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Fierce Is The New Fair

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I am my parents’ only child and this has been a matter of concern among my paternal family for as long as I can remember. Whether it would be random middle-aged aunties telling me that I should ‘ask’ my parents for a brother; or my Grandmother hinting, in rather subtle ways, how disappointed she was in my parents for not having a second child, being a girl child in a remote village of Odisha was a tedious task.

As a child, I remember that the villagers were rather intrigued by this biannual presence of a plump little girl, trotting around the streets, pompous in a pair of pajamas and a candy in hand. They were awed by the fact that I was the first daughter to move to a different state, viz West Bengal, for post-graduation, and was intelligent enough to bag a Government job. They used to compliment how huge my eyes were, and how cute my smile was. But there was always a thought at the back of their minds, and the tip of their tongues, “Had she been fair, she would have been so pretty.” It was almost as if my beauty was defined by the colour of my skin.

As a six or seven-year-old, I did not quite understand what was going on. My days were full and nights were fun. For a girl being brought up in a town, the occasional sightings of a garden snake or frogs was a delight. Running after goats and chicken, visiting the fields for an afternoon of raw mangoes and a bath in the pond, the first ten years visiting my village were endearing.

I used to rush around in the village lanes and fields whenever we visited the countryside from Ranchi, where we had settled for the sake of my parents’ jobs; but I remember hurrying back to the house at the sound of one particular motorbike, belonging to one of my many uncles who used to live in the joint family. Kaka’s command over the family’s children was ineffable. With just one glare, he could bring down all the kids to their knees, which was fine, until suddenly, this command of his, was restricted to the females of the family. My older female cousins still rush inside the house at the sound of his arrival, while the only boy of the household is free to roam around, at whatever time he pleases. These tenuous signs of patriarchy went unnoticed, for years, until I was old enough to understand that ‘something was not right’.

This happened sometime in my 10thyear when puberty had just started to make its presence felt, in the form of incredibly tight and ill-fitting bras and really stubborn acne. My melanin became the topic of discussion around home, my paternal home, that is. The ladies who loved to see me run after their pet chickens now started to say things like, “Go inside, beta. The sun will make you dark.” A decade ago, I would laugh at this statement. Today, as an almost 21-year-old individual who spent her adolescence feeling ugly and left out because of her colour, I realise that had the villagers not said things like that, had my aunts not told me that I had turned darker in the past year every time I met them, I would have probably had an easier life. Understanding my own strengths would have been a feat more accessible.

During my school years, someone was always prettier, more popular and more approachable. Poly-cystic ovarian syndrome didn’t help either. It went undiagnosed for years, given my very irregular menstrual cycles; and I wish I had gone to the gynaecologist the one time I missed my period in 8th standard. Not doing so gave me unimaginable weight gain, acne and a really low self-esteem. In a situation like this, I could not help but put on a face of bold approach towards life, the mask of self-reliance and independence made me appear as if I was a confident and mentally strong kid. Deep down, the scars were prominent, and the hurt persistent. Every year, during the summers or the winters, I was subjected to a fortnight of continuous shaming for the very person I was; and their voices echoed in my brain for weeks.

Bits and pieces of information reached my ears over the next couple of years; how my paternal grandparents never saw my face until I was one, because I was born a female, and they never visited my mother in the hospital. How the villagers saw my father as a failure, because he never begot a son to carry on his name and intelligence, and how my grandmother was worried I will never get married, due to my colour. Through these years, my father kept saying one thing, “You study, whatever you want to study; and that will ensure you fend for yourself at all times.”

My mother, an educated woman herself, who was, and continues to be an epitome of endurance, made me apply crushed almonds mixed with milk fats, tomato and cucumber juice, and all sorts household ‘remedies’ for acne and a dark skin tone. “You are beautiful” was a statement that used to lighten up my day, because the importance of beauty was penetrated deep in my mind, more than the importance of an education.

For me, being a girl in India was never about fighting for the right to education, or equality; it was about the realization that I ought to be comfortable in my own skin, to love myself, to embrace my colour, my body and my qualities. I don’t require anyone to validate my existence is a fact that I learnt quite late in my life, when I was already in college, freshly out of the trauma of school and the perpetual shaming. Whether it was peers casually joking that I will become darker after Diwali because of the smoke from the crackers, or a tuition teacher telling us in 9th standard that she was glad she didn’t give birth to a girl because a dusky boy is okay, a dusky girl cannot be married off; the little things that were said, intricate ways in which I was constantly told that fair is beautiful, made me, and probably hundreds of other Indian girls, wary of their bodies.

In the summer of 2016, Delhi University happened. A short, dark and fat girl came to the capital, on a path of self-discovery. Delhi has helped me a lot; not that it is not filled with people who made me question my worth yet again, but I was lucky enough to find the treasure of self-love. Places where I found friends, who embraced me for who I was, people who appreciated my boldness, a quality I had developed as a coping mechanism, humility ranging as far as giving up everything just to help people; Delhi has been a panorama of experiences much harder than mine, and empathy far beyond I could imagine.

Something shifted at the end of my first year; I understood that people, who shamed my colour, were also the people who were so unsure of their own mettle, unaware of their own prowess. Aunties who asked me to stay indoors never realised that they work for 14 hours a day, without any help from their male counterparts and don’t receive any pay for the same; peers who casually made fun of my skin tone did not ever understand that they could have made someone feel so much better about themselves. My mother, who tried to make me fairer, never saw the fact that I admired her for juggling a career and a home, and not because of her beauty or the lack of it.

So when last summer my grandmother saw me after two years and said that I’d turned darker during my stay in Delhi, which was because of a tan obtained due to hours of travelling for work, I smiled and said, “If you are worried nobody will marry me, do not, because my tan reminds me of what I have achieved; and not whom I can or cannot marry.” My father, sitting right across, a man born and brought up in a village, yet progressive and open minded enough to have never been a patriarch or sexist, who had told me that I am my own hero, smiled. His daughter had grown; for her, fierce was the new fair.

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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.

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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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