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Not Your Victim: Why Media’s Portrayal Of Sexual Violence Needs A Major Overhaul

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The shadow of a man stretched over a cowering woman, torn clothing and face  buried in her hands – these are the images that usually accompany news reports of sexual violence. For years, these images have conveyed the seriousness and trauma of gender-based crimes, which affects one in three women, globally. But what do we as readers take away from the images? That women are helpless victims? That only women endure sexual violence? That their lives are pretty much over now?

I think a lot of us have individually expressed discomfort over the kind of illustrations and pictures used in these stories,” says journalist Neha Dixit. “But we have never come together as a collective to do anything about.”

An example of images commonly used in Indian media to depict sexual violence. Image courtesy of the author.

And so, to change that, human rights organisation Breakthrough India hosted a day-long event on Sunday called #RedrawMisogyny. With photographers, designers, illustrators, and journalists in attendance, the idea was to really unpack the way survivors of sexual violence are portrayed in the media.

Himel Sarkar, Coordinator for Digital Engagement at Breakthrough, tells The Cake about why they chose to do this event: “When stories are written for mass consumption and people see these images, it reinforces these old notions of what it means to be a ‘victim’, and for the survivor it reinforces the shame and stigma associated with sexual violence.”

And attitudes formed through this process, he said, had an impact on judgements and politics as well. For Pankaj and Praveen, two Breakthrough members from Sonepat (Haryana), the impact of these images became clear to them after they attending workshops on sensitive reporting. Nowadays, some media organisations try to avoid using the passive voice for stories on sexual violence – for example, saying “a woman was raped” takes the focus away from her assailant.

A sample image created by Breakthrough India, which puts perpetrators in focus. Photo courtesy of Breakthrough.

Images are no different, and changing them is certainly one of the outcomes Dixit is hoping for. She said, “the culprit should be put in the dock instead of the person who has braved that violence. If it stays visually in people’s memory, it will make a lot of difference.”

And to make that difference, the creative team now associated with Breakthrough aims to create a set of brand new visuals at the end of two weeks. These visuals, Sarkar explained, will then be shared with media organisations, in an attempt to gradually replace the disempowering, stereotypical images of sexual violence we are so used to seeing.

It’s a tall order, for sure. And these are baby steps, according to Neha Vaswani, a Delhi-based UX/UI designer. That being said, the conversation about misrepresentation has been long overdue. “You start reading, you meet people in feminist groups, and you start to understand the gravity of the situation. Once I understood it, I just felt there had to be some sort of change. I didn’t know how, which was very frustrating for me. But I wanted to use my skillset.”

Months ago, Vaswani began having conversations with the team at Breakthrough, and it was actually last year that #RedrawMisogyny was conceptualised. The only thing that remained was getting people on board. And that’s where Instagram comes in.

Some sketches made during #RedrawMisogyny. Image courtesy of the author.

Says Tara Bedi, Community Partnerships and Programs for Instagram, “A lot of the participants and artists involved in the Breakthrough event were discovered through Instagram. We were excited to work with Breakthrough and the artists involved, including Ita Mehrotra, Lokesh Dang, Ruhani Kaur, Sandhya Visvanathan and Jaivardhan Singh Channey amongst others, to bring awareness for a new visual vocabulary of imagery depicting gender based violence.”

And though the event has set itself a two-week deadline, the art community on Instagram has been invited to keep contributing to #RedrawMisogyny all year long.

While a single image may not change society’s view immediately, we hope that over time, this repository of empowering images will help break stereotypes and shift perceptions,” says Bedi.

And on that note, we hope to see this creative team gradually causing a shift in the way we depict this sensitive subject matter.

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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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