It’s Time We Accept Not Every Student Suicide Is Limited To A Mental Health Issue

The suicide note of an integrated MA student at IIT Madras named a professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Science as the cause of her death. The aggrieved family, friends, and society of the student, Fathima Latheef, have been probing the cause behind the harassment faced by her.

Across social media, this message has been widely discussed, as she stated previously to her father that her (Muslim) name itself was problematic in that space of IIT, especially to the philosophy professor she had named in her note. Suicides in IITs are not new, many have committed suicide due to the academic pressures, and depression.

However, Fathima’s suicide stands out from the rest, as she was a meritorious student who stood first in the entrance exam as well as in the internal exams. Still, there was something that constantly distracted her in her short stay on the IIT campus. The police are investigating the details into the case, and it’s the right time to discuss the phobic spaces created by academic professionals in the higher education system in India, and the need to prevent institutional murders like this.

In the light of Fathima’s death, another IIT student, Alfiya Jose, in her Facebook post dated November 14, expressed her dismay over the discussion turning out for the need to address mental health issues of young adults among peer pressures in academic spaces. She says that such discussions actually turn a blind eye towards the elitism, classism, and Islamophobia.

Alfiya writes, “This campus, particularly the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences is ridden of anti- Muslim and anti-caste sentiments. Every academic discussion in our classrooms ends up with reference to Pakistan and questioning of Muslim women’s agency. ‘Why are Muslims and Christians called minority when their population is large in number while Brahmins are just two percent of the entire Indian population?’ this was a statement made by one of our staff to a Muslim women scholar. Brahmins being a minority is the stellar example of the Brahmanical mindset that follows Manu’s law which prescribes education is exclusive to the Brahmins. The entry of any other persons not belonging to this generates caste anxiety here.”

As Alfiya herself suggested, seeing the suicide as a mere mental health issue fails to identify the root cause for it, as it is not just personal, but rather structural and functional. A student activist from Mumbai is reported to have stated that, Fathima’s case is a clear proof of discrimination on the grounds of religion.

The daily interactions of Muslims become problematic in a majoritarian atmosphere as it is often seen that the Muslim community lacks two things: ideals and aspirations. It is also important to note that the rhetoric surrounding this incident will be held as a precedent for women who want to enter higher education in India.

Caste-based and religion-based discrimination have been prevailing in the higher education system in India for long. Rohith Vemula’s death at the HCU campus in January 2016 was due to the distress caused by the university’s discrimination of him based on his caste identity. This added to the existing victimisation he faced in the family by witnessing his father abuse his mother on the basis of her caste identity.

This case is an example of the age-old discrimination based on the caste hierarchy. Though the Constitution of India safeguards all kinds of discrimination on the basis of caste, gender, race, and religion under Article 15, it persists as a sensitive and politicised issue in the country. Issues like slavery, discrimination in the educational system, untouchability, and exclusion from social spaces occur as a result of the deep-rooted stigma formed in the minds of every Indian since their birth. Our society remains highly divisive on the said grounds.

Discrimination in educational institutions on the basis of caste and religion remain unresolved, not just in schools, but in higher education sectors as well. In schools, drop-out rates are higher due to this.

However, it works in a different way in higher educational institutions. For instance, recently in Calicut University, a few research scholars lodged a complaint against their guide for discriminating against them on the grounds of their social background. Since elitism and casteism work so deeply in the minds of academics, it comes out in various forms through abusive remarks as well as exclusion.

As in the case of Fathima, though there is the lack of clear evidence about her facing harassment due to Islamophobia, the grounds for the same also cannot be simply dismissed while reading her case with the analysis of the cold attitude and phobic space on campus pointed out by another student of the same institute.

Then, how does one address various forms of structural discrimination against students from marginalised communities?

We have a number of legal measures as well as regulations against discrimination. Higher education bodies like the UGC and AICTE have taken measures to curb caste-based discrimination in higher education as they have granted the power to colleges to take administrative decisions to prevent all kinds of harassment and discrimination.

Universities and colleges are empowered to handle the cases under their respective Acts. The MHRD has recently issued a press note regarding the measure UGC and AICTE have taken to curb all kinds of discrimination against students from marginal communities like the SC/ST/OBC communities. They are:

  • The grievance redressal mechanism set up by the UGC (Promotion of Equity in Higher Education Institutions) Regulations, 2012.
  • Setting up equal opportunity cells under regulation 2012 in HEIs (higher education institutes).
  • UGC’s financial assistance to socially backward and minority students under the Equal Opportunity Centres. It also looks at the academic and social needs of students.
  • UGC’s special cell for the needs of students from SC/ST communities.
  • AICTE’s initiatives to establish committees for students from SC/ST communities as per the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989.
  • A monthly online status report of complaints and grievances received and action taken on the websites of AICTE institutes.
  • A public grievance redressal cell to dispose of cases against AICTE affiliated institutes.

Looking at these measures, we may note that Islamophobia remains silent. Though it is widely accepted that Dalit communities are victimised socially and economically and are deprived of higher education opportunities, other socially backward communities also face the stigma irrespective of their social groups.

In the instant issue that Fathima’s death became, students have called for action from the Ministry of Minority Affairs to take immediate cognizance of any discrimination on the ground of religion and to set up Minority Cells in higher education institutions. They have also called for the enactment of the Rohith Act to punish caste, religion, and gender-based discrimination in HEIs in India.

All these issues remain structural and less discussed while considering them in a practical sense. These regulatory steps alone will not work out efficiently, unless and until there is a change in the mindset of people. Everywhere, the cause and effects of discrimination are pointed out.

However, how to fight it remains inconclusive. The legal measures themselves are not the right solution, because it makes us talk a lot about the problem rather than altering our mindsets.

One may call it philosophical if this writer calls for change in mindsets when the cause of the problem is structural. One should end the practice of caste names, caste, and religious-based marriages to fight the stigma.

Moreover, there needs to be friendly and co-operative spaces in HEIs where students can converse with faculties on the discrimination they face. All these won’t happen all of a sudden, I know.

The noble ideals of our constitution have to be instilled through education. It is not just be preached, but to be practiced, and the spaces to be made free from any kind of discrimination. We have traveled a lot, yet still, we have to travel further.

Featured image source: Pandian Pandi/Facebook; Mohd Ali/Twitter.
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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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