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There’s A Lot To Talk About, But Does The Indian Media Want To?

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The word ‘media’ appears to mean many things in various cultural contexts. I’m trying to unpack some of them here.

For historians, it is a geographical name for an ancient country and former province of the Persian Empire in the northwestern part of modern Iran. For sociologists and anthropologists, it implies a medium of cultivation, conveyance, or expression.

For scientists, media often refers to a solid, liquid or semi-solid designed to support the growth of a population of microorganisms or cells via the process of cell proliferation. If you’re a physician like me, media denotes the middle layer of an organ system or body passage (like your gut or bladder or uterus) or blood vessel or lymph vessel, usually consisting of smooth muscle fibres.

What it does mean to all of us, regardless of our professions, is the everyday usage to refer to agencies of mass communication, be it print media, television broadcasting or the vast and uncharted waters of social media. Just about everything we say, hear, watch, read and write is media now.

Our lives are all media. So is this rambling post that you are reading.

Representational image.

What it has also come to mean, in the past few months, is the shrill and unending cacophony of death, disease and destruction while the COVID-19 pandemic, an unprecedented global and national economic crisis and an equally unprecedented mental health crisis, unfolded in front of us. As we work from home, and distance from each other, ironically enough, our lives and privacy seem to become increasingly compromised. The workplace has now entered our personal space (physically and emotionally), with adverse mental health consequences. So has news reporting.

This isn’t too much of a surprise as reporting has always involved the negotiation of the fine line between where individual privacy/dignity ends and public interest/welfare begins. However, the lacunae in our lives created by COVID-19 has had the media now rush in to fill that gap with voyeuristic information. Did we really need to have the unfortunate events that occurred in the life and death and afterlife unfold in the public eye? Did we equally need to know about the favourite breakfast food of our national leaders? Perhaps not. Did we want to, though? Oh yes. For better or for worse, we did find out.

Which then brings us to the concept of ethics. The WHO in 2000, the Indian Psychiatry Society in 2014, the Press Council of India in 2019 and the Centre for Mental Health, Law and Policy in 2020 have issued good practice guidelines in reporting, which includes ethical reporting of personal, potentially sensitive information. All organizations, from mental health, legal and ethical perspective, recommend against sensationalizing self-harm behaviour, substance use and suicide in news reporting.

There is also an emphasis on avoiding dehumanizing language and innuendo, including labels such as “schizophrenic” and speculation about private relationships.

None of this is novel or even surprising. These varied guidelines, however, are mere recommendations which Indian news reporting has appeared to have flouted with impunity in the past few months. This shedding of scruples is disappointing and one that may have far-reaching consequences over the years.

What is also concerning is that in sensationalizing individual events, we appear to have lost sight of the forest for the trees. There are large, vast and overwhelming elephants in the room that we need to address – the pandemic, our economy, unemployment, poverty, domestic strife, international relations, the refugee crisis, the looming consequences of poor mental health during the lockdown, domestic violence, substance use disorders, the re-emergence of infectious disorders such as polio and tuberculosis, questions of statehood, citizenship, and identity, including civil rights.

There is then, no shortage of material to address. In fact, the social behaviour around the recent death by suicide of a promising young actor serves as a poignant micro-environment within which all these social problems have played out at a personal level.

The personal then, it would seem, is always political.

Horace Greeley reportedly said, “Journalism will kill you, but it will keep you alive while you’re at it.” India has plunged to a disappointing 142 out of 180 countries surveyed in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, under recent governance. It raises questions of how free we really are in our engagement with, production of and consumption of media. Perhaps the focus on personal politics helps us handle our anxiety about the information gap regarding public politics.

We are on the verge of observing International Day of Democracy on September 15, 2020. In times when we may be less free than ever before, scientific and factual reporting is the need of the hour, at a local and global level. The United Nations General Assembly, in 2007, had resolved to commemorate democracy on this day with the purpose of promoting and upholding the principles of democracy across the world.

They had invited all member states and organisations to commemorate the day in an appropriate manner that contributes to raising public awareness. May India do so in an appropriate and worthy manner.

May we further do so by walking away from our collective outrage at the virtue (or lack thereof) in a woman, in any woman.

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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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