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This Incident In Bihar Showed Me How Men Believe They Must ‘Protect’ Women

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India fellow logoEditor’s Note: This post is a part of a campaign by The India Fellow program on Youth Ki Awaaz. India Fellows spend 13 months working at the grassroots level to bring about real on-ground change. They are also mentored to be socially conscious leaders and contribute to the development of the country. Apply here to be a part of the change.

I am a NIT Suratkal mining engineering graduate, who joined a social leadership program called India Fellow which believes in imbibing leadership skills and helping young people like me find their true calling by immersing in grassroots work with nonprofits. As part of my fellowship, I’ve started working in the rural areas of Bihar and my new buddies here are very eager to set me up on a date with their friends. “Dishooja ji, meri ek dost hai. Baayis saal ki ho gayi hai, aur shadi ki umr bhi hai. Dilli ke bank mein naukri karti hai. Khoob angrezi bhi bolti hai. Woh aapse milna chaahti hai, chaahiye to milaa loon?” (Mr D’ Souza, I have a girl friend. She’s turned 22 now, is of a marriageable age. She speaks a lot in English. She wants to meet you. If you want, I can make her meet you.) Now, the chances of being coerced into a marriage were pretty low, and I had pretty much nothing to lose, but only experiences to gain. But I still said “dekhte hai,” just to show that I’m indifferent.

A few days later, I was travelling as a pillion rider on a bike. I saw a couple sitting along the banks of an irrigation canal. It was a dark afternoon when the sky was grey, the wind was blowing across the paddy fields causing a flutter of the grass, and with a dash of delicate thunder – it was about to pour. The couple sat there, unperturbed, talking to each other, dreaming about their future, spending time with the person who probably meant the entire world to them. They did not care if it rained meteors or they got struck by lightning, as long as they were going through the ordeal together.

My bike stopped, the couple saw us and the woman fled the scene instantly. I could see the fear gripping the man as my rider called him closer. There were a few questions asked, his collar was grabbed, and he was about to be punched in the face. The man begged for mercy. He was warned to stay away from the woman, ‘mind his business’ and never be seen around her again.

We took off and sparing me the obvious, my rider started deconstructing the scene for me. The man was from another caste, and unemployed – he said. He further went on to say how their union is bad for the society, disastrous to the woman, that the guy was luring her with money, had ulterior motives, etc. His face beamed with pride when he explained how merciful he was; he neither beat up the guy nor forced them into marriage, as it is done for couples if seen displaying affection in public. He was proud of doing the job of a ‘brother’, by saving a ‘sister’ from danger.

I mentally switched roles with the man and could imagine my fate if anyone saw me with that lady. I told my buddy to call off all his plans, and kept thinking about what would have happened if that couple was switched with my date and I. Would I have chosen the thrashing, or chosen to be married off?

The festival of Raksha Bandhan also fits snugly in this sequence of events. I am in the land where this festival is extremely popular and is considered the ‘most sacred festival’ of them all. In a nutshell – a brother becomes the ‘protector’ of the sister against all evils on tying of the rakhi by her; he gifts her a present and she feeds him something sweet. Although people do give their own personal touches to this festival, this is the core highlight of this festival.

On pondering about the events, the culture where ‘brothers’ beat up boyfriends as they are being ‘protective’ made an immediate connection. It makes for a society where the men become the protector of women. It reinforces the idea that a woman is weak and a man is required to protect her. I feel this is where the fathers feel that they can get the daughters married against their wish because only daddies know best. The idea where a man can decide what a woman can and cannot do is being systematically imposed on the women, as it is ‘for their own good’. For me, the festival promotes the idea that women cannot protect themselves as if they are mentally and physically incapable of doing so.

This festival is celebrated across the country, beyond boundaries of religion in India. From the Indian epics, Sita is revered for her chastity, that too after the trial by fire – as if it should be a virtue required of a wife. Contrast this with Lord Krishna’s behaviour with women. It is deceptively called ‘cute’ for creepy; ‘naughty’ for predatory, and accepted as ‘boys will be boys’. The virtues and vice of women are made celestially white or diabolically black by the two most famous women of the Bible – The two Marys – a virgin and a sex worker. The Islamic texts are filled with instances of treating women as second rated human beings who are unable to think.

From my pattern recognition abilities, the gender discriminatory rules, all the weirdness shown towards menstrual cycles, regulations for a woman to oblige a man for sex, etc., indicate that these ‘divine’ texts are works of men. It is sprinkled with lavish amounts of rules and anecdotes which are used to systematically subjugate women, shown to women saying it was delivered divinely. Women are asked to abide by them, failing which they will go to hell. One such deceptive anecdote is when Draupadi is given a ‘boon’ to be a virgin when being married to a Pandava, each year for five years. Being a virgin again is portrayed as a boon to the woman, and taught to be a virtue. Why on earth would being a virgin before sex with every new man be a boon to a woman?

The discriminatory societal rules that still exist, be it in the village of Bihar where I work, in the Middle East or the remote deserts of Somalia – the common element is that they are still prevalent because they are still accepted as the divine word. These books are being the basis of morals and ethics in our societies. Our traditions and festivals also are derived from them, and we fail to see them for what they really are.

Our ‘culture’ dictates us to beat up couples for being in love, for alienating women for not being virgins, etc. In the rural areas, the degree of religiosity is very high and where status quo is accepted as ‘fate’, the room to cry, wail, whimper and whine for liberty and freedom is only slowly setting in. These medieval texts are now obsolete. We now need to let science, love and compassion to guide us in our interaction with other human beings in our societies.

Those will be the days when I will be able to roam the fields of my village, with that lady without the fear of being beaten up.

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About the author: Alston D’souza is an India Fellow of the 2016 cohort working with Prayog, an organisation working on strengthening primary education in public schools through various innovative and sustainable interventions; working in tandem with the local district government in Gopalgunj, Bihar.

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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.

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.

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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.”

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.

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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.

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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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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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