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‘You Were Born A Girl. You Must Live Like A Girl’: When ‘Normal’ Is Abusive To Children

“Most of us are unhappy with what nature gives us. Or, guys wouldn’t want a macho six pack to ‘become’ a man, girls wouldn’t wax and primp to ‘become’ a woman.” Rituparno Ghosh

Ria* remembers being asked to sit properly, to not stomp down the stairs like a man, to not scream and argue, to take insults with a smile and a dignified silence – all because she is a girl. She remembers cringing when her friend’s father told her that she must not chop off her hair, because, “You were born a girl. You must live like a girl.” Never mind her comfort or her wishes.

Pranay* was slight, effeminate, and talkative. He was also very fair and delicate, which did not help matters. All his life he grew up listening to adults either mocking or trying to correct his walk, speech, and mannerisms, which they deemed ‘girlish’. Pranay internalised the idea that there was something wrong with him – so much so that when he was sexually abused as a child for years, he could not muster up the courage to tell his family about it because he was convinced, somewhere in his subconscious mind, that he was being abused because of his effeminacy. He believed that the adults would hold him responsible for his abuse too. That phase has left lasting psychological scars on him, still present in his adulthood, which has affected some of his personal relationships too.

Whether gay or heterosexual, being mocked for one’s body (that is constantly growing and changing in one’s childhood and adolescence) makes one feel suffocated and caged in one’s physicality, unable to express oneself the way one would naturally want to otherwise. Both effeminate young men and tomboyish girls are the target of abuse — whether verbal, physical, or sexual — for not abiding by their expected gendered behaviour. With words like ‘chhakka’ (slang for Hijra) to ‘pansy’ to ‘sissy’ to a whole host of other sexist, homophobic, and transphobic slurs, language is the first and easiest tool used to bully and shame a child into toeing the line.

Verbal abuse is one of the first recourses of the family members of children also, who, in the name of love and concern, usually try to ‘correct’ the forms of behaviour and expression that come naturally to their children but which, in their opinion, defy rigid societal norms of ‘accepted’ gendered behaviour. When mere words don’t work, the corrective measures can graduate to emotional blackmail, shaming, mockery, mental abuse, preventing them from doing what they love, and even beating and locking up the child until they listen to their parents and ‘mend their ways’.

The problem, though, is that these techniques rarely work. Far from accomplishing their intended goal of beating the ‘abnormality’ out of somebody, these slurs leave behind scars on the psyche of the child, that may manifest themselves through misogyny, homophobia, mental illnesses, violence, or self-harm in their later years. Many people who have been subjected to such treatment as children live a life closeted and repressed, neither able to be themselves and live life as they would like to, nor able to let others live that same life that they secretly aspired to – without interference, ridicule, and sometimes, violence.

In India we still hear of gay men who marry a woman and birth children with her just because they fear the consequences of coming out — both for them and their entire family — mentally, socially, and materially. There are still parents who subject a girl child to electric shocks or rape, because they have dared to come out as a lesbian, and having a man rape them or subjecting them to torture is meant to be a way to ‘correct’ their sexual orientation and ‘normalise’ their behaviour.

We, as a society, are obsessed with the idea of what is ‘normal’ and what is not. We think we know what it is, too, when it comes to both sexuality and gender: a child born with a vagina must ‘act like a girl’ and choose a partner who is ‘masculine’ as well as male, while a child born with a penis must be ‘masculine’ and choose a ‘feminine’ woman for himself. Any deviation from this norm and we start panicking, not knowing what to do with ourselves or the child we have amidst us.

Abir* was a little boy who loved to dress up in women’s clothes and jewellery. They loved their girl cousin’s frocks and trinkets. On the cousin’s fourth birthday, three-year-old Abir dressed up in her clothes and started to flaunt it in front of the mothers and aunts in the party. Amidst amused exclamations and horrified gasps, Abir was divested of the ‘feminine’ clothes and forced to join the party in shorts and a shirt, the clothes they had initially arrived in.

On another occasion, Abir was reduced to howls of self-conscious agony, their hands trying to cover their chest when, on a particularly humid day, one of their ‘well-meaning’ male relatives violently removed their kurta from their body. A few years later, as a college student, Abir came out to his family and friends as a transgender person.

