respect. In the land where prominent politicos such as Sonia Gandhi, Sheila Dixit hold key positions of power, there are women who feel powerless while commuting by public transport. In the land where women like Jayalalitha and Mayawati, are placed on pedestals and worshipped like Goddesses, there are thousands of women who suffer silently as they battle sexual assault, eve-teasing, verbal abuse and more. Double standards and gender bias in society is so appalling that there is an inherent need to create an ‘unmanifesto’- a voice which conveys what needs to stop, what needs to start, what needs to change. Our ‘unmanifesto’ should empower us to deal with this dichotomy that has somehow become an unwanted part of our existence.

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A 23 year old brave young girl fought to the finish, after the gruesome sexual assault on the fateful night of 16th December, 2012, but a million aspirations died when she breathed her last. It could’ve been me/my sister/my daughter/my wife…these thoughts generated mass grief, public outrage, anger and frustration. But look at the irony — women were groped while protesting against sexual crime, they were inappropriately touched while rallying for women’s safety, young girls heard lewd comments as they marched with candles in their hands to sensitize people towards a safer city. Our ‘unmanifesto’ should empower us to deal with this dichotomy.

Taking advantage of the recent public demand to put an end to crime against women, political parties are bound to make ‘false’ promises on this serious issue. Unlike their manifestos of the past (2009 and earlier) where ‘commitment to women’s safety’ was never addressed, it is bound to be in the core agenda in 2014 and they’ll try their best to add political colour to it. The 2009 manifesto of a leading national party has an entire section titled “Fear shall no longer stalk this land”, but ironically, mentions nothing against sexual violence. The manifesto pledges ‘security, dignity and prosperity’ for each and every citizen but women’s safety doesn’t come into the picture at all. Well, my question is- even if they amend their manifestos and include women’s safety issues, would real action manifest? Will our cities really become safer? Will mindsets change? Will the prejudice against women vanish? Our ‘unmanifesto’ should empower us to deal with this dichotomy.

Bollywood numbers and item songs only add to the misery…this may sound irrelevant, but at a deeper level, the coming in of (aayi) chikni chameli or Sheila ki jawani or munni ka badnaam hona definitely has a deleterious effect on a person’s psyche. The vulgar lyrics somehow tend to stick to their minds (even in the absence of ‘fevicol’) promoting lustful desires and fueling inappropriate behaviour. Add to this ‘a bottle of desi’ or ‘hookah bar’ and you don’t even realize but the ‘balma’ is already there to ‘douse the fire’. So what does the young girl in ‘high heels’ do to escape the ‘shikari’ stalking her? The coping strategies include ignoring, avoiding eye contact, dressing up conservatively, going out only during ‘safe’ daylight hours and last but not the least, being accompanied by a trusted male member. We fend off all offense as if we are not offended; we bury the anger deep within us, endure the agony and suffer silently. Our ‘unmanifesto’ should empower us to deal with this dichotomy.

In the past few weeks, the police have taken ‘baby steps’, like activating helpline numbers and setting up fast track courts, to ensure that offenders are brought to the book, but these are tiny pills being popped in to cure a disease that has grown to epidemic proportions. The key lies in ‘prevention is better than cure’. It is high time we start making a concerted, collective effort towards a safer society. It’s high time the Durga in all of us reincarnates as Kali and conquers the evil. It’s high time we create our ‘unmanifesto’!

But is there a way to create our ‘unmanifesto’? Is there a way in which young people can be given the experience of democracy early in their life to prepare them?

What can we do to develop them as responsible participants in democracy?

Can upcoming elections be seen as a space or young people to engage meaningfully and build themselves while engaging in nation building?

How can we make this happen? We are happy to invite you on behalf of ComMutiny – the Youth Collective and Pravah for Democracy Demo: youth create an un-manifesto for 2013-14 elections.

The event being held on 23rd February, 2013, Saturday from 2:00 PM to 7:00 PM at Vishwa Yuva Kendra and is aimed at bringing together facilitators/educationalists/professionals working with young people to bring their experiences and explore these themes. This event is a culmination of 12 similar events on youth development that have been held across 7 states in collaboration with our NGO partners over the last 2 months.

Many of us have been perfectly conditioned to suffer silently and continue to live in this submissive state. Gender bias is only a part of the big picture…there’s a huge plethora of issues – corruption, environment, poverty, unemployment — that infuriate us and should be a part of our ‘unmanifesto’. Come…let’s create history!

This article is a part of the 5th space series on Youth Ki Awaaz. 5th Space is an initiative to facilitate young people to expand beyond the typical 4 spaces of career-edu, family, friends and leisure by exploring the 5th space, a journey from self to society and back.

Photo Credit: Please! Don’t Smile. via Compfight cc

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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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’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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