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From The White House To The Vatican: Why Are The Powerful Sheltering The Accused?

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Editor’s Note: This is the first in the five part series analysing why the rich, powerful men – from politicians to spiritual leaders – across the world are victimising themselves upon being accused of sexual harassment. 

The international #MeToo movement, which began spreading last year, is taking on new dimensions with the unfolding saga of a 44-year-old nun in Kerala — a state in India’s southwest coast — who is struggling to achieve justice after accusing Catholic Bishop Franco Mulakkal of repeatedly raping her over a two-year period.

The narrative in the anonymous nun’s case mirrors that of so many others who have stepped forward to say “me too”. A powerless victim is exploited by a rich, powerful, and influential predator who, when allegations of abuse are leveled against him, dismisses all charges as baseless lies while simultaneously attempting to blame and shame his accuser. Meanwhile, those in positions of influence frequently leap to the defense of the accused; in some cases, accused abusers even defend accused abusers.

In the United States, where the movement began, victims have identified abusers in every field, ranging from entertainment to news, sports to the military, and politics to religion. Some of the biggest names include film producer Harvey Weinstein, TV host Bill O’Reilly, and comedian Bill Cosby. Within politics, the accused hail from all partisan persuasions. Republicans include failed senatorial candidate Roy Moore and Congressman Pat Meehan. Democrats include Senator Al Franken and Congressman John Conyers. Since 2017, at least half-a-dozen members of the US Congress have resigned or retired amidst sex abuse scandals.

Yet, the accused don’t always fade away into obscurity. The more powerful they are, the more likely they are to double-down and fight the accusations. And in America’s political scene, no one more perfectly illustrates this than President Donald Trump.

In 2017, three women accused Roy Moore of sexually assaulting them (including two who said it happened to them as teenagers). “He denies it,” said Trump. “He totally denies it”. Trump then strongly endorsed Moore’s campaign for Senate. Moore lost. Earlier that year, Bill O’Reilly faced sexual harassment charges from six different women. Days before O’Reilly was fired from a 21-year career at Fox News, Trump remarked, “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong.”

Perhaps Trump’s eagerness to brush aside the allegations of victims, however, is linked to the long string of accusations he faces himself. In October 2016, as he was running for president, an audio recording surfaced in which he bragged that as a celebrity, “you can do anything” to women and get away with it. Afterwards, over a dozen women came forward to accuse Trump of harassment and even assault. In response to the charges, Trump painted himself as a political martyr.

“I am a victim of one of the great political smear campaigns in the history of our country,” he declared. “I am being viciously attacked with lies and smears.” Attacking his accusers, he suggested they were making allegations because “they get some free fame”. Calling them “phony accusers,” he singled out one specific accuser as a “horrible woman”. Insinuating that she wasn’t attractive enough for him, he said, “she would not be my first choice, that I can tell you.” As the clincher, he implied that accusing him of sexual misconduct was tantamount to an anti-national activity, stating, “they are coming after me to try and destroy what is considered by even them the greatest movement in the history of our country.”

While it’s deeply troubling when a presidential candidate — who is now the sitting president — is accused of being a sexual predator, it’s far more disturbing when spiritual leaders face similar allegations. Within the realm of religion, one of the groups most frequently accused of abuse is the Catholic priesthood. And, over the past year, the scandals which have dogged the Church for decades appear to be coming to a head.

Beginning in the 1990s, victims started coming forth to reveal how they’d been abused — usually as children — by their own priests. Thousands of victims across all continents have spoken out, many alleging that they were subjected to rape. Last year, Pope Francis admitted that the Church, which processes cases internally, has a 2,000 case backlog.

Most recently, over 300 priests in Pennsylvania were accused of molesting approximately 1,000 child victims. The case inspired at least eight other US states to launch investigations. They’ve also prompted Pennsylvania’s Attorney General, Josh Shapiro to report, “We have evidence that the Vatican had knowledge of a cover-up.”

This adds insult to injury. The accused are guilty of profaning the innocence of youth, violating the most sacred trust, and exhibiting rank hypocrisy as they publicly preach Catholicism while secretly breaking their vows of celibacy. Yet, the highest authorities in the Church are sheltering the accused instead of their victims.

The Pope has spoken out against sexual abuse as recently as August 2018. In an open letter, he stated, “The heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet, or silenced.” Speaking of “shame and repentance,” he admitted, “We did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives. We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.” He even called it an “abuse of power.”

In September 2018, however, he delivered a sermon with a message that appeared to suggest victims who level charges are siding with Satan. “In these times, it seems like the Great Accuser has been unchained and is attacking bishops,” said the Pope. He seemed to imply that exposing abuse is the work of the Devil, saying that “[the Great Accuser] tries to uncover the sins, so they are visible in order to scandalize the people.”

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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 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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