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Does India Today’s Vikram Seth Cover On Section 377 Do Justice To The Cause?

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By Abhinita Mohanty:

So, the photo shoot of the year made a buzz in the social media! No, it’s not vogue fashion photography with a ‘hottie’ model with ‘to die for body’ doing the rounds or the bikini clad Kingfisher Calendar in exotic place making your eyes glued on them. It’s only the simple photo of a ‘not so oomph’ man claiming that he is not a criminal that managed to catch all attention among our ‘glamour obsessed’ masses.

Vikram Seth

As a reaction to the criminalization of IPC 377, Vikram Seth and India Today jointly reacted by portraying Seth as a criminal with the placard saying ‘Not A Criminal’. The cover picture has earned the magazine a lot of kudos. There might have been a spur in the sales too and it would not be incorrect to mention that it was a marketing strategy, made at the tight time! But it will be a gross mistake to label it as a ‘marketing gimmick’. Although no prosecution has been made under this law since years, yet the very reason of its existence criminalizes 2 million people and makes them live with fear. This photo has given the LGBTQI community their poster boy and a face to their struggle. This has, no doubt, at least symbolically boosted the morale of the LGBTQI community. But will this actually help them? Was it proper to make Vikram Seth the sole face of the fight? To understand all these we need to look at the person involved here.

The celebrated author is bisexual in orientation and has always been ‘allergic to any crusade’, as India Today says. Seth has been a known recluse in taking up any crusade regarding the matter and he took a long time to come out of the closet, at least publicly. His mother too claims that it actually came when he was 30! The author answers by saying that he is a writer and cannot take up crusades and homosexuality is evident in his writing and the characters in his novels. It’s clear that Seth has not actually gone onto the streets being the leader of the masses and he never intended to do that too. Personally, I respect his individual choice. But there is one thing that can be clearly seen in Seth’s acceptance to do this photo shoot for India Today. The reason can be (perhaps) to steal all the lime light at the right time. My opinion is tentative but the larger unfolding of events has led to this conclusion. In 2009, when the Delhi High Court favoured the LGBTQI by decriminalizing it, Seth immediately came up on NDTV in Barkha Dutt’s show to express his satisfaction and opine himself. Although he did campaign on IPC 377 in 2006, prior to that he never actually participated in the process of this struggle, even when he did mention it in interviews, he talked about it more in a personal way.

After the 2009 verdict, he should not have, at least, stolen all the limelight. The unknown LGBTQI out there who had fought longer and harder and are ordinary, deserved better. The media too, instead of making Seth their sole person to talk to, should have sought lesser known but equally competent people who were a part of this movement. There are many LGBTQI people who face greater threats from this law than an elite like Seth, who can easily live the life he wants. In 2013, Seth again did a photo shoot with ‘India Today’ with a melodramatic ‘criminal stubble and dress’. I am not interested in exploring his intention behind doing this photo shoot, but given his prior fame, he can be accused of stealing the show again all for himself at the right opportunity.

The photo is not the problem here, it is indeed a bold move by the magazine. But by choosing an elite face in front of the camera, the magazine has led to a fallacious public assumption that ‘he is the hero in the fight’. Would it have made any difference if someone equally well known in the LGBTQI circle would have been that face on the cover picture? Why not make a real crusader and leader of LGBT a hero rather than ‘eliticising’ the issue? It would have made much difference to publish the photo of such a person, along with their interview and experiences. By portraying a celebrity about whom we all know, will we not only deny others their rightful place in their fight for rights but it will also stop us from learning more about this movement, knowing about the ordinary leaders and looking beyond the ‘charm of a celebrity face’.

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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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