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An Exclusive Chat With Pinjra Tod Organisers On The Campaign, Its Vision, And Future

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By Shambhavi Saxena for Youth Ki Awaaz: 

“I know why the caged bird sings,” read one among dozens of hand-made posters that were strung up across a section of Jantar Mantar road on 10th October, 2015. By about 2 o’clock, people had gathered in the shade of the tree-lined avenue for Pinjra Tod’s Jan Sunwai. The public meeting organized by the young women students of universities in New Delhi, was also attended by Delhi Commission for Women’s representative, Farheen Malik. One by one, women came front and centre to talk about what can only be described as tyrannical rules for hostel and PG residents in the city. The charter of demands put forth by the organizers, at the end of about two months’ mobilization and campaigning, was welcomingly accepted by Malik on behalf of the DCW. Following the program, Youth Ki Awaaz caught up with two of the organizers, Devangana Kalita and Shambhawi Vikram Singh, to talk about the birth of the campaign and its vision for the future.

pinjra tod jan sunwai 2

Was there any particular event that catalysed the campaign?

Devangana Kalita (DK): I think the moment which really made us go public with this campaign across universities was when the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) gave a directive to Jamia saying that the circular cancelling late nights was gender discrimination. Often it’s very hard for students to confront their administration, because they get witch-hunted, or threatened with a phone-call to their parents. So the DCW was then a body we could address our demands to, which gives us a certain legitimacy when we take on the university administration, as well as building solidarity and mobilize students.

Many of us had been part of earlier protests, like Kiss of Love, or the 14th February protest, or Blood On My Skirt, and we saw Facebook really worked in terms of reaching out to people, so we created Pinjra Tod as a platform where people could send in their stories, and feel that shared solidarity and connection – that feeling of anger and oppression.

Shambhawi Vikram Singh (SVS): A lot of people actually then joined Pinjra Tod after our on-ground campaigning, and took it up in different units. So Jamia was functioning on its own, AUD was functioning on its own, and so on. The documentary film we did also helped mobilize people. The page was constantly updated. We were getting personal messages from women students across the country.

DK: A university like Jamia gets targeted because it’s a minority institution – it’s a Muslim university, it’s ‘conservative’. But LSR or Miranda House, that are supposed to be feminist colleges, are also quite terrible when it comes to these restrictions. The idea that this is not an isolated case in Jamia or DU. We knew it was something happening across the country, so it was important to connect the personal with a more collective, political struggle.

How have the administration and the faculty responded to Pinjra Tod?

SVS: Some of the faculty has been quite supportive. But that has not been the case with the administration, which was silent for a long time. Then two or three weeks after the campaign started, there were these circulars being handed out on campus, after all these years, asking whether students lived in PGs, and what the conditions were like there. SRCC increased its curfew time by half an hour. And Jamia also came up with the response that they are currently trying to figure out how to uphold gender parity within campus. Of course the authorities will not make public statements, but we do feel like this was a response to our campaign.

pinjra tod jan sunwai campaignOn the flipside, the wardens in these colleges, especially Miranda House and Jamia, have been on the look-out for people promoting the campaign – they’ve been looking for people with parchhas, and asking people, and appointing spies to figure out who’s involved in the campaign.

Was it hard to mobilize students around the issue of these protectionist rules and regulations?

DK: We started out with 10 or 15 people, and with Facebook it just grew bigger. So far it’s not been very difficult, in terms of people taking their own initiative. I think how to keep the momentum going is going to be difficult. For a lot of us, this is mainly what we were thinking about over the last month – between classes or when we had breaks we would go campaign or put posters up across campuses. When I was doing my undergrad in 2007, it wasn’t this easy to raise the demand about curfews. You would get called elitists. This whole thing is a coming together of the demand for more hostels, and questioning the way existing hostels are. Also after 16th December, the kind of response we’ve received form the media has been more than we expected. This is a point where the gender question, or the women’s question, is emerging as significant in society, and I guess that’s also feeding into the responses we’ve been getting.

