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Has The Pandemic Brought In Political Helplessness And Snatched Our Right To Dissent?

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As Independence Day closes, jingoistic and empty narratives in politics are deafening the ears. Closeted in our homes, we are watching the very fundamentals, on which our nation was built, being steadily dismantled. With a new idea of India that Modi has unleashed, we are going towards a ‘Hindu Rashtra’, the very idea of which we have fought against for decades.

The nationalistic narrative that gets heightened on specific days celebrates the demon of oppression that we vanquished in 1947. Sacrifices made and battles fought with resilience and blood are vivid in public memory. For generations who did not witness these and the hopes that act as a balm to the wounds of partition, cinema and written texts are keeping memories of that part of history alive. These narratives will remind us how the road to freedom was splattered with blood, yet, unity is what took us to independence.

The narrative has shifted to finding a demon within to vanquish and celebrate supremacy. In Modi’s India, that demon is the minority and every free voice that critiques the Modi thought process, embedded in the idea of Hindu supremacy by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Our ideas of victory have always been tied with those of defeating someone. Here, defeat would be of the very existence of religious, gender and caste minorities.

CAA protests in December 2019.

This idea found a policy in CAA-NRC-NPR. And it met with equal resistance, probably the greatest resistance since the Emergency in 1975. But with the advent of the coronavirus, the resistance movement was forced to dissipate. The stubborn insistence of the Modi-Shah government to not roll these back, and to stay resolutely silent on highly vocal, and watched protests indicates the complete disdain for a democratic dialogue. In a country where survival takes precedence over everything else, the resistance had ploughed on, with new faces and newer names entering political discourses, coming with an awakening of those who assumed that being apolitical was an option.

And despite this, we find ourselves woefully helpless, as the powers continue to force and build their divisive agendas. In the face of a pandemic, Ram Mandir gets precedence, cementing the narrative of Hindu supremacy. And for several of us who have been a part of political protests and dialogue over years, fighting against this idea in the microcosm of the home, all the way to the streets, we have no choice but to watch helplessly, as every battle our country has fought so far seems to be ending in our defeat.

For citizens who have a voice, this helplessness is acute. When we cannot be out there, physically making ourselves heard in enviable numbers, we are forced to merely express our opinions on social media platforms — where either they are reduced to empty rhetoric or find their audience within echo chambers. Else there are the trolls, who, with vitriolic violence and hate, attempt to smother voice of reason, bolstered in their impunity by powers that legitimise this by inaction, and often by acting the exact same way.

With steady voices that have been critiques of this thought-process being systematically targeted and intimidated, the ones who aren’t are keeping the muted battle raging. But how? And to what avail? None of us even once assume that social media outrages can replace actual walking on the streets to demonstrate dissent. How else do we use our voices? In a world where free speech meets attacks and physical movements end up becoming irresponsible outbreaks, how do we continue to impact the situation?

Having a voice means something only when you use it. But the tenor of the voices of dissent must become louder and find newer ways to express. We are watching as history is being eclipsed, little children are being subjected to religiosity in academia, being wrapped in the idea of culture. The first thing to do is to step back and question every single sentence, word and action that we take home that seem benign. Dismantle these thoughts in our living rooms so that the next Whatsapp forward that talks, yet again, of the government’s triumphs gets stalled. These forwards are nothing more than hate messages and empty, diabolical half-truths.

The second is to find braver, newer ways to demonstrate. Today, with surveillance making George Orwell’s 1984 a dystopian truth, time seems to have come when personal sacrifices are inevitable if one must stand on the right side of history. We’ve been prepared for this, but what we must recognise is that these threats are realities and can be upon us faster than we know.

Writer-activist Arundhati Roy at a protest against the CAA||Via The Indian Express

We are losing institutions that would’ve held our democracy upright. How do we fight the dismantling of these? We have been reduced to the judgement of individuals to hold up the fundamentals of our Constitution. This helplessness of nowhere to turn to and a fast decay of hope of change, merely waiting for the ‘wave’ to dissipate itself where disasters are being hailed as achievements, needs to first be articulated. And then, we need to collectively and systemically find a solution.

It must be articulated simply, even for those who struggle for everyday survival. We must simplify this complexity for everyone to see and how it is apathetic. We must make visible the failure on the government’s part to expect displaced migrant workers, desperate to go home, to pay Rs 500 for their tickets, while themselves spending crores of the taxpayers’ money on temples and grand new vistas, which are merely phallic symbols to demonstrate superiority.

We need to build the narrative of inclusivity with the end gain demonstrated. We will need to stand together, just as Modi’s supporters stand today, to have alternate conversations that we need desperately. We will have to accept that what seems a losing battle right now will be one soon if we are unable to do the needful.

We have to use art, language and narrative to reach where Modi has with his false ideas of hope. We need to gradually acknowledge our helplessness first, and then change it into actual tangible ideas. For every academic and activist the establishment arrests, we’ll have to mushroom 10 more voices that are as strong. Our present will determine the future we will live in.

Having a voice means something only when it is used. And even if we are the last on the battlefield, may we go down as fighters for the idea of love, inclusivity and secularism that we hold dear.

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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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