Film: Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish (2012)

Scene: Rudra’s parents discuss his sexual orientation while he is hospitalised for his gender reassignment surgery.

Ma: It’s very easy to blame him alone, you know.

Baba: What do you mean?

Ma: It was… it was our fault too. All our lives we knew, but refused to accept it. We were stubborn, we insisted that since he was born a boy, he must act like one too.

Baba: Why do you call this stubbornness? It is but natural that a boy must act like a boy.

Ma: Only nature dictates what is ‘natural’. Even nature has its own desires. If only we had accepted what was natural to him, then today he wouldn’t have to cut and tear his body (through surgery).

What must the child, whose desires, interests, and feelings are at odds with the body they possess and the sex they have been assigned at birth, feel like? They inhabit a world where the only reflections they see of themselves in the real world are treated either as objects of ridicule or of revulsion. The popular media does not represent people who look or feel like they do, their homes and schools do not talk about ‘people like them’, and there are no leaders or inspiring figures like them for them to look up to (thanks to the economic, social, cultural, and political exclusion and invisibility that we have subjected the transgender persons in our country to). A vortex of confusion, self-consciousness, and sense of alienation envelops the child, who feels that they must be the only child of their kind around. The lack of discussion about, introduction to, and acceptance of, the transgender population in our world leaves a trans-child with an unnecessary amount of psychological and social trauma to deal with before they begin to accept their body and gender for what it is — normal.

The quotes cited earlier in this article talk about the inherent violence against nature that the gendering process necessitates. Just as forcing a left-handed person to use their right hand to write or eat with is a process that violates — and tries to erase — the truth that their body is trying to articulate, forcing a child to not play football just because they have been assigned the female gender at birth, or shaming a child for enjoying sewing or wearing frocks just because they were born with a penis, are acts of violence.

Closely associated with these arbitrary ideas of ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ is the concept of ‘shame’, which apparently comes in when the ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ goes out. It is due to this sense of shame and, by extension, social ridicule and exclusion that families, teachers, and the self-appointed moral police fear for themselves when it comes to accepting any trait, habit or being that deviates from the society-approved standard of ‘normal’. They also use ‘shame’ as a tool to scare children into conforming with those selfsame norms, thus reinforcing the same stereotypes, prejudices, and ignorance that we need to and want to fight against so vehemently.

(It is necessary to clarify here that ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ are not words that refer to the same thing, and therefore cannot be used interchangeably. Case in point: homosexuality and bisexuality are considered ‘abnormal’, but are very commonly found in nature, in the sexual behaviour of various species of animals. It is our half-literate nature of understanding our world that leads to the spread of such basic misconceptions, leading to confusion both in our minds and in the social order we help create and perpetuate.)

It is this concept of shame or loss of honor that, till date, makes families ostracise the hijra community and abandon, hide, or give away their intersex assigned at birth children to the hijras instead of treating them the way they would any child — with love, care, and pride. And it is this sense of shame that we need to fight against.

Are any of these justified reactions to the natural truth about the body of one’s child? Is there any way we can change how we look at homosexuality and trans people, so that we can save our children from the trauma of social repression that others like them have experienced for centuries? It is time we learnt to put the needs of the individual — the child we are in charge of — before the repressive conventions of our society, and before the abstract but often omnipotent ideas of reputation and family honour that usually drives our behaviour, however cruel and inhuman.

To build a loving, mature, and empathetic world, children need to be taught from day one not only how important it is to love and be themselves, but how essential it is to let others be themselves and do life their way. Hate, disgust, and prejudice are not sentiments that are inborn. They are learned by children from the reactions of the adults around them to the things they encounter.

It is as natural and easy for children to accept and embrace a trans person or a gay person like any other. All that is needed is mature parents who do what they need to do to help their child get there, to stop them from bullying other children for being different. After all, you wouldn’t like to see your child being mocked at and left friendless, would you? Then why let your children do it to someone else?

Disclaimer: All the anecdotes recounted above were taken firsthand from people inhabiting the large and fluid gender and sexuality spectrum, and are published with their consent.

*Names have been changed in this article to protect privacy.

Featured image source: Wikimedia Commons
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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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