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From Dismissing Rapes To Calling Students ‘Maoists’: Why I Want The Mamata Govt. To Go!

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By Aatreyee Ghosh:

cpim_mamata banerjeeBengal goes to vote in seven phases from the 4th of April 2016. So will Assam and later, several others will also go to the polls. However, the Bengal elections are different. You ask why? Because Bengal, this time, does not only vote to decide its government; Bengal votes to answer the question that stares at every voter’s face in the region: Do we want to be free?

To any bystander, that might seem like a pretty melodramatic statement. But anyone who has been clued-in on Bengal politics in the last five years would know that nothing could be closer to the truth than that. Bengalis and politics have often been considered like two long lost brothers (or sisters, to be politically correct) who embrace each other with gusto. We might not care much about being hard-working or, for that matter, very ambitious, but we Bengalis love our politics. We love to keep ourselves abreast of the smallest of developments and at any given time can tell you all in one breath the who, what and why of the political scenario in any part of the country. And this is why the present election becomes a symbol of our survival.

In 2011, the Trinamool Congress came to power with a thumping victory after 34 years of ‘Left Rule’ in Bengal. After the alleged ‘terror politics’ in the reign of late Jyoti Basu, as Bengal crumbled under the heavy weight of a breakdown of education, lack of industry, and lack of a voice for the people, the good work of the last Left Chief Minister, Mr. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and his cabinet, went unnoticed as Bengal and its people gasped for change. In walked TMC, with the fire-breathing Mamata Banerjee who promised people ‘Poriborton’ (Change).

As oceans of people, from the modest wage-earners to the intellectuals, flooded the streets rallying for her win and against the Left Front’s rule of 34 years, history visited us like a spectre as the very ideas of farmer rights were championed over industrial development. Tata Motors’ ‘Nano’ plant in Singur, the pet project of Mr. Bhattacharya (which was supposed to be Bengal’s ticket towards a new industrial growth) left and in its wake broke the back of the Left Front and paved the way for the historic moment in West Bengal politics.

Five years into this new government, it seems like Bengal has realised the grave mistake that it committed in its blind obsession with change. The five years of TMC rule has seen the state buckle under the apparent misrule of uneducated ministers, rampant extortion of money from common people through muscle power, the unholy rise of land syndicates that works much like the mafia in America and, most importantly, the whimsical and totalitarian nature of its chief minister who appears to be suffering from an acute persecution complex.

It started small, from a rape case being called ‘sajano ghotona‘ (doctored incident), to jailing professors for circulating a cartoon mocking her on facebook to the deeply disturbing events of calling students ‘Maoists’ for asking her uncomfortable questions about the lack of growth in her state. As scams like Sharada and stings like Narada, where many cabinet ministers among others were seen on tape taking bribes for shoddy work, became public, the party only called it “dirty political vendetta”. What Bengal has turned into under her rule seems comically similar to the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ in which she answered any question with “Off with his head!” Only this time, it appears to be happening in real.

As an under-construction bridge in Kolkata’s busiest part collapsed on 31st March 2016, burying dozens under it, the Chief Minister’s first reaction was, it was the previous government’s fault. And with this one statement, something snapped in the complacent Bengali’s mind. We have been turning a blind eye to the misfortune we had brought to our homes in the name of change. We did have change, but it was a change that took us to the abyss in four years. We realised we had sold ourselves to the Devil caught up in the frenzied chant for Poriborton.

The good thing with democracy is that unlike a ‘deal with the Devil’, we do get second chances to rectify ourselves and our mistakes. As Bengal stands on the brink of another election, the average Bengali has two clear choices: One, continue with the politics of a CM and her cabinet who do not shy away from mouthing threats like that of taking stock and paying inch by inch every dissenter once they come back to power or, second, stand up with an alliance of the Left and Congress that has come together, ditching their individual ideologies and opposing ideas realising that there is something far greater at stake here: the democracy to even have opposing views. The first could push us to our own destruction. The second could give us the voice that we seem to have almost forgotten – the voice of dissent, to argue and to speak for ourselves.

There is an old saying which we Bengalis are often seen repeating: “What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.” This election season, we stand to either make this statement true and prove to the entire country and to ourselves that if you push people to the brink they will fight back and claim their rights, or perish under another five years of misrule, moral breakdown and the death of our individual selves. As ‘goons’ (councillors and leaders) indulge in rampant scare tactics to silence the common voter (the last Municipal elections in the elite and educated Salt Lake area saw unprecedented violence where journalists, common voters were beaten on live television at various booths), many of us might have a small voice telling us, is it worth the effort going against such violence? Is it safe? You might not be safe. You will be threatened, maybe even beaten up. But know that behind every threat lies the insecurity of a government which knows the power of the people.

Go and vote Bengal. Do it to save your own selves.
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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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