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On Sisterhood And Solidarity In Context Of The ‘MeToo’ Movement In India: Part I

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People ask survivors (the original quote had the word ‘victim’ but I chose to replace it with ‘survivor’ as a testament to the courage of the people who fought and continue to fight, to survive such traumatic experiences) why now? Why 20 years later? And use that as a reason to dismiss allegations. One needs to understand the power assemblages at work that silence and prevent survivors from speaking out. Why am I doing this now? Because I feel Harvey Weinstein’s case has started many discussions and people are now more open to believing survivors instead of ‘liar until proven innocent‘,” said Raya Sarkar in an interview to BuzzFeed News, when asked what prompted her to create the list of sexual harassers in academia (LoSHA). The ‘MeToo’ movement in Indian started when 24-year-old Dalit, queer, Ph.D. scholar Sarkar decided to publish the list based on first-hand testimonies. This unparalleled act of courage was met with mixed responses.

A group of twelve prominent feminists and activists including (but not limited to) Nivedita Menon and Kavita Krishnan expressed their disagreement with Sarkar’s methods by publishing a collective statement on the website Kafila, asking them to withdraw the list and follow due process. “It worries us that anybody can be named anonymously, with lack of answerability…This manner of naming can delegitimize the long struggle against sexual harassment, and make our task as feminists more difficult.”, the statement read. Some of these individuals who signed the statement expanded on parts of the statement in an individual capacity, bringing to light issues such as vigilantism, transparency, and the lack of clarity about the resolution of these cases.

Others applauded Sarkar’s ‘naming and shaming’ approach, which was seen as a response to the failure of institutional mechanisms. “I put the list out to make students safe,” said Sarkar in an interview to BBC. Those who agreed with the politics of the list also brought up legitimate concerns about Internal Complaint Committees (ICCs) such as the non-existence of ICCs on college campuses, accessibility, and gender-sensitivity of ICCs. Supporters see the list as an outlet for the anger and frustration experienced by young feminists who had to bear the brunt of abuse of power by their professors.

LoSHA began to fade away from public imagination as people continued to debate its validity. As is the case with most trends in India, the ‘MeToo’ movement managed to capture public imagination once Bollywood (as the Hindi film industry is popularly known) got on board. The second wave of the ‘MeToo’ movement snowballed into a widespread, leaderless, social phenomenon when Bollywood actress Tanushree Dutta spoke up about actor and activist Nana Patekar physically and verbally misbehaving with her on the sets of the 2008 film ‘Horn ‘OK’ Pleassss‘. She also implicated the film’s director, producer, and choreographer for not interfering or helping her. Patekar has since been given a clean chit in the case by Mumbai police because they couldn’t find evidence to support Dutta’s narrative.

Bollywood, an industry that is riddled with gender injustice in the form of casting couch, dismal participation of women behind the camera, pay gap, etc. was shaken to its very core with the outpouring of sexual harassment experiences from within the film industry. It could no longer claim ignorance or brush ‘inconvenient’ matters under the carpet when women were sharing stories of abuse on public platforms. An industry that prides itself on being ‘apolitical’ had to take a stand because of the sheer number of women who spoke about their awful experiences and because of the nature of these experiences. Directors such as Sajid Khan and Subhash Kapoor had to step down from films that they were at the helm of after they were outed as abusers by women who had worked with them previously.

The ripples of Dutta’s fearless assertion were felt in all spheres of Indian lives such as the creative arts, journalism, politics, etc. Indian politicians have never been particularly sensitive when speaking their minds in the aftermath of heinous crimes against women including sexual violence. Everything from chowmein (noodles) to jeans and cell phones, everything but the toxic behaviour of men has been held responsible by them. Their arguments, devoid of logic, are made with the singular intention of letting men off the hook by perpetuating the ‘boys will be boys‘ rhetoric.

Another high profile case involved Indian journalist and politician MJ Akbar who was forced to step down as Minister of State for External Affairs, after more than fifteen women used social media to recount the harrowing details of their abuse at the hands of Akbar. He responded by filing a case of criminal defamation against journalist Priya Ramani who was the first of the lot to speak her truth to power. In response to this, twenty women who worked at a newspaper Akbar founded (Asian Age) released a petition in support of Ramani, asking New Delhi’s Patiala house court to consider their testimonies against him. They said that “When Ms. Ramani spoke out against him in public, she spoke not only about her personal experience but also lifted the lid on the culture of casual misogyny, entitlement and sexual predation that Mr. Akbar engendered and presided over“.

The ‘MeToo’ movement in India has been criticised on many counts. In a country, where not everyone has equal access to the internet or social media, the movement has largely been restricted to the urban milieu, with most survivors and perpetrators coming from dominant caste (“Caste in India means an artificial chopping off of the population into fixed and definite units, each one prevented from fusing into another through the custom of endogamy.” – B.R. Ambedkar, ‘Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis, and Development’, 1916), class locations. Furthermore, the movement lacks inclusivity in terms of being accessible to individuals from marginalised caste, class locations and to individuals from the LGBTQIA+ community. Sexual orientation and gender identity are important markers that interact in unique ways with one’s experiences of abuse and the resulting trauma. Unless such individuals feel like they can contribute to the larger debate by opening up about their ordeals, these voices will continue to remain missing from the conversation.

Readers Can Access Part II Here.

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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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