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How Our Institutions Are Pushing Survivors Of Sexual Violence To Suicide

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Earlier this year, a 17-year-old girl was gang raped at the MLA hostel she was staying at. She tried to commit suicide owing to the pressure to withdraw her complaint but was prevented from doing so because of familial intervention. Another recent case talks of a woman from Meerut committing suicide after an act of gang rape, as the Uttar Pradesh police allegedly took no action on her complaint.

What has been the cause of such failure to provide support to survivors of sexual violence and abuse? How do we ensure the realisation of the rights of such survivors of sexual violence and abuse?

Most Indian women have faced sexual violence at some point in their lifetime. Our institutions are collectively failing survivors of sexual violence and are perpetuating a culture that actively trivialises sexual violence and does not provide systemic support to them. Alongside, there is a severe lack of social and institutional support or even an understanding of the needs of survivors of sexual violence with a marked disregard for their well being and mental health.

What Has Led To A Rise In Such Cases Of Suicide?

A particular nexus of power, misplaced social stigma and a lack of support play out in the treatment of survivors of sexual violence in the Indian system. And its impact is grave. For example, according to reports, there has been a rise in cases of suicide, attempted and completed, amongst those who have faced sexual violence in Haryana. But it’s not just one state. A National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report shows that the overall rate of suicide deaths in 2010 rose to 11.4 per 100,000 population; an increase of 5.9% in the number of suicides, from the previous year. The large number of documented cases of suicide in general and also those that occur because of sexual violence and related issues highlight the possibility of quite a high number of unreported cases of suicide as a result of sexual violence or abuse as well. Another study highlights a link between sexual violence and suicides in India amongst the youth. Till recently, suicide was also a punishable offence under the Indian Penal Code, leading to massive underreporting from a fear of further consequences. Not having a correct picture of the numbers takes away from understanding the actual extent of incidence and causes for such suicide-related deaths.

Marital Rape And Suicide Linkages?

Either the law itself is absent or there is no institutional support to provide any possibility or hope to the survivor. One such example of inferred cases of suicide because of sexual violence could be cases that arise because of marital rape. Recently, the Supreme Court refused to acknowledge marital rape as rape, where the wife was between 15 to 18 years of age, whereas, a nationally representative household survey of women shows that only 2.3% of the sexual violence experienced by women in India was by men other than their husbands. At the same time, reports such as this one from Brookings Institute suggest that the highest rate of suicide is amongst the cohort of housewives. One of the reasons for this is also understood to be the lack of a positive and healthy relationship between partners. Here as well, along with a completely insensitive system, there is a marked absence of law that protects partners from rape within marriage, from their spouse.

Need For Recognition Of Sexual Violence As Possible Against All Genders

Similarly owing to the criminalisation of non-penetrative sex, several forms of sexuality get criminalised and resultant cases of sexual violence are harder to get justice for, especially if the act of sexual violence is perpetrated by a person who has been a relationship with the other person (most sexual violence occurs amongst people known to each other).

Our laws don’t even account for the possibility of sexual violence against other genders. Amongst trans persons as well, sexual violence can oft be perpetrated by or through a person one knows and through authority figures. For example, in 2014, a trans person in Ajmer was allegedly raped by a police officer and two constables – this case is one amongst several which are often unreported.

At other places, the laws conflict each other. For example, while University Grants Commission (UGC) guidelines allow for complaints of sexual violence to be made by persons of all genders, laws under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) only allow for complaints of sexual violence by women. This creates a gap which leaves several survivors of sexual violence without legal recourse outside the set up of their educational institutions.

A Deficit Of Institutional Support

The lack of a will to implement even existing laws, divided judicial decisions and societal structures are all responsible for causing such deaths. We need to ensure that our prevention strategies take into account demographic differences across our nation. The judiciary, police, government bodies and the civic society are failing survivors of sexual violence through their inability to formulate strong gender just laws and institutions that are sensitised to the needs of sexual violence survivors.

The Way Forward?

There is an urgent need for sensitisation training and related assessment of members of the judiciary, medical professionals, lawyers, police personnel, government staff and politicians alongside the development tools that build such change into mainstream educative content from primary schooling itself, to build a culture that systemically tears away at the current fabric of rape culture prevalent through the country.

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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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