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Insulting Sex Determination Tests, Blatant Disregard For LGBTQ+: A Lot Is Wrong With Indian Sports

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“We are the best in the world, have three World Cup championships and four Olympic championships… men’s players get paid more to just show up than we get paid to win major championships,” said Hope Solo, US soccer goalkeeper, in a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016. Statistics claim that apart from the period of major sporting festivals, women’s sports receive only around 4% media coverage, and out of that little coverage, women are often objectified or demeaned. The idea that the value and relevance of work depends on which gender a person belongs to is disturbing in itself. Even as society continues to attach stereotypical comments and attitude to sportswomen, board room meetings remain yet another male-dominated space where women struggle to be heard.

In this age of meritocracy and supposed equality, there is an invisible barrier that exists between sports and women at community level. Gender is a social construct formed and shaped by society and it is a very fundamental way in which humans classify each other. The fact that men are strong and aggressive, and fast and competitive, while women have all the contrasting traits from men, make sportswomen an anomaly in society. A woman who chooses sports is not only classified as not-so-feminine, but also deals with lack of financial and mental support.

John Clammer is of the opinion that social inequalities are seen as “natural” and thus, society does not tamper with these. The world of sports has been witnessing incidents of the dominant group (here males) pulling the strings and the subordinate group (here females) accepting things the way they are. The stereotyping does not start on the field itself, it is a result of the ancient practice of giving a boy football and a girl Barbie doll to play with. In the catalogue of marginality given by Tatum, the dominant group takes the inequalities for granted and females, who belong to the subordinate group, believe in these differences and lose faith in their own abilities.

The Squash Racket Federation of India refused to recommend Dipika Pallikal for Arjuna Award even though she was the first Indian to rank in the top 15. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

As science and technology continue to dominate, myths and superstitions have not stopped casting their shadow in the arena of sports. There are families around the globe today who have a firm belief that vigorous activities are not meant for women. This leads to invention of lighter and less demanding sports such as net ball, because basketball was deemed too manly for women. Gender is reinforced as a dominant mode of social classification when men act as a dominant force in sports. Sweeping gender inequality in the world of sports under the rug has been an age long tradition.

Personalities including Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, remarked that even a toughened female sportsperson is not shaped enough to sustain certain specific shocks. Even though UNESCO in 1978 recognised physical activity and sports as a basic human right, women’s sports activity has been classified as “not entertaining”. From Sepp Blatter, former FIFA president, remarking “female players could wear tighter shorts” and Manoj Rana and Chandan Pathak verbally harassing female gymnast Snehal Pradhan at the Asian Games of 2014, sexism in the sports industry is only increasing.

Discrimination in sports on the basis of gender is witnessed in different forms today, with pay gap, harassment, sexist attitude and less media coverage being a few of them. Global Sports Salaries Survey, 2017, claims that a male basketball player in National Basketball Association (NBA) earns 90 times more than their female counterparts. The situation in India is worse; the very first name that comes up while naming an Indian sportsperson is Sachin Tendulkar or maybe Virat Kohli. With blatant disparity and supremacy of cisgender heterosexual males in the world of sports, controversies regarding biological differences, skirt length and differing penalties are rampant.

Approximately 12% of sports news is presented by women. Moreover, accommodating women in a 20km away local institution during the South Asian Federation Games of 2016 while giving men a nearby four star hotel to stay in shows biasness towards men. Hockey, the pinnacle sport of India, has a tenfold wage gap between its men and women players. From Sania Mirza being criticised for the length of her skirt to the Squash Racket Federation of India not recommending Dipika Pallikal for Arjuna Award even though she was the first Indian to rank in the top 15, the world of sports has its roots in deep seated patriarchy.

An entire section of our society still stigmatises LGBTQIA+ sportspersons. Dutee Chand became India’s first athlete to come out as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community in 2019, and the amount of backlash she received from her village was humongous. However, individuals from different sexual orientation not always experience apparent discrimination, but softer forms of exclusion such as bullying and fear.

From Santhi Soundarajan, an athlete from Southern India who attempted suicide as a result of rejection from the local sports federation because she failed the “sex test”, to Pinki Pramanik being drugged and made unconscious for examination, certain women have spent their entire lives to be told that they are not women enough to participate in sports. Women have been mistreated during medical tests and have been labelled as “male pseudo hermaphrodite” (incapable of having penetrative sex), which goes on to say that apart from capabilities, sexual characteristics are of utmost concern.

Dutee Chand became India’s first athlete to come out as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community in 2019. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The list of unfortunate incidents in the world of sports is endless. It will take both time and effort to break the rudimentary notion that men deserve more pay because the public is more interested.

To place all genders, binary or non-binary, on an equal footing, critical mass theory needs to be applied that goes on to state that when the size of a group (here, women/LGBTQIA+ community) reaches a certain mass or threshold level, that group gains trust and influence to thereby help in inclusion. With pro-inspiring legislations and charters such as Title IX, the Brighton Declaration on Woman and Sport, and European Charter of Women’s Rights on Sports being implemented in different countries of the world, India still has a long way to go. Football organisations/clubs, namely Lewes FC, Norwegian Football Association and the New Zealand Football Body have decided to grant equal pay to both their men’s and women’s teams. This goes on to prove the saying, “There is always hope, always.”

The invisibilisation of certain genders, with domination of one over the rest cannot continue. With the world of sports limiting its language to two communities, there is zilch certainty as to when discrimination will cease to exist. The claws of inequalities have not left even famous sportswomen including Serena William, who is paid less than a male tennis athlete, or Sania Mirza, who was used as ‘bait’ to pacify Leander Peas for the doubles team. There is not only a lack of inclusion in terms of policies and rules, but also in terms of infrastructure i.e. stadiums and fields having gender-neutral changing and rest rooms. Blatant ignorance and marginalisation was defeated when Kerela hosted India’s first ever transgender sports meeting in 2017.

Bringing in intersectionality in the world of sports is not only crucial but also the need of the hour. The narrative of sports can be rewritten to spread better and utopian ideals, and as Lisa Sthalekar says, “We want the media to critique performances. Be analytical – something that the media and journalists are with the male side of the game.” It is time we change the saying of the an old nursery rhyme that says, “Young women are made of rings and jings and other things fine, mothers are made of ribbons and laces and sweet pretty faces, and old women are made of reels and jeels and old spinning wheels.”

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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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