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Each Year, I Wish My Loved Ones A Safe Diwali But I Have Never Felt Safe Myself

It happened on a bright, sunny day in 2015 when the whole world was drowning in colours. The streets smelled of gulal and sweet lassi. I wanted to participate in the world outside and have some colours for myself. And I did. Except I received only hostility and snide remarks.

What kind of girls come out to play Holi?”

If you don’t want some colours from us, beautiful, you should have stayed home.”

Hey, it’s only a water balloon. Don’t overreact.”

I was only putting some gulal on you. You didn’t have to hit me for that. Bura na mano, holi hai.”

It was Holi. The festival of love. But I could only see hate.

Now, it’s Diwali. The festival of light. The celebration of good prevailing over evil. When we defeat our inherent darkness. So to speak!

Indian festivals always have history backing their popularity and their survival through centuries. And as the tale of Diwali goes, a certain Ram brings back Sita from the evil clutches of Ravan. The Demon. The people of India celebrated the day as the day of Diwali. But the story doesn’t end here. Just after celebrations for the returning prince of Ayodhya die down, Sita is questioned about her purity and honour until she self-immolates to prove it. Sounds familiar? This is the story of every daughter in India. Roop Kanwar is celebrated for her purity because she sits on her husband’s pyre and turns into ashes. Women are praised for being the symbol of self-sacrifice and perhaps for being disposable—on their husbands’ pyres or in the well into which once Queen Padmavati jumped.

We have had a long list of traditions like Sati or Jauhar to keep the concept of the self-sacrificing ‘ideal woman’ alive. And for a long time now it has been the tradition of staying silent. Even the best of us follow it, and we don’t notice. I have always walked on the street looking over my shoulder and I don’t complain. I will always have a pepper spray lying in my bag but I don’t speak about how I shouldn’t need to carry it in the first place. I clutch my keys tighter between my fingers every time I see a man look at my direction when walking by an isolated street. Because I am both used to and terrified of the stares I receive. I am used to squirming under the never faltering gaze too.

Sometimes I wish Sita had not proved anything to anyone and screamed her lungs out instead. Diwali would have been a thousand times safer if history were written with a different hand. Each year I wish my friends, and my family a safe Diwali, but I have never felt it myself. I have never felt safe anywhere, even when I am in my own apartment with the doors locked from inside, only because I have an identity that says ‘woman’. And that is why this time I wish for a safe Diwali for myself. Not just for a day but for every day that is to come after this. I wish for a safe Diwali for everyone who has never felt safe from the demons of various shapes and sizes. I wish for a light strong enough to burn everything that stands in the way of a safe world, for everyone; where Draupadi isn’t a pawn in a game; where Nirbhaya doesn’t exist; where I don’t carry a pepper spray in my bag all the time. I wish to achieve that world. And that is why I need #MeToo. Not for an ideology. I may not understand the meaning of it, but because I recognise wrong and I can separate it from right. What was done to Sita was wrong, what was done to Draupadi was wrong and the traditions we are unwittingly following are wrong. The fear I carry around with me is wrong. It’s time I celebrate the right things.

This time I will celebrate Diwali not because Ram rescued Sita, but because she prevailed in the face of all the darkness. Same as all the women who have started a movement, same as the men who have stood up against undue privileges, same as those braving the violence in Sabrimala for what is right. There are thousands who have spoken out against the unfairness and there will be a thousand more.

This Diwali when you light diyas in your courtyard take an oath to follow the same light. Take another oath to act against the tangible demons you have overlooked for so long. And maybe then, we will have a Diwali when we won’t have to wish for our loved ones’ and our own safety.    

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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