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I Spoke To 118 Students In Delhi About Religion-Based Bullying And The Truth Terrified Me

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Dear fellow Indian Mothers,

I believe that no mother asks her child to hate another child. So it was disturbing and shocking when my friend Zareen told me, “My little one is only six-and-a-half years old and was hit in school for being a Muslim.” A student sitting on the same bench as her daughter, Samaira, asked her, “Are you a Muslim?” He then started hitting Samaira, saying, “I hate Muslims.”

Zareen says it took a few days before her daughter could open up about it. “I was appalled and shocked. I immediately called up the class teacher, who had a two-word response – It happens.” Indeed, today the battles have started early on.

I spoke to 118 families with children between the ages of five and twenty who were studying or had studied in twenty-five leading schools across Delhi–NCR. Of these a hundred students said they had been bullied due to their religion. The figures were alarming. I looked for the stories behind the numbers.

Saira was admitted into class eight in a top-ranking school in Delhi’s diplomatic enclave when her parents got transferred to the city. In her first year at the school, Saira fell victim to slut-shaming. Her sanitary napkins were displayed around the school, and she was called a whore. And all of this was done by boys from good families, shares Saira’s mother. But the bullying changed in nature after 2013 as the national election campaigns started all over India. Some of the students were verbally violent to her, and often she was told to “go to Pakistan”. How do you explain such attacks to a kid? How can you say ‘he is only a child’ to another child?

The incidents of religious bullying get reported much more among younger children but get dismissed as stray or juvenile cases. In higher classes, such as grades seven to twelve, the attacks are more vicious, but go largely unreported. When a Muslim kid is involved in a fight in the playground, often lines like “Yeh toh atankwadi hai… Yeh toh Pakistani hai… Isse maaro. (He is a terrorist. He is Pakistani. Hit him.)” are hurled at him. Insulted, embarrassed, singled out, cornered and unsure of how to respond, the boys usually prefer to ‘fight it out’ rather than appear ‘sissy’ by complaining to adults.

While the situation often borders on violence among boys, it mostly comes out in the form of subtle jokes among girls: “Kya tumhare mamma papa bomb banate hain? (Do your parents make bombs at home?)” and sometimes as misogyny along with Islamophobia in statements like, “Isn’t your father angry that your legs are exposed in your skirt? Is he part of the ISIS? Will he shoot us?”

Most children, even when they have not faced any direct aggressive communal bullying, will definitely identify with such low-key but repetitive comments. While physical violence is immediately recognized as damaging, verbal bullying where children internalize the implied meanings is seldom recognized for the harm it can cause.

This is not limited to Delhi–NCR. Even after I had completed my research for this book, I kept hearing such stories from all across the country including Lucknow, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Indore and Pune. A banker, Alpana’s son, had just come back from his first semester at boarding school in Bengaluru when he asked his mother, “Can we make friends with Muslims, Mamma? Should they all go to Pakistan?” Today, I fear it might be a problem in every school, at every level of our society.

Is it not disturbing when eight-year-olds mirror the accusations of the 9 p.m. bulletins in their 10 a.m. classrooms? Can we ignore an 11-year-old’s heartbreaking loneliness when he is sidelined due to his surname? Will we really refuse to see the muddled intuition of our fifteen-year-olds when they throw in a ‘Baghdadi’ or ‘Bangladeshi’ during a soccer game? Child by child, the bitterness of the world will suck up our little ones and spit out disturbed adults.

Every mother today is the victim of a world of hate and hostility. Hate affects not just the tormented but also the tormentor. And we don’t know which one our child will be. I worry for the children who are part of communal bullying at school. I worry for my daughter who will be joining them tomorrow, in the same playgrounds and classrooms. We need to speak, not for ourselves, but for our children.

I believe that no mother ever gives up on a constant daily effort to provide a better future for her child. Morsel by morsel, word by word, breath by breath. I refuse to believe that any mother will ask her child to hate another child. No other country could give us the best of all worlds like India does. This is our home, our mother, and we fight for it along with our children.

This is not just a lone mother’s fight. This is a fight for all of us.

In solidarity,

Nazia Erum

I am a #MotherAgainstBullying.

Image for representation only. Source: Rahman Roslan/Getty Images
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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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