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A Photo Project That No One Wanted To Cover Because It Was “Explicit” And Possibly “Erotic”

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By Veda Nadendla:

This narrative is not for the faint-hearted, and definitely not for the judgmental. As you scroll down, do so with an open mind because what you are about to witness is going to gobsmack you. It is the breaking of societal and cultural norms; a catalyst unlike any other. A message to open our minds and hearts; before we judge, before we limit, before we stereotype and before we objectify. You are about to see photography in its most honest form.

As a college project, a young woman in Bangalore decided to shoot the following photographs to portray that there is nothing wrong with showing skin, it’s all in the way we think and react. Chavi Sethi from New Delhi says that her photo project is a means to make people think. “How can a country grow, when half of its people are not comfortable in their skin?” During my conversation with her, Chavi mentioned that at a family member’s wedding in the recent past, she encountered some aunts and they asked, “Who will marry you if you keep shaking your leg like that?” As a limerick, she added, “Tell my prospective husbands that I have obsessive compulsive disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”

Chavi’s project is a subtle yet powerful portrayal of everything that is wrong with our mentalities. We have all been judgmental and biased, we have all at some point looked at a girl dressed in hot pants and thought, ‘that is so indecent’, or judged a girl for showing her cleavage. Even today, sleeveless clothes are banned in colleges, and adding just two inches of cloth to a sleeveless top apparently, makes it more decent. I ask you, is the absence of those two inches enough to brand someone vulgar, to seek them out and stare at them, to lech at them in public spaces, to leave them uncomfortable and fearful? Is that reason enough to touch them? I am not judging you for being intrusive, so why are you judging me for minding my own business? It seems that the message from this photo project is pretty clear; women in India are uncomfortable in their own skin for fear of judgement and disrespect. You should be able to wear whatever you want, while being able to carry it, without caring about unknown people harming you mentally or physically. Feminism is about a shared responsibility. So women and men alike owe it to each other to be more sensitive and open-minded toward each other.

What is the ideology behind your project?

The general idea is that there are a lot of dogmas attached to general things women use and do, which we as Indian men and women, cannot seem to accept. Buying a pad from a male attendant is an embarrassment because he quickly bills it and wraps it in the newspaper and gives it to you as if it’s an explosive or just leaves it there for you to pick up. What also bothers me is that people think that rape is only about the woman’s body. Rape is perpetrated on babies aged 3 months, little girls and boys, young women and middle-aged women as well as women aged 85. Rape is about aggression and power, it is about control. Also, we can’t assume that men are sex mongers; they too can not want sex and it is not fair to label them so. Our country is stagnating because our beliefs are speed bumps and ditches which refuse to be repaired.

What were the challenges you faced with this project?
I’ll list it down for you so that it becomes simpler:

1. No one agreed to be the model for ‘a revealing shoot’ like mine, so for a moment, I thought I would do self-portraits, till I found the perfect person. She too was very reluctant and stiff in front of the camera and I had to engage her in conversation for quite some time before we started shooting.

2. No one would cover the article except one forum for the fear that it was ‘explicit’ and possibly ‘erotic’.

3. My relatives were against it. They told me, ‘What if someone Googles you and sees this post? No one will marry you.’ I don’t need someone who disagrees with my opinions to marry me, everyone should have that choice. Women are not born so men can accept and reject them for marriage.

4. A few NGOs too disagreed to use the content for awareness drives because it was not art oriented and seemed revealing.

5. My uncle asked me why I am rebelling. I told him that this is not rebellion, this is an opinion. Is having an opinion rebellious?

This is not modernization, this is acceptance. When I wear a crop top, it seems smutty, but the few inches of stomach shown in a saree are not? Our mentalities are holding us back.

This project is a catalyst for change in the way that it compels you to look at the woman in the pictures as a person with her own choices and opinions. Nothing gives us the right to judge her for her choice of clothing or her decision to do the shoot. But how many of you think this way? You’ve seen what you had to; tell us what’s on your mind.

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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, 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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