This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Orenda Club. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

Can IITians Talk About Gender and Sexuality? You Bet!

To talk about gender and sexuality in a technical institute is quite hard. You may wonder why. There is a huge misconception that such matters purely belong to the domain of humanities and the social sciences, things ‘artsy’ types deal with.

To an extent, there is some merit in this argument. Sadly, important matters of gender, sexuality and sex are relegated to academic engagements by the humanities and social sciences because this forms their subject matter.

The engagement happens through various ways: a political scientist will approach it differently from a literature student. But the fact remains that engagement happens because it is part of the subject matter. Yet, these topics are universal, aren’t they? Isn’t the idea of gender and sexuality shared by us all? All of us are defined by them, question them often, and sometimes take them for granted. How, then, can such topics become a matter of just academic deliberation?

The problem is that it is more a matter of how much we think of these issues consciously in our daily lives. We may not think of them but we are unconsciously acting them out, performing it daily in our clothes, in our ways of talking, behaving and even in the ways we crack jokes. Everything has the shade of what we have been taught as gender and sexuality. We just don’t think of it enough. The question then is should we?

IITs are spaces where students are turned into thinkers and specialists. But the latter often takes over the former in spaces where we are hell-bent on becoming masters of our fields. This is true even of the humanities, where abstraction takes over and one loses sight of ground realities. What makes spaces like IITs immune to such discussions are the lack of spaces and the inaccessible vocabulary involved in talking seriously about such issues.

If I say the words ‘privilege’, ‘oppression’, they might seem alien to many of us because we haven’t encountered them in our subjects of study, and following a domino effect, we never encountered them in our peer groups or our classrooms. But these words do exist. They are important and all of us go through their implications. But can the lack of vocabulary stop us from engaging in these discussions?

Students who are part of Orenda (Image Credit: Orenda: Gender and Sexuality Club, IIT Gandhinagar/ Facebook)

This is where IIT-Gandhinagar’s Orenda is striving to change things a bit. If gender and sexuality are concepts that are common to all of us, how is it that one human being from mechanical engineering can never convey what they feel to someone from chemical engineering or literature? How come our subjects have become bigger than us? Orenda feels we have made this an obstacle when it can become the link. It could actually be a connective tissue.

In light of this, we did a small exercise called “Found in Translation” for finding words which are used differently in different subjects (and when we say different, we mean very different) but somehow we know them and can use them to understand each other. Rahul Upadhyay, a member of Orenda, wrote this small piece to exemplify this amazing connection we have not even realised exists:

“The word ‘spectrum’ in civil engineering (particularly earthquake engineering) means a graph of earthquake responses (ie displacement, velocity or acceleration) versus frequency. So this spectrum (the graph) contains all the values of responses, from the least to the highest. So for a given value of frequency, the response of the structure can be determined.”

Now a chemistry kid will think of spectrum as “wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation (or a portion thereof) that is emitted or absorbed by an object or substance, atom, or molecule” or a physics kid will talk about that white light and the prism. But the word spectrum does not seem to leave us. And guess what? It means so much in the context of gender and sexuality.

In the context of gender and sexuality, spectrum means the inclusion of all types of sexualities. Like in a rainbow, we see all the colours but we can’t demarcate one from the other as the colours are very finely blended with one another.

Similarly, gender and sexuality are not binary – there are a whole lot of different orientations in between extremes. Due to this fluidity of gender, sometimes it becomes difficult to identify a person’s gender. In terms of sexuality, a person may think they are straight, but at some point of time, they may feel attracted towards the same sex.

So, the orientation of a person is never fixed. Also, the gender of a person is defined based on various criteria like biological sex, gender identity, gender expression while sexuality is about who one feels attracted to.

Though the word spectrum is used in different contexts in civil engineering and in gender and sexuality, I believe that the intrinsic and deeper meaning in both the contexts is the same, which is the inclusion of all the variables. Like in civil engineering, spectrum helps to determine the response of a structure. Similarly, the spectrums of gender and sexuality help in identifying the gender and sexuality of a person.

Who said IITians cannot talk about deeper issues which don’t come up in lectures or tutorials? We hope to find more connections like these in the future because we believe that topics like gender and sexuality are everyone’s cup of tea – it is in the physics of everyday life, in the chemistry of our relationships, and way beyond the so-called biology of our bodies.

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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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