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‘To My Bullies – I Refuse To Be Painted In Shades That Don’t Define Me’

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By Aastha Mistry: 

Ever felt the need to escape the world as you know it, run away from everyone you know, everything you know, to a place far far away? I’m sure everyone has felt like this at some point in their lives. Well, I’ve felt it, overwhelmingly, every single day in school for close to three years. That feeling I had when my schoolmates shunned me, bullied me, made me doubt myself, over and over again.

High school is usually a transformational period where first love blossoms and long lasting friendships are born. That’s the experience the average person has, right? But I spent my time in high school a little differently.

I was thirteen, wide-eyed and optimistic about making a fresh start at St. Gregorious. Two months and fourteen days into high school I found myself standing on the ledge of my terrace on a Wednesday night. I imagined my head hitting the concrete. That seemed like a better alternative than going back to school the next day and be attacked by icy stares while I walked down the corridor. I dreaded the sight of banana peels, paper scraps and shards of glass under my school desk.

What did they want from me? What did I even do to them? I wondered, while I wept, curled up in the bathroom stall, every day during lunch break. I would emerge, with swollen eyes, hoping to be comforted by my peers. I just wanted someone to ask, “Are you okay?” For one, just one classmate to say, “I’m here for you,” but, that never happened. I still remember that ‘look’ I got from every new seat partner allotted to me. Their group mates would wish them luck as if I was going to eat them up.

Why did everyone cringe at the sight of me? Every time I looked up, I could see eyes full of disdain staring at me, smirks being exchanged, schoolmates cracking jokes. I thought of myself as strong-willed and opinionated, so initially I fought back, questioning my bullies when I was targeted.

They then started calling me “aggressive”. They had found another reason to stay away from me. It gave me the chills every time I saw a bunch of them in a group; my knees would go weak, I’d walk as fast as I could, to try not to let them know that I was embarrassed.

I began to believe in the image my schoolmates had of me. I began to think the world was against me and would construe anything anyone said as a jab at me. Everyone was an intruder.

I blocked people and turned into an asocial person. I couldn’t recognise myself anymore. The strong, opinionated, bold girl I used to think of myself seemed to have disappeared, to make way for someone who was so tired of fighting, she no longer had the will to live. It isn’t me I thought, and yet I was petrified of my schoolmates.

I had no one to confide in. My mom was a teacher at the school as well. Being the teacher’s kid definitely did not help. I’d come to Gregorious with so much optimism and joy, so when Neha, my old classmate, asked, “School must be so much fun, right?” I replied in the affirmative.

How could I tell her the truth? How could I tell her that the past two and a half months had played out like a horror movie? How could I tell her about my daily torture, and come across as nothing but a weakling? Had I told her, I would’ve received the much-needed emotional support. Familial love takes us far, but it’s in human nature to seek validation and love from the outside world.

When people ask me, what got me through that time. Honestly, I cannot think of anything positive to say. My days were filled with long stretches of staring longingly at the school gate, thinking of ideas to escape. I did escape several times but had nowhere to go.

Once in a moment of desperation, I got onto the watchman’s scooter and took off. I didn’t know how to ride a bike back then, but I willed myself to learn as it seemed like my only way out. I fell off the scooter a few times, but I was undeterred. I drove several kilometres away and then stopped, where could I go?

I vividly remember a school excursion we went on. No one wanted to share a room with me; I had to stay with the teachers. I thought I would get some moral support from them, but they were just as apathetic. They ridiculed me for being stuck with them. We ate lunch out in the open, and no one wanted to sit with me. I saw a little stray puppy, sat beside him, shared my food with him, and that was my happy moment.

Finding another creature that accepted me and seemed to enjoy my company felt good. From that moment on, dogs became my only companions. I would chill with stray dogs in my street, enjoy the little moments of acceptance. I was simultaneously becoming more and more restless; I couldn’t focus on my academics.

The change came in small bursts, and only towards the end. Finally, a miracle happened, and my new seat partner started standing up for me. She had undergone something similar but fortunately not this bad; she had my back thereon. She threatened to complain when the others pulled my hair, stuck post-its on my bag, spilt stuff on my chair.

Finally, I had an ally, she was never a ‘best friend’, but someone I knew who wasn’t intentionally hurting me, and at that point in time, that was enough. The last few months in school went by a little better; I also knew I was graduating soon and the hope of getting out of this school, kept me going.

I had also started therapy, and that helped a lot. Speaking to someone who wasn’t a family member or friend gave me a new form of support. I began to channel my energies better through drama and speech, which proved to be a form of expressive therapy for me. These combined with animal-assisted therapy, started to increase my strength to open up once again.

Once I graduated, I changed phone numbers and never got in touch with any of my schoolmates ever again. I slowly began to make friends in my neighbourhood. I befriended a guy, who repeatedly told me just to be myself. It felt amazing, just to hear those words. To be told, who you are, isn’t something to be ashamed of.

He became my best friend. Through him, I made other friends; I still remember the feeling of surprise, and later unadulterated joy, when they laughed at my jokes when they told me I was funny. It felt so bloody good, to be a part of something, to belong. I couldn’t believe it initially.
With time, I rebuilt my confidence.

I would just like to say the following:

To my bullies – I’m sick of being painted by you in shades that don’t define me. I refuse to let you do that to me anymore.

To those who are being bullied – I know what it feels like. Try to ignore them. We don’t need someone to tell us who we are, what we can and cannot do. Your abilities are yours and yours alone; you decide how you live. The situation gets better. I promise.

_

About Trijog:

Trijog is a 360 degree mental health wellness organization that services individuals with mental health concerns across the spectrum, founded by Anureet Sethi and Arushi Sethi. Awake and Beyond is Trijog‘s campaign celebrating the stories of seven individuals and their tryst with mental illness, in the hopes that their journey will educate, inspire and help people understand what living with mental illness is like. Together, mental illness can be fought, conquered and overcome.

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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.

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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.

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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