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Oh Dear: 75% Graduates In India Are Unemployed. But Smriti Irani Has Other Worries

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By Sabah Kochhar:

What began as a simple tweet by Bihar’s minister Ashok Choudhary on Twitter soon kicked-off a heated social media debate. Choudhary, whose tweet addressed Irani as “dear”, came in for fierce criticism from Irani, who retorted to his query by pointing out the sexism in the word “Dear”. Irani wrote back: “Since when did you start addressing women as ‘dear’, Ashokji?”, adding that she herself addressed others with the prefix ‘adaraniya’.

Of course, Twitter being Twitter, people were quick to point out Irani’s double standards, digging up old tweets of Irani addressing others such as journalist Bhupendra Chaubey with ‘dear’ and questioning the rhetoric of Irani’s argument.

While sexism is rampant in our discourse, a “Dear” used as a prefix isn’t anything new – it’s used the world over to indicate politeness in formal communication. But Irani didn’t stop there, as she went on to post an impassioned critique on her Facebook, which went viral soon.

The post, which has now garnered over 11K likes, and 1000s of shares, even got CNN News18 to debate Is Smriti Irani the Strongest Feminist Politician of India Today?”, even as an audience of predominantly upper-caste Hindu men littered the comments section in Irani’s Facebook, all in praise for her “empowering” stance.

However, in her impassioned stance, Irani calls out the ‘trolls’ who are the reason women like her are subject to humiliation. There’s no denying that Irani has had her fair share of struggles there. But the reality of trolls is something her own party should account for, given the rampant harassment of women on Twitter. Unsurprisingly, any mention of the trolls, or ‘bhakts’ unleashing the full force of saffron fury by calling Barkha Dutt a “randi“, or Rana Ayyub an “ISIS sex slave” seems to have gone amiss. The constant vitriol that women journalists and intellectuals have faced for voicing even the slightest of dissent has sparked a huge debate on cyber harassment. Does Irani’s appeal to women’s empowerment include checking in on the BJP’s social media team, with rape threats coming from the same bhakts who praise her?

It’s time Irani realise that Indian women aren’t fighting for whether to be called “Dear” or “Aunty”, but whether they can access educational spaces safe for them, hostels open to them, and jobs where their labour is valued, especially when they are doubly targetted on religious and caste lines. Indeed, she is right about taking a stand and encouraging women to “keep their heads held high”, not look down. But that only happens if there’s an environment where it’s safe for women to speak without pushback, or even exist in the first place.

What’s more, in firing off her salvo, Irani gave a point-by-point checklist of ‘reforms’ bought by her government. A glimpse into the list reveals, among others:

“• First time ever, focused interventions to improve reading and writing levels- Padhe Bharat Badhe Bharat- check
• First time ever, the UGC Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal of Sexual Harassment of Women Employees and Students in HEIs to protect women employees and students- check
• First time ever, a portal dedicated to Indian languages- Bharatvani-check
• First time ever, collaborated effort to focus research on the development goal posts of the country- IMPRINT- check
• First time ever, SAARC Declaration on Education– check
• First time ever, Aryabhata’s bust installed at UNESCO headquarters to acknowledge India’s contribution in mathematics and astronomy-check
• First time ever, IIT fee waivers for economically weaker sections- check
• First time ever, collaborations with Standford, University of Pennsylvania and MIT to strengthen HEIs in India- check
• First time ever, focused effort to bring high-quality international faculty to teach in India through GIAN – check.
• First time ever, a credit framework to pursue formal education and vocational training- SAMVAY- check.”

Impressive as these reforms may sound, the reality is eerily dismal, as only 25% graduates are employable. Even for the ever-popular STEM fields, over 80% of engineering graduates in India are unemployable. And no amount of collaborations with MIT can change the institutional hurdles put in place for Dalits, SC/ST students and women in engineering institutions. The problem isn’t reservations; its’s in the implantation: it’s the lack of quality institutes in the very first place, and how these institutions later fail to ensure a supportive environment for some students once they do gain entry. Irani’s sheer lack of accountability over the suicide of Rohith Vemula is proof that reforms on paper are piecemeal because no amount of fee waivers and collaborations will replace an equally dire need for offices in our educational institutions that cater to the needs and mental health of minorities. Similarly, setting up a UGC commission to look into sexual harassment needs to be matched by policy sensitising every university student to rape culture, through a systemic change in what’s taught, and by whom.

There’s a reason American institutes of higher education are sought after, and it’s not just because of focus on developing research and academia. It’s also because every university has groups and societies such as a Black and Latino students’ unions, centres for Gender and Sexuality, and education programs on campus rape culture and the importance of consensual sex. Today, foreign corporates slowly realise the importance of diversity and affirmative action beyond a token woman or person of colour, but India remains far behind in both the workplace and educational space. For Irani’s ilk to even acknowledge the problem of anti-Muslim, anti-Dalit and anti-women sentiment seems like a distant reality, let alone setting in place spaces for these students to build community and grow.

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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