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Indian Women And Safety In Colleges – An Unlikely Coupling?

“Are colleges in India safe for women?”

I’d rather ask if there is any place in the country where women can take a few uninterrupted breaths without being stared at, groped, called names and be harassed.

Incidents of sexual abuse are growing at alarming rates all over the country. No place can boast of being a safe haven against any form of harassment. Institutions of higher education and colleges are wrongly assumed as a sanctuary against sexual assault or harassment. It’s depressing to witness cases of abuse even by staff members and professors piling up every passing day.

A 2017 report by the Ministry of HRD found a 50% rise of sexual abuse cases at college campuses.

This year, a research scholar at JNU was sexually harassed by a Professor of the University. This is not an isolated case. Nearly 200 such incidents came to light in just the past year. And these are figures collected only from colleges and universities around the country. Hit you real hard, didn’t it? Well, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

It’s easy for college authorities to pin the blame on the victims. Why were you hanging around with that guy? Who asked you to visit the teacher privately? Maybe he just behaved in a fatherly way. Yeah right, you might have been brought up to consider your breasts being grabbed as the completely normal action of a doting dad. Or maybe we seduced someone into raping us by wearing whatever we chose to clothe ourselves in. It clearly didn’t dawn on them that logic was not a commodity that you get to buy all too easily.

Photo credit: consensusg.com

It’s not just sexual abuse. Harassment has slithered its way into academic discussions in ways that might seem subtle but are nevertheless extremely demeaning. It’s in the way certain teachers cringe when female students appear to be more active than their male/other gender counterparts.

It’s also in the way they comment that girls are better off toiling in the kitchen. The authorities mostly resort to knee-jerk reactions once any kind of assault comes to light; they introduce measures like separate seating arrangements for each gender, imposition of a dress code and prohibition of excessive interaction between boys and girls. Because show some skin or wave to a guy and bam! you get raped!

Soon after the gruesome 2012 Delhi gangrape incident, St. Xavier’s College in Ranchi allotted separate reading rooms for boys and girls. Aligarh Muslim University prohibits the entry of girls into the library because according to them, their presence attracts unwanted attention. The blame always lies on the women, right? Also, how can we forget the Watermelon Protest that took place in Kozhikode in Kerala? This protest was kickstarted by girls of the Farook Training college against the comments of an assistant professor that screamed sexual objectification.

His two cents could be translated to this – “When girls show a part of their chest, it looks no different than a slice of a watermelon.”

Wow. One cannot help feeling amazed at the number of utterly ignorant and naive beings that walk amongst us. These are but a few from among a multitude of examples that demonstrate how the moral compasses of many people have swivelled to a whole new ludicrous direction. The safety of women is gradually being compromised through these little actions that would at first glance seem pretty inconsequential.

Oh yes, colleges with a history of sexual harassment problems are being punished with fund cuts, reduction of grade points and more but the spotlight should be on the task of rooting out those elements that cradle the perpetrators right from the beginning. Because gah, the damage has already been done, geniuses! These elements include the practice of victim-blaming, overly restrictive rules against women, name-calling, bullying etc.

Colleges have instead taken to enforcing a dress code exclusively for women because supposedly, the more you cover up, the less provocative you come off to the people around you. This shows the underlying misogynistic attitude that is fed into impressionable minds thus making it seem okay to view women as toys to be played around with. These rules of ‘propriety’ that the self-styled moral police have put together reek of sexism and only stand to justify the dangerous game of victim-blaming. That colleges in a country with a shameful history of treating women are complicit in giving them the green light is no surprise. This year, the Thomson Reuters Foundation published a report that gave India the tag of being the world’s most dangerous country for women. You are not really mining around rainbows, are you?

It’s said that interaction between different genders is a healthy way to grow and build a good attitude and outlook towards life. Colleges should encourage this process of socialization and also introduce an active cell that tackles issues like bullying and harassment against any gender. Victims need someone who will lend a willing ear.

After the Delhi gangrape case sent the country into a tizzy, much was expected to change. There clearly has been no progress. The Nirbhaya Fund which was set aside for taking measures to uphold the safety of women has around 70% of its funds still remaining unused even as five years have rolled by ever since the horrific tragedy rocked the nation. When those in the highest echelons of power can’t even bat an eyelid, what ensues is a general level of ignorance to this terrible scenario. This mood is ominously seeping into colleges and universities with the entire educational system starting to show signs of descending into chaos as far as women’s issues are concerned.

Either we have sky-high expectations from those in power or something in the system is dreadfully askew. It’s for us to find out. You up for it?

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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.

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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.”

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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
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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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