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Fighting Centuries Of Gender Stereotypes, One T-Shirt At A Time

I have a 3-year-old daughter and every time we go to a clothes’ or a toy store, I am always amazed to see how deeply gendered marketing for kids is. The ‘For Boys’ aisles feature basketballs, cars, dinosaurs, action figures or messages about being a troublemaker, or a future scientist, all in blue hues. The ‘For Girls’ sections feature dolls, flowers, butterflies, tiny stilettos or bags and messages about being sweet, sassy or a beauty queen. Many people wonder what’s wrong with such a scenario. Aren’t girls born with a preference for pink? Don’t all boys love cars and bikes?

Much of what we assume to be natural or biological is, in fact, a result of socialisation, the process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society. A recent research undertaken across children between 10-15 years of age across 15 countries including India shows that gender stereotypes are ingrained by age 10. These stereotypes can be harmful in many ways – they impact children’s self-image, how they engage with the world, their career opportunities and their future relationships.

We feel such angst when we hear of child abuse or of girls being killed because of gender bias but we passively accept sexist ideas for our children. The human brain responds deeply to images in making sense of the world. If all images of sport, adventure, outdoor or heroism are made synonymous with boys and images of being kind, caring, nurturing and beautiful with girls, we end up sharing very limited and limiting ideas with our children. As they grow, they start understanding masculinity as being aggressive and femininity as being passive or about surface beauty. So you can see, how the root of many issues in our world such as gender pay gap, sexual harassment, violence against women actually lies in sexist attitudes that we support in our everyday life.

We pay an emotional cost for not challenging gender stereotypes enough. From nail art kits as gifts to birthday parties with a make-up corner, the idea that girls need to focus on their outward appearance starts early. The hyper-sexual images in media reinforce girls’ growing understanding of themselves as external objects, whose primary value is in surface beauty. As a result, they face anxiety, poor self-esteem and body-shame issues. Boys, on the other hand, are constantly told to ‘be tough’, a message that correlates with higher risk-taking and health issues. They are likelier to engage in substance abuse, binge drinking or physical violence because of this. Emotions are seen as a sign of weakness among boys and by not allowing them to express their feelings freely, we end up alienating boys as a society.

We pay an economic cost for not stemming gender bias early-on. Gender discrimination is estimated to cost the global economy up to $12 trillion annually in wasted potential.  It limits our children’s career aspirations leading to waste of talent and productivity. We read every day about the gender gap in nearly every context from science to sports, music festivals to Hollywood. We are told that it could take more than 200 years to close the gender gap in some of the STEMM fields (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics and Medicine) and at the current rate, it would take 100 years for women to gain equality.

Yet we wonder what the big deal about gender stereotypes is.

Last year, I joined hands with my old college friend Reema to create Candidly, a platform to drive candid conversations on issues of gender, sexuality and media and their influence on children and young adults. We have so far conducted on-ground workshops on abuse awareness, comprehensive sexuality education, body safety, produced digital content and built candid discussions on these subjects.

I felt the time had come to stop passively hoping for change and challenging these gender stereotypes and outdated attitudes. Hence was born EqualiTee, our range of gender-cool merchandise that challenges flawed stereotypes we inherited and lets our little boys and girls be whoever they wish to be. Designed in five themes – Activity, Opportunity, Creativity, Sensitivity and Equality, the collection is aimed at children to show them an expansive world, of imagination, creativity and free expression, with no access denied for being a girl or a boy.

We have started small but we believe that more such small efforts can help catalyze big change. Challenging gender stereotypes is not about reversing roles between two genders nor is about eliminating differences between boys and girls. It is about the equal opportunity for play, self-expression and life choices for all irrespective of their gender.

Our belief, like we saw in our film is that –

Boys and Girls

Sometimes Different

But Always Equal

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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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