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When Stars Speak Up For A Cause, Do People Take Them Seriously?

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By Amit Sengupta:

I am sure you must have heard the speech made by actress Emma Watson, of the Harry Potter series fame, a couple of months ago at the UN headquarters in New York. Even as many of us in India are struggling to check the social acceptance of violence against women and girls, her words find a strong resonance.

Emma Watson  UN speech

For the uninitiated, here is what Emma said: “Today we are launching a campaign called HeForShe. I am reaching out to you because I need your help. We want to end gender inequality—and to do that we need everyone to be involved…In 1995, Hilary Clinton made a stirring speech in the Fourth World Conference in Beijing about women’s rights. Sadly many of the things she wanted to change are still a reality today. But what stood out for me the most was that only 30 per cent of her audience was male. How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?”

In fact, this is what Hilary announced at the Beijing conference: “It is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights.” 19 years since Hillary’s speech, very little progress has been made to reduce the increasing gap of gender inequality. Not surprisingly, the recent World Economic Forum Gender report 2014, puts India to shame. India has fallen behind its south Asian counterparts – Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh – on vital parameters such as economic participation, political empowerment et al.

Given this seemingly deteriorating situation, increasing awareness on reducing violence against women becomes a daunting task; more so, in a huge and diverse country like India. Here’s why I think the voice of popular public figures, political leaders and celebrities makes a difference. Their roles have become increasingly vital to the core of campaigning and advocacy on social issues.

The power of their speech, the emotional appeal it carries, the star aura, all sways their fans and creates an impact. Fans tend to believe more what world leaders and popular actors and musicians say, rather than act on a government advertisement or a news report asking them to commit to a just cause. The innate sense of persuasion they have on their fans is impeccable. And people look up to them as one of their role models. Look at the number of celebrities endorsing anything and everything from soaps to the polio eradication campaign.

Star power is not a recent phenomenon, of late we are witnessing lot of international actors queuing up as good will ambassadors for international non profit organisations and even the UN agencies. We have Angelina Jolie’s work as UNHCR’s ambassador visiting refugee camps and Nicole Kidman working with UN Women to reduce violence against women. Oxfam’s global ambassadors include the likes of Desmond Tutu, Helen Mirren, Kristin Davis, Leymah Gbowee and Rahul Bose.

There’s nothing wrong in getting them onboard for a socially just cause. They are helping us amplify the messages of our advocacy and campaigning after all. This is what actress Teri Hatcher, said in support of UN’s 16 days of activism campaign: “I am one in three, and I will be the one who yells from the rooftops, until those numbers change.”

There are also sports stars such as David Beckham, Lionel Messi among others who have been championing the cause of human rights through their profession and reaching out to millions of their fans and followers. But is it enough? Do people take them seriously? Are they using their stardom to change the situation at the grassroots? How much time they are able to devote to advocacy and campaigning on critical issues that affect women and girls?

Well, given the recent trends, it seems yes. People take them seriously, to a large extent.

Says Julie Thekkudan, lead specialist, gender justice, Oxfam India: “There’s no denying the fact that they act as powerful role models. Lots of young people look up to them. When they give their voice to a campaign, it definitely helps the social cause. This has tremendous potential.”

While we have a plethora of international celebrities jumping onto the non-profit bandwagon, we hardly have any of their Indian counterparts making use of their star power to reduce social injustice, gender inequality and discrimination. Nevertheless, there are few who stand out for their outright support towards a cause.

Yes, we have actor and musician, Farhan Akhtar recently joining UN’s HeforShe campaign in increasing awareness of women’s rights and reducing violence against women. Ace tennis player, Sania Mirza has also joined the UN platform to raise awareness on this vital issue. Oxfam also has its fair share of good will ambassadors who we call brand ambassadors. We have actors of repute such as Rahul Bose, Colin Firth among others who help us amplify our messages around rights for all.

In many of Oxfam India’s campaigns, Rahul Bose has effectively voiced concerns about gender inequality and the need to reduce social injustice. There’s a certain sense of credibility and believability in the messages shared by people like Rahul Bose or Farhan Akhtar. While it’s good that celebrities like Farhan Akhtar and Sania Mirza use their star power to further such causes, there is a need to go beyond tokenisms and engage more deeply on issues such as gender inequality.

As Julie Thekkudan rightly puts it, “There is a fundamental difference between celebrity endorsements and good will ambassadors. Celebrities have a very consumerist aspect to their existence. For them to champion a social cause, it has to be a delicate balance between their ‘consumerist image’ and their role as activists. Engagements by good will ambassadors have to be at a far more deeper and substantial level. This is all about nurturing relationships.”

Reducing the social acceptance of violence against women and girls may be a first step as we aim for a society free of violence. In this journey we may well need the stardom, charm and mass appeal of good will ambassadors. Bringing them onboard should be seen as a positive fit to our larger narrative on increasing awareness and reducing violence against women and girls.

Let their tribe grow!

The author is with policy, research, campaigns, Oxfam India

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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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