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Among Reducing Liberal Spaces, How Some College Societies Stand Apart

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Debates, discussions, difference of opinions and discourses are the very cornerstones of a democratic structure and it is heart-wrenching to see when they are not welcome in a country which takes pride in calling itself the largest democracy in the world. Stifling dissent is the worst form of oppression because it takes away a person’s ability to think and question the status quo. Such oppression, where people are conditioned to stop questioning things and are conditioned to comply with authority in our educational culture as well, has been so normalised, that people have stopped realising that it even exists.

During the period from 2015-2017, India has witnessed an increasing number of cases of intolerance, including the mob lynching in Dadri, the bomb attack on the office of Tamil TV channel Puthiya Thalaimurai, beef ban in various states, arrest of JNU student leaders, and recently, the incident that took place at Ramjas College on February 21 and 22. Numerous students like me, who are in a habit of questioning things like the definition of nationality, the role of the state, the concept of morality, the effectiveness of a policy and finer nuances of gender and feminism, often tend to feel suffocated in an intolerant environment like this. However, it is in such a state that college societies, like literary societies or those dedicated to a social cause, provide us with a breathing room.

They are those very few liberal spaces where people can discuss and debate the most divergent and radical things without the fear of offending anyone or being beaten up. The importance of debate and discussion cannot be emphasised enough. It is crucial to discuss even those things which some privileged sections of society consider beyond the ambit of debate. Things like whether we should respect women or not, whether we should stand up when the National Anthem is being played, etc. Yes, you read that right! Campus Watch spoke to a few students and union members from some societies in different colleges which make active use of the tools of discussion and deliberation and act as a free space.

Tanisha Ranjit, general secretary (2016-17) of the English debating society in LSR, says – “You form the best of bonds with people you meet in societies, despite having strikingly different opinions on the same issues. Societies expose an individual to a variety of new thoughts, ideas and notions about life – including ideas that they might not have ever bothered questioning.” The first step to solving a problem is acknowledging that a problem exists. This isn’t the hard part. It becomes tough when a person begins to realise that the problem might lie within us and not outside us.

For the realisation to kick in, self-awareness, introspection and a deep understanding of how opinions get formed in our minds are needed. To change the society for the better, we need to let go of our own biases and challenge our beliefs. Often, the strongest of our beliefs have no basis in rationality and are simply a byproduct of the society we live in. Shubhi Chhabra, while articulating her experience as a core team member at Parivartan – the gender forum of Kirori Mal College, said, “societies like Parivartan lets you look at yourself in different perspectives, judge and gauge yourself in different ways and see how much of you is really you and how much of it is socially defined. Parivartan has been a place for me to be introduced to so many ideas that I would never have been introduced to otherwise.”

From my personal experience too, I can say that societies in my college have been my go-to place whenever I wanted to explore new ideas. As a former Kirori Mal College (KMC) debating society member, I can truly say that the experience of being a part of the society was truly extraordinary. The debating society has taught me to embrace diversity. I have learnt not just to accept people who are different from me, but to respect and admire them. Moreover, I often spend a lot of my college hours in the most popular hangout spot in KMC called ‘Sare-e-Aam‘ (an Urdu word meaning ‘in public’). What makes this place so special is that you can engage in debate and discussions there. It is a place where no one will stop you, judge you, or question your rationality and judgment. Students love that place, because, in a lot of ways, it liberates us and sets us free.

However, this is not to say that the journey to achieve freedom is an easy one. It is full of struggles and challenges. While societies are free and liberal spaces in this increasing time of intolerance, there is a certain kind of censorship still at play. Anuja, editor-in-chief (2016-17) of the LSR College Magazine, while talking about these challenges, says, “sometimes, we have been asked to stop working on something all of a sudden; but I am truly glad to be a part of something that helps people to think and bring important issues to the table for discussion. My co-chief eds and I, aim to create a platform where people can voice their opinions and reach a large audience.”

Yet, there is hope because people like her are in the leadership positions in certain college societies and are expected to contribute largely to the discourse in the near future. What is also important for the society to realise today is that when an opinion is suppressed, it doesn’t cease to exist. In fact, suppression of an opinion often leads to further radicalisation of opinions. A case in point will be the fight for freedom of academic institutes, which has recently gained momentum after the Ramjas incident.

To be free is a natural right which each and every human being has. However, we often tend to take our freedom for granted and forget its importance – until it is taken away from us. History is testimony to the fact that whenever there has been an attack on the liberty of individuals, the fight has been fierce. In this fight of reclaiming the freedom of our academic spaces, our right to dissent and of course, the freedom of speech and expression, some college societies are playing an active and integral role. They continue to uphold values of a liberal democracy and will continue to do so in the future.

Image used for representative purposes only.

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Image source: Sushil Kumar/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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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.

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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.

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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