But has there been any resistance from the student body itself toward the campaign?

SVS: Quite a few women told us they didn’t feel they needed this. They said they were happy returning to the hostel by 8pm, and that they didn’t mind getting permission from their parents. There was a lot of anxiety around the whole issue of safety, and it’s been drilled into our brains so often that we’ve actually accepted it, which is quite dangerous! It was disappointing to hear this from them.

But we found that these women were amenable in some ways – for example if we articulated ourselves without words like “autonomy” and “freedom”, and just convey it in the simplest of terms. If we gave them the argument that the streets would be safer if there were more women outside, then they seem to get it. We were able to politicise certain people who had not thought about these things before.

Some of the men also responded to the campaign, wondering if restrictions would be tightened on their hostels too – wondering if their curfews be reduced from 9pm to 7pm. There is this recognition that this is not right, and that there is discrimination. There is a lot of anxiety that women are finally raising their voices. But of course there were a lot of men who said, “Main kyu sign karu? Yeh toh auraton ka hai. (Why should I sign? This is for women).”

How does Pinjra Tod respond to the University’s argument that it is responsible to our parents?

That is our primary problem with the University. Women coming into higher education has been a long struggle. As Mary John said, over the last 10-20 years, women are present in almost equal numbers as men in central universities than any other sector. But now that we are a significant section of the university, how are we treated? We are not treated as adults, we are constantly infantilized. The University acts like a khap panchayat, telling you where to go, when to go. They say, “we are responsible to your parents”, but shouldn’t it be responsible to our constitutional rights? Our parents might want all kinds of things, they might say, “second year bahut padhai ho gaya, nikal ke le jate hain tumko, shaadi karwa dete hai (You have studied enough till your second year, it’s time to get you married).” Parents might want only a certain kind of girl to come out of the University, who can be sold in the marriage market. The University saying it’s accountable to our parents has to be strongly countered. The University has to treat us as young adult women, who decide for themselves who to marry, who to vote for, whether you can drive etc.

We know safety is an issue. We are negotiating questions of safety all the time, and we know best how to do that. You have to trust us, and give us the space for adventure and risk, and experience adult life, not constantly constricted! The university is a mechanism for reproducing patriarchal structures that exist in societies and families, whereas they should be spaces for challenging these things, and that’s why it should cater to our constitutional rights.

pinjra tod jan sunwai 3At the Jan Sunwai, you presented the Delhi Commission for Women’s representative with a set of demands. What are these larger demands?

We don’t want a cap on the number of late nights women students can have. We want to raise the question around women’s access to public spaces and infrastructure. For example, the Delhi metro runs a women’s coach till 11.45 – if you enter it after 9.30, it’s probably deserted because women are locked up inside at night!

The DCW is an advisory body and it can issue notices. How the administration then takes it up – we have to wait and watch. We still need a local one-on-one meeting with the administration. We’re hopeful that the DCW will do something. They’ve been keeping a track of the campaign, and constantly messaging us, saying they’re interested in working with us and meeting with us.

Following the Jan Sunwai, Pinjra Tod campaigners met with the DCW chairperson Swati Maliwal and release this statement on Facebook: “[Maliwal] said she would be willing to issue directives to colleges and universities on all our main demands.” The group will also be preparing a detailed report of case studies by the 23rd of October, 2015, and invites women students to share their experiences with the full assurance of confidentiality. They further noted that the “realisation of any of its directives can only be ensured by how strong we are on the streets,” and urging the student body to be consistent, persistent and vigilant.

As the movement builds, we should all keep in mind this verse written for the campaign by the all-girl rock band, The Vinyl Records:
“The streets need more women, more light
Even Cinderella had till midnight
The world’s changing; Don’t hold on so tight
Laxmi Bai didn’t have a curfew to fight.
7, 8:30, 10 pm-
You don’t want us safe; you want us in.
We won’t be prisoners anymore;
It’s time to PINJRA TOD!”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)’.

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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.

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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
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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