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If Only We Were Taught To Question, To Trust Our Instincts

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My therapist once posited that I had instincts telling me that a particular situation, a particular person made me uncomfortable when they were first introduced to me before it went on to become more noticeably a shitshow.

I don’t know if I believe that. Hindsight is so much clearer than when you’re actually in the thick of things. I imagine it’s easier to take a mental trip through time and find signs that things were going to get worse and we sort of knew it. Something out of the blue is so much more intimidating than something which we prepare for, even if it is unconsciously.

Recently, I was discussing this with someone else in the mental health field and she agreed with my therapist, and I started thinking about it more. The more I thought about it, the more perturbed I would get, and I couldn’t figure out why.

Then finally I realised that it bothers me because I don’t even know what I want to believe, let alone what I actually believe. What is better, that I had instincts which I ignored, or that I didn’t have them at all? Which one is more palatable for me?

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If my therapist is wrong and my instincts weren’t telling me anything, then I was far more gullible. Then I could be taken completely by surprise by the situation and people involved. That I had a pretty terrible sense of character. But I also didn’t have any chance of taking control in that situation.

On the other hand, I hate the idea that I didn’t listen to myself. It makes me feel like I wilfully ignored my own wellbeing. Maybe I was self-sabotaging. Maybe I just didn’t find myself trustworthy enough, found others more reliable. All of those thoughts infuriate me. I consider myself a confident person now, someone who trusts herself implicitly, who relies on herself before anyone else, who’s just as worthy as anyone else, sometimes more so. I don’t like to remember that it wasn’t always the case.

As a counsellor-in-training, I know that none of these thoughts about why I may have “ignored my instincts” are accurate. I didn’t willfully ignore my needs. There were a host of reasons why listening to those instincts was near impossible at the time. I know that my own mental health wasn’t good, which really ups the self-doubt.

I know that I grew up socialised as a woman, in a world which not only doesn’t trust women itself, but also tries to drill into us that we can’t trust ourselves. How was a young me supposed to find herself worthy of safety, when the world told her that everyone else mattered more? When she was told that a good girl, a good woman, puts others before herself? When selflessness was lionized as the ultimate goal? Of course, I didn’t listen to whatever discomfort my mind was warning me about! The comfort, needs, desires, of the others involved, were supposed to matter more.

As a counsellor-in-training, that’s what I’d help my clients understand. That’s what I’d help my friends understand. That’s what, intellectually, I believe unequivocally.

Yet…it seems like the expectations I set for myself are a lot less reasonable. It’s ironic that while I’m talking about the socialisations which led me to ignore my instincts when I was younger, there are more which are preventing me from forgiving myself for it now.

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The ‘norms’ and roles society has placed upon women have led to a systematic self-distrust in people socialised as women. “He’s bullying you because he has a crush on you. You’re upset by it because you have a crush on him.” This was something which was basically drilled into me when I first moved to Delhi from Kanpur at the age of 12, blissfully disconnected from the supposed realities of dating and crushes, and all entirely heterosexual, of course. He was someone who I remember being deeply uncomfortable by. But all these people told me that my discomfort was wrong, or a ‘small-town-mentality’, and lo and behold, eventually I believed myself to have a crush on the said bully. I trusted others over myself.

At home, parents lay down a rule – “______ is unacceptable, you can’t do it, you will not do it.” Growing up, not all of these rules made sense, not all of them felt comfortable. Hearing “because I said so” as the reasoning would not be uncommon for many of us. These kinds of responses unconsciously started teaching us we shouldn’t be questioning things, especially things said by people in authority positions.

How many people had parents made their offsprings spend time with relatives they didn’t like, or scold them for ‘inappropriate’ questions? I don’t think that a lot of these experiences, and the litany of similar ones, are limited to girls/women. But as an unfortunate general norm of society, reflected in a lot of households, is that there are more rules and restrictions for girls/women and less freedom for questioning (and everything else). Add in the rest of the world also feeding us implicit lessons about distrusting ourselves and we have a pretty strong recipe for self-doubt, forced selflessness, and lack of self-respect.

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Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pointing the finger at parents. That blame lies squarely on the shoulder of systemic and societal norms. Parents are also a product of socialisation, in many cases, even more, restrictive and strict. Most parents parent from what they’ve learnt.

I imagine that sometimes they say “because I said so” is because that’s what their parents said, and their parents before that. I’d like to believe that we heard less of that answer than they did, had more freedom for questioning, allowing for the slow change of social norms. I do wonder whether any of these generations actually have a concrete answer for why the thing they’re saying is unacceptable is so. I wonder if they ever had the freedom to critically think about it at all.

Instincts and curiosity go hand-in-hand in helping us understand what makes us feel safe, what we’re comfortable with, what we actually think and feel. And both of those are not particularly welcome in our world, especially for women.

If we were curious and free to explore it, we may question people in positions of power. I remember being asked to leave my 10th-grade geography class because I asked too many questions, which went outside the purview of the textbook. Questioning people in positions of power may start the process of dismantling the power that position holds, bringing us closer to egalitarianism, which inevitably does mean, that some people lose some of their power.  Curiosity can lead to critical thinking leading to questioning norms, leading to demanding change and action. Lack of freedom for curiosity can lead to silencing and unquestioned conformity.

We’re seeing both in our society today. Hordes of people are curious about what India could be without the communal hatred spread by BJP, about the actions and intentions of governments as a whole. The protests, the activists, and the people who may not have the mental space to be actively involved but are still questioning reflect that. Questioning a colonial-era norm and law led to the repeal of section 377, hopefully pushing Indian society towards becoming more welcoming of queerness and non-normative gender identities.

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On the flip side, we have hordes of people who blindly accept what the people say, especially those in positions of power. People who aren’t able to critically think of these issues, accepting the government’s version of “because I said so”, completely ignoring facts, and desperately holding on to the status quo because it doesn’t push them to question the reality they have been led to believe.

Instincts come in there as well. Instincts help us know what we need/want to question, what doesn’t feel right, what feels good, comfortable, fair. Imagine if listening to instinct was normative. How many situations where we stayed uncomfortably at a party/someone’s house, because it isn’t polite to leave, to question that etiquette, wouldn’t have happened? How many bad arranged marriages may not have happened? I would imagine that the amount of gaslighting and emotional abuse in relationships would lessen.

If we nourished listening to, trusting, and respecting ourselves, it would begin to extend to others as well, because we wouldn’t be coming from a defensive place, a place of feeling powerless, and needing to change that. We would have better communication in all sorts of relationships, familial included because everyone’s curiosity and instinct are respected. So that every person is given respect, and we’re all encouraged to respect ourselves, express ourselves when that respect feels attacked.

There are so many bad experiences I know I wouldn’t have had if I felt empowered to question what was going on, to listen to my instincts and get out if I could. I don’t think that if curiosity and listening to ones’ instincts were encouraged, I would have had a utopic life, or that the world would become completely egalitarian, fixing every issue we face. Some situations may still be unavoidable, some communication still impossible, some issues still hard to resolve. Yet, it would make a significant difference in our lives, especially those of women.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.”

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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