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An Open Letter To Kamla Bhasin For Transforming Me Into A Contemplative Feminist

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She posed a question to the crowd, “Are gender and sex one and the same thing?

I ruminated on this unusual question for a while and framed an answer in my mind: “Supposedly yes, since we encounter these words so interchangeably while selecting an appropriate option of male, female or the other gender in various forms.” Just like myself, almost everyone in the crowd was of the same opinion.

But she vociferously said, “NO!

Gender and sex do not mean the same thing, although their usage is commonly misconstrued. While sex refers to our biological differences (in terms of sex hormones and secondary sexual characteristics), gender has a much broader and a much more nuanced, and somewhat abstruse, meaning which also includes gender roles in society and expectations attached with persons assigned male or female at birth.

Kamla Bhasin.

And this conversation was just the beginning of my journey of self-realisation and introspection of society’s preconceived notions about women in general- and their role in the social system.

I’ve always admired and drawn inspiration from people who have impelled me to look at an issue from a perspective that I may not necessarily agree with. I instantly feel empowered and elevated to a new ‘stature of intellectual proclivity’ when I interact with a person whose line of thought is vastly different from the conventional one.

The Indian poet, feminist and social scientist Kamla Bhasin is one such personality whose pellucid grace of prose, candidness, wit, and jovial spirit, instantly made me gravitate towards her when she came to my school for an interaction on ‘Women’s Empowerment for a Better World.’

Dear Kamla Bhasin Ma’am,

I owe much gratitude to you for sparking in me the quest to better position myself in a society that does not take women’s aspirations seriously and continues to obliquely promote male chauvinism.

You reminded me of the fact that feminism was born the day patriarchy was embraced. You made me realise that being a feminist means striving for the equality of both genders, and not the supplantation of patriarchy by a matriarchal structure.

As you had made it clear, feminism does not aim to marginalise men to the periphery of the cause but to get them actively involved and make them an intrinsic part of this social movement. You made me understand the importance of collective action and shared responsibility for an inclusive and just world, and that feminism, as a concept, was not gender-specific. In your words, “I know enough women who are totally patriarchal, who are totally anti-women, and I have known men who have worked for women’s rights their whole life. Feminism is not biological: feminism is an ideology.

Yet, advocating for feminism is a daunting task in a society where people get trolled for openly supporting feminism and are regarded as ‘man-haters’ or ‘feminazis.’ Being a feminist is for some reason considered as being ‘an overly dominating woman whose sole objective in life is to crush all men beneath her feet.’ So whenever I would encounter half-witted trollers classifying this struggle for the equality of both genders as ‘PC policing,’ I would explode in anger and frustration.

But you made me recognize the significance of being calm and serene in this fight for an equitable societal order. You taught me the art of patiently hearing out the opinions of people whose perceptions on feminism were completely antithetical to mine and, ma’am, you encouraged me to be fearless while pointing out the wrongs in my own home, my intimate personal connections with friends and family, and my milieu at large.

You made me see the seriousness of crusading against ‘toxic masculinity’: the fundamental reason for all the woes plaguing our society, ranging from terrorism, rape, to farmers’ suicides.

Your clarion-call to all the girls always resonates in my mind: “Girls need to be educated not to meet the ‘educated’ criteria in the marriage match-making process, but to find their sense of purpose in life and to be financially strong and independent!

Ma’am, I hear you recite your self-composed poem  (with the sound-effects of my school’s auditorium) whenever I find myself in an unfavourable situation. Your words give me the courage to raise my voice with aplomb and have a strong footing in this male-dominated social setup:

A father asks his daughter:

Study? Why should you study?

I have sons aplenty who can study.

Girl, why should you study?

The daughter tells her father:

Since you ask, here’s why I must study.

Because I am a girl, I must study.

Long denied this right, I must study

For my dreams to take flight, I must study

Knowledge brings new light, so I must study

For the battles I must fight, I must study

Because I am a girl, I must study.

To avoid destitution, I must study

To win independence, I must study

To fight frustration, I must study

To find inspiration, I must study

Because I am a girl, I must study.

To fight men’s violence, I must study

To end my silence, I must study

To challenge patriarchy I must study

To demolish all hierarchy, I must study.

Because I am a girl, I must study.

To mould a faith I can trust, I must study

To make laws that are just, I must study

To sweep centuries of dust, I must study

To challenge what I must, I must study

Because I am a girl, I must study.

To know right from wrong, I must study.

To find a voice that is strong, I must study

To write feminist songs I must study

To make a world where girls belong, I must study.

Because I am a girl, I must study.”

Thank you, ma’am, for inspiring millions of young students like me! Thank you for opening our eyes to the harsh reality that we constantly choose to sideline despite its clear, brooding presence in front of us!

Yours truly,

Paribha (a feminist and your ardent admirer)

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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.

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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.”

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.

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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.

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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