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Opinion: The Self-Defence Narrative Surrounding Women Is Hugely Problematic


The Indian Government has been promoting self-defence training for women under the erstwhile centrally sponsored scheme of Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA).

A total of 170,426 schools receive approval for self-defence training for girl students (Classes IX to XII) during the last three years.

The Delhi Police over a period of time has been doing an advertisement campaign on self-defence which also
includes organising self-defence training for women.

Self-defence in the context of the Indian woman has been showcased as a necessity. There are thousands of articles on the internet talking about why self-defence is so necessary for women in today’s world and why it is the ultimate solution to all potential assaults women may be confronted with through their life.

I find this narrative problematic and will aim to counter this by pointing out the problem in propagating such a narrative and its implications on men, women, and society as a whole.

The idea of self-defence is to tell women that “their safety is in their own hands.” This is also the argument which is used to stop women from wearing clothes of their own choice because apparently, this could lead to unsafe circumstances.

The problem in doing so is that we are not empowering women but actually validating men’s behaviour towards women. When we blame a woman and her choice of clothes for the harassment she has to go through, we are not criticising the way that men have behaved with women, but we are actually blaming the women and their choices.

We are not holding men accountable for their behaviour, we’re putting this onus on women to change to defend themselves. We are hence, making no changes in the social conditioning of the perpetrator or questioning this behaviour of theirs particularly directed towards women. Which is why they still continue to misuse the social privilege they were born with.

This shift of burden from the oppressor to the oppressed, to now fight, is problematic. Because, for any social change to take place, it is important for the oppressor to know that their actions are violating the rights of a human being, hence they need to stop and/or reform.

In this case, it becomes important to put the burden on men to change and give up on their privileges, because this is a concrete way women will be able to make space in the societal structures. It is not just the fight of women against assault and harassment, but also against the social structures which make men feel that they have the right to exploit women.

Another thing about self-defence is that the very idea of it is elitist, which means that it is not a tool available to women across different class and caste structures. This is due to the fact that women belonging to minorities or from economically disadvantaged backgrounds may not have access to such training or have time for it, owing to their schedules.

Moreover, despite this, the inability to speak up about assault/harassment is blamed on a traumatic experience. An
additional burden is then put on women.

Just like how housewives and their work is often looked down upon by other women as well as men. Should a housewife speak up, it is highly likely that her situation will be blamed on her and not on the man who is exploiting his wife. This then, becomes the fault of women who were not able to fight during the exploitation they were facing.

The above example can be better explained through the imagery of an ’empowered woman’ that we have in our minds: a woman who is working, earning, and is, thus, economically independent. However, this way, the idea of empowerment itself is flawed in the minds of the majority of people.

But, what does an empowered woman look like? Can a housewife be an empowered woman as well?

Why is the image of an empowered woman always showcased as a woman dressed up in formal business-like clothes? All these questions make us rethink our idea of empowerment as a whole.

Similarly, self-defence does not necessarily ’empower’ women, but it, in a way, dis-empowers them; it doesn’t value the struggle of women, but values some exceptional cases who were able to claim this a tool to protect themselves, when they shouldn’t have had to protect themselves in the first place.

Adding on to the above, it also does not hold men accountable for their behaviour, it does not question their social privilege but, in a way, asks women to adopt this social structure as it is and change themselves and not the social structure.

On the whole, the pressure seems to be only on the women while the society and institutions that exist to protect them, have no responsibility.

Featured image for representative purpose only.
Featured image source: Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images.
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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.

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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.

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.

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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 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.

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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.”

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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.

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.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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