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Can India Remain A Free Democratic Society Under Diminishing Press Freedom?

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Today, India stands divided. It is divided politically, economically and socially. This type of a polarised situation has led to clashes between people who belong to different religions, caste, gender, ethnicities and intellectual groups. A free democratic society, in the simplest sense, would be one in which diverse groups can co-exist peacefully. Stating any particular group as either completely guilty or innocent in a borderless and porous society such as ours is unjustified.

Unfortunately, this division has crept into the three pillars of democracy: the legislature, executive and the judiciary. The harmonious yet mutually exclusive functioning of these pillars is a distant dream. This is not only problematic but also extremely dangerous for the people who stand on opposite ends of any discourse.

Media usually acts as the link between the three pillars and is often referred to as the fourth pillar of democracy. It acts as a watchdog and a messenger to the public about the events that are taking place in the country. In doing so, it demands responsibility of actions, and in some cases, accountability for actions that seem questionable.

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Contrary to popular opinion about Indian media being under threat today, I believe that Indian media has been under grave threat for quite some time now. Any restriction on the freedom of media is counterproductive to the growth of the country. More so, in the age of social and digital media where once you have said something, the opinion floats—wirelessly and quickly.

The judiciary faces the threat of non-compliance and reluctance, the legislature—the threat of opposition and extremism, and the executive—threat of chaos and red tape. Media, too, faces threats because of both external and internal factors. The former would be the threat of being reprimanded by powerful institutions, political parties and organizations.

Questioning people or institutions (whether for public good or not) and criticism are bitter pills to swallow, and a good media house would never compromise on either. However, Indian media is lurking in unsafe waters right now with the latter being its most dangerous threat—that is the threat from itself.

Media houses are dealing with a country that stands divided and dismissive of almost all the issues that have been plaguing the foundational principles such as equality, justice and good conscience, upon which our society is built. Propagating nationalist agendas by encouraging radical people to speak up or silencing those who try to divulge the truth are two of the many immoral strategies that have been adopted constantly by certain media houses today. And both are devoid of journalistic value or integrity. It is important to realize that the role of the media is to divulge information for everyone—not just for one particular group. Choosing a side is something that the media must avoid at all costs.

Inequalities exist in every sphere of society. We are far from an ideal society where every individual is equal. Where inequalities exist, frustrations will too. For instance, if one has lived under the fear or threat of a mob attacking their home because they belong to a particular religious community, it is bound to create a sense of injustice and anger. So, while the role of the legislature is to acknowledge the rights of such people, the executive’s is to enforce those rights, and the judiciary’s is to protect their rights; the role of the media is to report those rights for  public awareness.

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Reporting on the rights would enable people to draw their own conclusions about what is fair or unfair. Once an unbiased narrative is out there, it would not be such a threat anymore. Contrary to this, if the media were to engage in any of the roles that are within the scope of the three pillars, it is bound to face a threat. Sticking to its role of a watchdog and/or a messenger of good values and ethical reporting could possibly help protect it from external forces.

As the reality of a divided India becomes more apparent every day, so does the threat to Indian media. The best way to avoid injustices and violence on innocent journalists is to project an image of being cool and unaffected yet extremely cautious of the kind of information being disclosed. And to ensure that all information is in fact backed by real facts, true evidence and credible sources.

Given the current state of affairs, with innocent journalists being reprimanded and arrested for releasing the truth, it may seem as though such an opinion is too privileged. However, the intention is to remind any media house that is questioning their mission and vision, remembering that a country cannot function without them and that democracy would not survive without media.

And while it all must feel unfair, chaotic, scary right now, the media has a much more significant and important role to play now and in the future of our country.

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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.

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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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