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#FreeTheFive Comes To Jantar Mantar – Indians Demand Release Of Chinese Feminists

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By Sanjana Sanghi:

“In paanchon ko riha karo,” shouted a group of protesters who assembled at Jantar Mantar yesterday. While a protest regarding a national or local issue is an everyday affair at Jantar Mantar, the reason behind this particular protest was different.

China protest 3

On March 6, 2015, the authoritarian regime in China detained five feminist activists because they planned to campaign against sexual harassment on buses right before International Women’s Day on March 8. The protest at Jantar Mantar was, in essence, a symbolic attempt to send a message of solidarity to the global movement that is gaining momentum in retaliation to actions taken by the Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The turnout at Jantar Mantar, according to the organizer of the gathering Aapurv Jain, was fairly disappointing. A larger turnout was expected.

“While many showed support on Facebook and other social media platforms, hardly a handful have turned up today. Not only does this show a lack of genuine concern for fellow activists all over the world, it suggests a high degree of selfishness,” remarked Ashley Tellis, a gay rights activists and co-organizer of the protest along with Aapurv, on being questioned regarding the low turnout.

An activist present at the protest on behalf of the Citizens Collective Against Sexual Assault was deeply moved by the incident. “We are here to raise our voice, and condemn this arrest because it has happened in India before and is very likely to happen again,” she said.

China protest 1

Those protesting consider this issue far graver than any other. “It is a day marked by humiliation and sorrow for us all,” they believe. For this incident was an outright violation of the rights of Chinese Women, more than 600 million in number, cumulating up to one-tenth of humanity.

“We should come together and fight. What activists in China are facing today, those in India will face too, sooner or later. It is only a matter of time,” said Aapruv Jain.

What really happened?

On the evening of March 4, leaders of the Chinese feminist community were taken into police custody, in three Chinese cities. They were detained, without any arrest warrants, on the grounds of creating disturbance. They planned to protest against sexual harassment on public transport, a phenomenon fairly common in China. The Beijing Police has advised women to, “not sit on higher levels of buses and to stand on lower stairs, to avoid being the target of inappropriate picture-taking, and they should shelter their bodies with bags, magazines and newspapers.”

China protest 2

In addition to this, their phones, laptops or any other means of communication and documentation were confiscated. Feminist and civic groups all over the world have condemned the brutal crackdown by the Chinese authorities. A campaign page has been launched by Amnesty International on Tumblr. #FreeTheFive is being used on Twitter to gather support.

Several organizations in the Chinese mainland continue to fight for the rights of the arrested through online petitions and social media, despite the hostile political conditions. Feminist groups in Taiwan have expressed their outrage over the arrest and urged President Ma Ying Jeou to include issues pertaining to gender equality and human rights on his agenda.

In Malaysia, considering the large Chinese population, a statement condemning the Chinese authorities and discussing safety of young feminists has been co-signed by over 26 organizations. The 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women declared its aim to be the discussion of obstacles pertaining to gender equality in China, and has made the recent arrest a case study in achieving this aim.

The irony

Twenty years ago, China hosted the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, signed the Beijing Platform for Action, and made a commitment to promote women’s rights and gender equality. The detainment of these 5 activists, (Tingting LI, Man WANG, Tingting WEI, Rongrong WU, and Churan Zheng) is not only a violation of the spirit of the agreement, but also an outright breach of human rights. Today, twitter is trending with #Beijing2020. The irony leaves us all flabbergasted.

China protest

Considering the Chinese One Party system, that prioritizes stability above everything else, there arises a certain possible reasoning for such absurd actions being taken. Speculation suggests that the Two Sessions (Chinese Legislature’s annual meeting) being underway could be the reason behind taking the feminists into police custody. This could be followed up with possible plans of releasing them once the sessions are adjourned.

This really isn’t the first time the Chinese Government has committed such actions. Previously, arbitrary detainments, arrests and harassments have occurred with civil rights lawyers, human rights activists and liberal intellectuals. The prevailing atmosphere of intensified censorship and cracking down on civil liberties in China only seems to be a breeding ground for such atrocities to occur even more frequently.

Far greater suppression by the Chinese government has been seen before. In 1989, the Tiananmen Square Massacre saw troops with assault rifles and tanks inflicting brutalities on unarmed civilians. The recent detainment may be vastly different on grounds of both number and expanse, but it is certainly just as grave an issue. It also extends a common ground to what happened in “Democratic India”, soon after the infamous Nirbhaya incident. When water cannons, lathi charges and all other forms of suppression were imposed upon the peaceful protestors, fighting against the heinous act of rape at large, and revolting against the particular December 16 incident.

Posters reading “Indian feminists support Chinese feminists”, and “Free these Chinese women now” were ubiquitous at the protest. Not only is curbing the freedom of those who seek to make change entirely draconian, it is also regressive. We await the release of these 5 activists, and a restoration of basic human rights and dignity.

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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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