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Sex And Gender: Two Distinct Concepts That Need To Be Understood

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Let me ask you a question: Do you think the words Gender and sex are synonyms? Can they be interchanged in the same sentence? I asked people this question and a surprisingly large amount of people answered in the affirmative. Historically, the terms “sex” and “gender” have been used interchangeably, but their uses are becoming increasingly distinct, and it is important to understand the differences between the two.

I decided to write this blog to dispel stereotypes, prejudices and the stigma surrounding gender identity. The very fact that people still think that these words mean the same thing tells us a lot about how educated we, as a society, are on this topic. We, Indian society especially, have a long way to go in our journey of accepting trans, non-binary and intersex people.

The best way to highlight the differences between these concepts would be to say that sex is a biological concept while Gender is a social one. Both of these words have a history and their uses have changed over time. What do I mean by this? Let’s see. 

Sex:

Biologically, there are generally two sexes: male and female, that are assigned to babies at birth. Genetic factors define the sex of an individual: for an individual to be a male, they need to be born with an XY pair of chromosomes; while females need an XX pair. In general terms, “sex” refers to the biological differences between males and females, such as the genitalia and genetic differences. 

The male/female split is often seen as binary, but this is not entirely true. For instance, some men are born with two or three X chromosomes, just as some women are born with a Y chromosome. In some cases, a child is born with a mix of female and male genitalia. They are sometimes termed intersex and the parents may decide which gender to assign to the child. Intersex individuals account for around 1 in 1,500 births.

Gender:

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines Gender as: “Gender refers to the socially constructed characteristics of women and men, such as norms, roles, and relationships of and between groups of women and men. It varies from society to society and can be changed.

The term “gender” is more difficult to define than “sex”, but broadly, it can refer to the role of a male or female in society, known as a gender role, or an individual’s concept of themselves, or gender identity. Thus, one aspect of Gender is gender roles. Gender tends to denote the social and cultural role of each sex within a given society. 

Rather than being purely assigned by genetics, as sex differences generally are, people often develop their gender roles in response to their environment, including family interactions, the media, peers and education. These are different in different societies, as is evident when we look around us. For example, in some societies like ours, the traditional gender roles are: women take care of the house and cook while men earn bread for the family. Other societies might have different roles.

The other aspect is gender identity, which is widely misunderstood and misinterpreted and as a result, the general public is misinformed and does not have a clear idea about it. Gender identity is the personal sense of one’s Gender. Gender identity can correlate with a person’s assigned sex at birth or can differ from it. It depends on how the individual feels comfortable labelling themselves.

To understand the concept of gender identity, we would need to understand terms like gender dysphoria first. It involves a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the Gender with which he/she/they identify. People with gender dysphoria may be very uncomfortable with the Gender they were assigned, sometimes described as being uncomfortable with their body (particularly developments during puberty) or being uncomfortable with the expected roles of their assigned Gender.

Gender conflict affects people in different ways. It can change the way a person wants to express their Gender and can influence behaviour, dress and self-image. Some people may cross-dress, some may want to socially transition; others may wish to medically transition with sex-change surgery and/or hormone treatment. Socially transitioning primarily involves transitioning into the affirmed Gender’s pronouns and bathrooms.

Individuals who do not feel comfortable or ‘identify with’ their assigned Gender may identify as non-binary. It is a term used to describe individuals who may experience a gender identity that is neither exclusively male nor female or is in between or beyond both genders. Non-binary individuals may identify as gender fluid, agender (without Gender), third Gender, or something else entirely (genderqueer). For instance, they may transition to the sex they identify with [transgender (Male to Female or Female to Male)]. We need to take out time and educate ourselves about these identities, labels and what they come with. I have a few articles linked at the end of this blog that could help you out.

Gender identity, in nearly all instances, is self-identified as a result of a combination of inherent and extrinsic or environmental factors. Gender role, on the other hand, is manifested within society by observable characteristics such as behaviour and appearance. For example, if a person considers themselves a male and is most comfortable referring to their Gender in masculine terms, then his gender identity is male. However, their gender role is male-only if they demonstrate typically male characteristics in behaviour, dress or mannerisms.

Unnatural: this adjective is widely used for commenting on everything ranging from homosexuality to trans people. People say that their very existence is not natural and goes against nature. This issue is addressed beautifully in the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (which I’m going to review soon, so look out for that). 

This is a direct quote from the book, “Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.

As is explained in Sapiens, we see that sex is divided between males and females (in most cases), and the qualities of this division are objective. They have remained constant throughout history (XX and XY chromosomes are needed to be female and male, respectively). Gender is divided between so many categories or labels (what an individual chooses to identify with) and the so-called “masculine” and “feminine” qualities are inter-subjective and undergo constant change. 

For example, masculinity in the eighteenth century was expressed through colourful and flamboyant wigs, high heels, stockings and makeup. Contrastingly, today (in the twenty-first century), this concept is nothing like it was. Today, masculinity is shown through sombre suits and boots.

To conclude, in general terms, “sex” refers to biological characteristics and “gender” refers to the individual’s and society’s perceptions of sexuality and the malleable concepts of masculinity and femininity, which are in constant flux.

Sources: 

I recommend giving them a read and educating yourself on these topics. 

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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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