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We’re All Guilty Of Racism (Yes, Including Indians)

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By Avani Venkateswaran:

There’s a Facebook album that was doing the rounds – a compilation of social media posts of all the overtly racist statements people have either witnessed or experienced themselves in the UK after Brexit. I went through some of the extremely horrifying and heart-breaking pictures a few days back, and it got me thinking. The unfortunate reality is that while the public way in which people are now thinking it acceptable to tell other human beings to “go home, we voted for you to leave the country” was shocking, the sentiment itself is unsurprising.

The rise in racism, xenophobia, and the anti-immigration rhetoric in the West is well-known, especially since the 23rd of June, and I don’t want to restate any of it. The simple fact that Brexit even happened, and that Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican Candidate – both thought to be such preposterous ideas when they were first proposed, speak for themselves.

We, in India, are missing a certain irony to all this, though. We’re up in arms over Brexit – how it’s brought British racism to light and, more than that, given that racism a much larger scale advocacy. We’re focused on the racism that’s apparent in the West, where we are the victims, while feeling immune to being accused of racism ourselves, because we are ‘Brown’ and from a developing country. How often do we take a step back to express anger, or even reflect, on the racism that occurs daily at our very doorstep?

India has seen a spate of violence against African nationals over the past few years, especially in the so-called cosmopolitan and presumably more open cities of Delhi and Bengaluru. These attacks have continued even as India was ‘strengthening ties’ with the continent during October’s India-Africa Summit. The fears of Africans in India, as well as racial slurs and bureaucratic challenges that are faced by them on a daily basis, are well documented in the media.

If we were to look even more inward than that, we’re disgracefully racist and violent towards our own citizens, whether it’s people from the northeast, Muslims, Kashmiris, or Dalits, with Delhi being a hotbed of racist intolerance. A 2014 survey conducted by ReachOut Foundation found that as high as 54% of people from the northeast feel that discrimination is a reality in the National Capital Region. While a few cases are widely publicised, like the murder of Arunachal Pradesh’s Nido Taniam in 2014, incidents of violence and racial tension take place on a much more regular basis, but are swept under the rug or go unreported.

Muslims face similar issues, with rampant discrimination among landlords for house rentals, for example, resulting in a ‘ghettoisation’ in some cities. My Muslim friend from a well-off, influential family described to me recently her own struggles with finding a flat in Mumbai, as every landlord balked at renting to her after hearing her name. Racial tensions and the rejection of ‘the other’ are so strong that enough Kashmiris don’t feel a part of India. It’s no wonder that the secession debate has not yet been put to rest, even as we, ironically, express shock and betrayal over talk of secession while continuing to treat Kashmiris as second class citizens.

The similarity between these incidents in India and the recent spate of racist violence in the UK is not that a racist attitude innately exists, but that the political environment is such that it gives it a stamp of approval. Whether intolerance in India has increased over the past couple of years is still being debated, but incidents like the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq, Rohith Vemula’s suicide, February’s events at JNU, and the audacity of the FIR that was recently filed against Akhlaq’s family for cow slaughter cannot be ignored. And neither can the deafening silence or lack of response that follows each incident, which, along with police inaction, forms the basis for tacit and systemic acceptance of racism in India.

Similarly, overtly racist name-calling and violence in the UK – previously isolated incidents – have now gathered momentum, fuelled by Brexit and the open, large-scale, systemic rejection of immigrants that some British citizens are taking it to exemplify. And come November, if Trump emerges triumphant, who knows what will happen in the US, especially given their lax gun laws.
These worldwide trends speak of a global increase in intolerance – evident in that both Brexit and Trump have gained steam on the backs of immigration concerns rather than any other argument, as well as the polarising voices of France’s Marine Le Pen and The Netherlands’ Geert Wilders. Countries increasingly look inward, whether as a result of economic motivators, a perceived threat to safety, or simply a crude rejection of ‘the other’. This intolerance, in turn, powers the systemic support to discrimination.

While this mindset might not have been as blatantly vocalised in India, our situation certainly mirrors these global trends, with the added complexity that our ‘looking inwards’ constitutes excluding a significant number of our own citizens. We have remained blissfully ignorant of it all the while, only speaking up when it starts to target us, apparent in the outpouring of angst in the past few days following Brexit. This racism has existed for decades in India, and will continue to do so as long as we do nothing until it affects us, a thought that was beautifully captured in Pastor Martin Niemöller’s poem ‘First they came …’, which remains eerily relevant today. It talks of not speaking out for social groups who were under attack (by the Nazis) until, eventually, there is no one left to defend you. In a way, it parallels what we have been guilty of for so long – not speaking out against the attacks on ‘others’ in our own country, because we are a comfortable majority. As we now see the other side of it, as we become the victims and speak up, the question that begs asking is, who will stand up for us?

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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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