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Women’s Colleges In India – Spaces Where ‘Voices Are Silenced And Snatched Away’

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By Nikita Arora:

While reading the prospectus of my college, Government College for Girls, Patiala, I came across a point under hostel rules which said, ‘Those who participate in any strike, directly or indirectly, can be expelled from the hostel’, which simply reminded me of a Hitler-like fascist regime where opposition is suppressed severely. Educational campuses, exclusively girls’ educational campuses, have these kind of rules for day scholars as well as hostel residents. Although it is a recognized and acknowledged fact that our educational institutions have gender-discriminatory practices, ranging from the timings of hostels to research facilities, I still feel that this particular rule is the most dangerous and derogatory one.

Reunion en el Instituto Superior Politécnico José Antonio Echeverria. CUJAE. del VII Congreso de la FEU. Fecha:16 de Noviembre de 2006 Foto: Roberto Suarez
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Schools, colleges and universities which were set up to promote the agenda of women empowerment in an age when women were restrained from receiving an education, following the revolutionary beginning of Savitribai Phule’s school, today have the most suppressive and male-chauvinist rules and regulations, under the name of ‘exclusivity’. Women’s institutions also follow the Constitution in a unique manner; they pose their institutions as a detached island, meant for making women ‘wise’, ‘excellent’ in all fields. However, this wisdom and excellence is consciously interpreted in a manner suitable to the authority and government. If you are a student in a women’s institution, you have to maintain the ‘reputation’ of the institution, by not making  boyfriends, not going out too often, no night-outs, and of course no ‘union-baazi’, a name used by the authority as an insult towards student politics. All ‘isms’, and mechanisms which are ‘taught’ in closed classrooms seem bogus in front of the atmosphere provided to female students.

Recently, the UGC has recommended certain guidelines for higher educational institutions, under the name UGC Guidelines on Safety of Students off and on Campuses of Higher Educational Institutions (HEI), whose sixth point reads, ‘Setting up a university police station within the premises of HEIs, wherever feasible, can go a long way in instilling a sense of security amongst students and scare amongst nuisance makers and petty criminals.’ What is interesting is the category of students who will be and are named as ‘nuisance-makers’ by the authority. Subramaniam Swamy, member of the BJP commented on the students of JNU, a campus known for its politicisation, as an institution of ‘Naxalites’, which is the exact manifestation of the point highlighted by UGC, purpose being the depoliticisation of campuses. In an atmosphere where the participation of women in public spaces, meetings, organizations is next to minimum, such guidelines will push women inside the four walls of hostels and homes, away from academic as well as political activities. The implications of these guidelines, when implemented in colleges like the one stated will increase the intensity of gender discriminatory rules, such as women’s reluctance to participate in protests in front of police officials. Also, the voices of dissent will be crushed and an atmosphere of emergency will be created, where women will be sidelined to the category of weak and silent students.

The processes through which women are socialized to accept themselves as weak and dependent are varied across the atmosphere of the locality they live in, to the school, to the college, to the workplaces, with the foundational work done by school education. Since the development of a professional education, it remains as one of the most influencing factors in deciding the consciousness and thought processes of the individual. Education is a process of theorizing knowledge which human society has acquired, and of setting up new challenges for the next generation. But, the academic syllabus which was supposed to enlighten students through it, is actually preaching the idealistic and metaphysical notions about society, including subjugating women as a second sex; it starts from the nursery rhymes and continues till the death of a woman, in one or the other from.

Let us take an example to support the case. I once read a poem as a child, titled, ‘A Man and A Maid’, in which a man asks a maid to marry her, but she refuses because he does not have sufficient resources and money to start a family with her. She comments, ‘Should I be your little bride, pray what must we have for to eat, eat, eat? Will the flame you’re so rich in, light a fire in the kitchen?’. The poem speaks in a highly sexist tone where the maid is represented as the one dependent on the man for their survival, and this is what children read when they are in school, a complete ignorance of the value domestic work and the role women have played in the evolution of society. The next case is of a lesson, which students are taught in B.A I Semester, Punjabi University, Patiala and its affiliated colleges, named, ‘The Nose-Jewel’ by T. Rajagopalchari. The introduction of the chapter speaks in a threatening and threatened tone, simultaneously, commenting that the chapter is likely to be disliked by ‘present-day feminists’. The fable deals with a pair of sparrows who take shelter in a home where a couple lives. One fine day, the male sparrow finds a diamond nose-jewel lying on the floor and brings it to his wife, but she says that it is of no use to her, to which the male sparrow discards it. The lady of the house sees it and wears it. Her husband comes home and asks her from where she had gotten it, and asks her to report it to the police. She refuses and in a few days she falls ill. On seeing this, the male sparrow remarks that she fell ill because she did not obey her husband, and the female sparrow smiles and agrees. This misogynist lesson instils in the mind of women the belief that they are the ones to be protected and saved from the ‘monsters’, and can be safe and happy only if they listen and obey their male counterparts.

In such times as these, when voices of women are silenced and the space where such voices can be heard are snatched from them, such as democratic educational campuses, it is very important that women start resisting such attempts and put up a fight to reclaim all spaces of society, in texts prescribed by the authorities as well as in campuses. A campaign named ‘Pinjra Tod: Break the cages’ has been started in Delhi and other parts of India, questioning the locks of hostels which restrict the movement of women.

Last month, a school going girl of 8 years was gang-raped in a town near Amritsar, Punjab, and now she does not want to go to school because everyone looks down on her, and her mother is worried about her marriage! We must fight to such patriarchal mindsets and their basis which seize the childhood, teenage years and youth from women; challenge the sexist academic and material atmosphere; altogether giving a call for women’s freedom and equality in educational campuses and society, at large. The communal attempts that are being hurled up in education, such as teaching the Bhagwad Gita in classes, changing the third language option to Sanskrit, recruiting Gajendra Chauhan as the head of FTII, naming Kanya Maha Vidyalayas as a Heritage site, de-scientifying science etc., must be met with consistent resistance from women. The position of women must be retraced throughout history as one who plays an essentially important role in society. She shouldn’t be locked up, or taught that she should be locked up. That’s not a solution, and never will be.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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