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When I Was Growing Up, ‘Being A Man’ Meant Ogling At Girls, Rating Their ‘Hotness’

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Growing up is a hard thing to do. With most of us, there is usually a specific frame of time that we remember as the moment we knew things were changing. For me, this defining moment was the first day after the summer break in 9th grade.

hip hip hurrayI’d always been a part of a class where it was considered borderline illegal to communicate with the opposite sex, rendering the fact that I studied in a co-ed school pretty much useless. Fraternising with “the other kind” would result in anything ranging from public humiliation to being absolutely outlawed from the class bunch. This is the reason I could never muster up enough courage to even ask for a spare pen from anyone who wasn’t male. This is also why, when we had our much-awaited summer vacation, I expected things to be no different when school would later resume. Little did I know that the only thing that was going to remain consistent was the immense amount of confusion and pressure on me to align with the “men” in the class.

When school resumed, I was blissfully unaware of what the day would turn out to be like. For some reason, all the boys in the class were suddenly sporting rather inadequate facial hair and had their shirts unbuttoned so far down their chest they could use their shoelaces as replacement for shirt buttons. Suddenly everyone’s hair looked like it’d been electrocuted. But most surprisingly, I saw not one, but tens of the boys who’d earlier lead the “boycott women” movement now sitting adjacent to the girls, with odd looking smirks on their faces. All throughout, I was thinking to myself – what kind of a memo did I miss during this vacation?

I now found myself in a rather strange situation. All these years, the primary pressure on me was to make sure I wasn’t caught talking to girls, or else I’d face public humiliation, even though this seemed quite ridiculous to me.

Just when I thought I was getting the hang of the status quo, it changed. Suddenly, the cause of the pressure changed to me being the only one still dressed up like it was the 1990’s, coupled with being the only boy in class still living in the pre-summer vacation era. This made me the certified worst, the most ‘un-cool’ teenager and ensured that nobody would want to be seen with me in public. Needless to say, I rushed to the now-‘coolest’ boy in class for some much-needed life lessons. And it turned out that I had life figured out all wrong.

I learnt of love, relationships and commitment, all of which till now I had thought existed only with-in family. I learnt of dating, and how anyone out of the dating loop was yet to grow up. I learnt of how this one guy got suspended trying to “defend his girlfriend’s honour”, while his girlfriend used a spanking-new blade to etch the name of her boyfriend on her wrist. I was taught that it was okay to stare at women and.. errm..certain parts of their body, and that the only reason girls wore skirts was for us to stare at them, and that this was all normal and required if I needed to grow up and become a ‘man’.

I went home that day utterly confused and absolutely petrified. I was seeking answers to count-less unanswered questions, answers that existed somewhere outside of the world I lived in.

Unable to find solutions, I found myself at the resident bunking hub with a bunch of my friends, my hair straight up and my waistline seemingly somewhere around my knees, ogling at ‘hot girls’ and rating them on a scale of 0 to 10. At the end of the day, one of the boys turned to me and said the words I was hoping to hear after the strange school week I’d had, “You know, you’re not that big of a wuss after all!”

Alas! The world was bright again, and I was no longer referred to as a “wuss”! Guys wanted to hang out with me again, and I was assigned a girl I could ‘pursue’ to be my girlfriend. I was finally fitting in.

Let’s pause it right here.

In a matter of a few weeks, I’d gone from being a harmless teenager to a proud dirtbag. I’d gone from proud-to-be-caring, to proud-of-being-called-a-‘jerk’. What I can only call sexual harassment, save only for any actual physical contact, was being made the norm and young boys were welcoming this norm all in the hopes of “manning up”.

Surprisingly enough, it all seemed to work for me. But through all of this, something felt wrong. I felt like I was being pressured to be a certain kind of ‘man’, just not myself. In an attempt to legitimize my supposed gender identity, I had unknowingly lost touch with what it felt like to really be me.

Many of you may connect with this story on a personal level. Not because it’s intriguing, but because it’s ‘real’. It’s what happens to so many of us, mostly without us having the faintest idea that it is actually happening. The process of evolution from kids to self-proclaimed all-knowing-yet-clueless-‘meninists’ is so seamless that we don’t even realise when it changes us. Now that I’ve painted a picture for you, I leave you with a question: Do you think my story could’ve ended differently had my influences not been an adrenalinally-and-hormonally charged bunch of teenagers, but a level-headed voice of reason not afraid to speak to me about issues I obviously strived to find answers to?

I urge you to reflect.

Disclaimer: The views presented in this article are the author’s, and do not necessarily represent the views of UNFPA.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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
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