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We Need To Stop Referring To Women As ‘Girls’

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We often come across women of various ages being referred to as ‘girls’. Though usually said without malice or much forethought, this seemingly harmless habit can have complex and often grave implications for women and on the quest for the empowerment of women.

The way we use the terms ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ interchangeably doesn’t exist in our usage of the terms ‘boy’ and ‘man’. An adult male is almost never referred to as a boy in a professional, social, or even a casual setting, but when it comes to acknowledging that adult females are women and not girls we tend to overlook it and pretend there barely exists any difference between the terms and what they explicitly and implicitly imply.

When we think of the term ‘man’ we picture a male with complete bodily anatomy, sense of responsibility, control over his life, someone who is reasonable, capable of making important decisions and someone who is capable of critical thinking and possesses a certain degree of intellectual prowess.

As far as the term ‘boy’ goes, we picture a child, because of this very clear distinction between who a boy is and who qualifies as a man. We easily accept that all adult males are men and not boys and calling them the latter will be considered offensive in most settings, but this distinction and the necessity to use the proper term seems to be lost by the time the discussion shifts to women. It’s considered acceptable in almost all types of settings including professional ones to call women of varying ages ‘girls’.

This rather trivial mistake in language usage might seem inconsequential to most people but it is not. It not only has negative effects on the lives of individual women but also on the entire cause of women.

Referring to an adult woman as a girl infantilises her. Calling an adult woman a girl promotes the idea that women are childish, overly-emotional, thus bad at making sound practical decisions, that they are incapable of taking up responsibility or being in complete control of their lives, just like a child. This furthers the idea that women ‘need’ someone to ‘take care’ of them because essentially they are still children. When we call an independent woman a girl we disregard everything she has accomplished by essentially saying she is childlike.

Also, the usage of the term ‘girls’ for women is a clear testimony to our obsession with wanting women to be young and youthful. Women are told they are desirable only if they fit the mould of the young, ‘beautiful’ woman and are also socially encouraged to ‘preserve’ their youth for as long as possible. The very idea of older women having a libido or having sexual desires is considered gross by us. We only allow women who are young to be sexual beings. This also contributes to our need to call women girls, because girls are the only ones that fit our cultural idea of what a woman should be.

This also sexualizes women. The image of the young, innocent girl as an object of sex is all over the media and pop-culture today. In most Eastern cultures women are expected to be child-like, innocent, and submissive to be appealing to men. The idea is to pretend that grown women are essentially girls that are child-like and naïve, thus an object of sex and perfect for the male gaze. It inevitably leads us to see real girls usually in their late teens in the same light as well.

This also leads to toxic attitudes towards women in the workplace. It creates an atmosphere where there exist working ‘girls’ and powerful ‘men’. When we constantly infantilise working women, we inevitably create an atmosphere where they cannot be equal to their male colleagues who aren’t seen as boys but the soon-to-be part of the who’s who of the corporate world.

Another issue that the constant infantilising of women brings about is in the sphere of dating and relationships. She is always his ‘girl’ but he is always her ‘man’. We never hear women talking about their ‘boys’ or men talking about their ‘women’. It is always girls and men. When a man is in a relationship with a girl it automatically makes him her protector. When we infantilise women in the realm of romantic relationships and dating we are essentially saying they are helpless, hapless, naïve, emotional, and beings of inferior intellectual and ‘worldly’ abilities who need protection by their ‘men’, just like parents protect their boys and girls.

Though calling an adult male a boy would make most people very uncomfortable, referring to an adult woman as a woman instead of a girl is what makes most people uncomfortable.

A version of this article also appeared here.

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Image source: CIA DE FOTO/ Flickr
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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.

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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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