Dear Vying Political Parties, Why Is Criminalisation Of Marital Rape Not On Your Agenda?

In 2018, India was rocked by a revelation made in a survey conducted by the Thomas Reuters Foundation, that the nation happens to be the most dangerous country in the world for women. The results of the survey were heavily disputed; the debate lay in the question that how could India have ranked number one in the world, ahead of a war-ridden nation like Syria and a country like Afghanistan with a history of gender brutality?

While we have now moved on from that debate, the fact remains that the bulk of the Indian female population has been staring down a dismal abyss for decades now, and no amount of development, capacity-building, and governmental programmes have managed to reach out to all the women who have been silently suffering in dire circumstances.

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One of the primary areas that continues to stun the nation, and which as a young Indian woman, I find frankly outrageous, is the unabated progression of domestic violence against women.

The conversation on domestic abuse is an old one, yet, it remains as vital towards achieving equal opportunities for men and women, as it was a decade ago, if not more. Verbal, emotional, financial and physical coercion, dowry deaths, including bride burning, sexual abuse of women, have been common practices at home, despite the enactment of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, which recognised domestic abuse as a criminally punishable act for the first time under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in 2005.  However, today, in 2019, there is still ambiguity, for the Indian judiciary refuses to criminalise one of the fundamental forms of abuse a woman faces at home, i.e. marital rape.

The 2018 survey by the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) revealed that about 31% women in India experience physical, emotional or sexual trauma at the hands of their spouses. What was more disturbing was that a staggering 83% of married women within the 15-49 years age-group, claimed to have experienced sexual assault at the hands of their present husband; not surprisingly, the most common form of violence reported turned out to be forced sexual intercourse involving physical coercion, perpetrated by the husband against the wife’s will.

At present, Section 375 of the IPC, that outlaws rape, includes an exceptional provision stating, “sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age, is not rape.” While this exception claims to offer protection to the girl child against sexual violation in marriage, the government, in a laughable statement in 2017, declared that criminalizing marital rape of adult married women could ‘destabilize the institution of marriage’, and also lead to the harassment of men.

This is where I demand that the government wake up to the truth! For I believe that it is the duty of the government to protect the nation’s women, to create opportunities that would respect the woman’s standing in society, and not turn a blind eye to their harassment, simply to preserve the sanctity of marriage.

Curiously enough, one may ask, what sanctity is preserved in a marriage where the wife is violated on a daily basis? What stability does the marriage have if one spouse is robbed of any voice, and the other is enabled by law to exploit, and torture? Does it make sense that one partner should get scarred for life, and should not be able to seek protection from law since doing so would apparently pollute the institution of marriage? And as far as harassment of men is concerned, to prevent a handful of fake cases, is it fair to deprive the millions of women in the grassroots who are in no position to exploit the law, of their fundamental rights?

Ahead of the 2019 elections, I consider it my duty as an Indian citizen, and a woman, to raise my voice against the misguided and highly distorted notions of right and wrong that continue to form the fabric of our society.

The Supreme Court of India has given some landmark verdicts in the past two or three years. But in my opinion, it has also made some supreme blunders, such as refusing to recognize marital rape as a criminal offence. As the nation prepares itself for what might turn out to be a nail-biting conclusion to the general elections, can we hope for a better outcome for women, irrespective of whatever is the outcome in the Centre?

With Indian women represented at an almost negligible 12% in the Parliament, women’s role in the political process still borders on insignificant; various factors like political ignorance, lack of awareness regarding voting rights, and dependence on the male head of the family in decision-making processes, play pivotal roles in women’s political participation. Not only the rural, illiterate women, but even educated women residing in urban areas seem to keep themselves actively away from politics. With such glaring gaps in political education, it is of little wonder that women continue to feature very marginally when it comes to important decisions regarding their lives.

A nation’s development depends on how empowered its women are, and on whether or not they are accorded the same respect and opportunity as their male counterparts. So, with the elections only a few months away, I demand that women be made more politically aware, with greater representation in the Parliament, and that the violence that threatens them every day, starting right at home, be recognized and prohibited legally.

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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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