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I Needed A ‘Safe Space’ To Be Believed And Heard. So, This Is What I Did

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TW: Mentions of sexual harassment.

It was the last exam of my 6th semester of engineering. I had finished my exam earlier and therefore left the examination centre. As I was going to my hostel, behind the staircase, I saw a man masturbating. He hid a little more behind the staircase as he saw me. It was dark so I couldn’t see his face. I just quickened my pace and walked away. This wasn’t the first time that it was happening, and I was relatively unaffected.

When it happened for the first time, I was left shocked and had reached out to the authority, who did take the appropriate action to help us. They increased the number of street lights and put more guards on duty. But honestly, it hadn’t made much of a difference, because even if we doubled the security guards or cameras or street lights, there would still be some nooks and cranny in the campus for nuisance creators.

Coming back to the exam day, what disturbed me was how unaffected I was, how I had normalized the incident in my head, and, like everyone else around me, chosen to ignore it. I decided that I had to do something about it.

So, I did the next natural thing, I went back to my room and shared my experience on social media. As a result, I got many responses from people. A lot of them opened up about how they had been facing it as well, while others were absolutely shocked to know that something like this was happening within the campus of their beloved college.

I also got a third kind of response, wherein people were doubting my claims. They went ahead and asked me a lot of questions like, “Are you sure, he was doing it?”, “Was he standing?”You sure his hand was moving?”. Back then, these questions perturbed me.

I wanted to be believed and heard, not doubted or questioned.

It was already late at night by then. I went ahead and shared the incident on an all-girls WhatsApp group called Periodlogue. This opened up a floodgate of sexual abuse experiences. Everyone in that group had been sexually abused at some point of time in her life and I could easily extrapolate it for most other women around me as well.

The sudden influx of all that information was mind-altering. It was flabbergasting to see sexual abuse be so common, and yet still be hushed about in conversations. It was almost illogical to hush about something that atleast 50% population will have to face atleast at some point of time in their life, I say atleast because we still don’t have a lot of accurate data on sexual abuse faced by men.

One major reason associated with the reticence was victim-shaming. Most women I had talked to were too hesitant, and, to a certain extent, ashamed of it. There was a stigma attached to such issues. For instance, most people around me wouldn’t even say the word masturbation without hesitating, forget about calling the masturbators out.

It was night and we were not allowed to go out of our hostels. I grazed along the walls of my single-seater room waiting for the clock to strike at 6 am, because only then would I be able to go out of my hostel. I woke up with the first ray of the sun—I had hardly slept—and thereafter went to a relatively empty place in my college along with my journal.

It was happening to everyone, yet we never talked about them. If we don’t even acknowledge the issues, how will we ever solve them? 

It didn’t just mean sexual abuse, but signified so many other stigmas of the society—sexual abuse, mental health issues, dysfunctional families, bullying, body shaming—I realised that we needed to normalise the conversation around these issues.

Mental health issues were the most common problem in the college, and drug abuse was an absolute menace. Yet, talking about mental health was rarer than spotting peacocks on the campus.

That was how Humans of Safe Places was born. Acknowledgement is the first step towards solving any problem and we, as a society, needed to acknowledge our problems first, also know that we are not alone, but together, in this.

Guftago
A picture from one of our flagship event, Guftagoo, held in Delhi.

I contacted my friends, and most of them had already shared some stories about their lives in the capacity of a friend before. I am still thankful that they let me share their stories. As a result, more and more friends and acquaintances began contacting me, sharing the most harrowing experiences of their lives with me; experiences of drug abuse, corporal punishment, domestic abuse and much more. It was encouraging to see that personal issues that they could not share with their closest friends, they felt comfortable to share on my platform.

I was convinced that the layer of laughter and pretence that most people cover their exteriors is mostly a pretence. The more I conversed with people, the more true I found it to be. I still can’t forget how a casual stroll with a friend—one of the coolest person, I know—turned out to be a revelation, when he opened up about his issues with me and agreed to share them on HoSP. A junior found solace in my room when she shared something that she had not mentioned to anyone else before.

Today, almost two years after starting the platform, we have organically grown to become a digital community of 10 thousand people, a team of 20+ volunteers, have conducted some offline sessions with people, and have shared 250+ unique stories of people about a wide range of social taboos like infertility, menstrual cups, online dating, and much more, apart from broader issues like sexual abuse, mental health, queer issues, and more.

The journey has been anything but easy. I have come a long way from being a ‘backbencher’ with no direction in life to a person who now knows what she actually wants from life.

As a society and as an organisation, we still have a long, long way to go but, I feel, that we have at least taken the first step and I feel proud about it.

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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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