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“I’ve Gone From Being A Victim Of Gender-Based Violence To A Champion Of Gender Equality”

Yaar come to Instagram” a friend texted me the other day. “You’re doing such amazing work, why aren’t you there?” 
I didn’t know what to say. How do you tell a friend, someone who’s unemployed, stuck at home all day and on social media all the time, that you’re a victim of gender-based violence and don’t want your out-on-bail stalker to know what you’re up to?
“Let it be”
I texted back. “Who has the time?”
“Arre come na. You’re missing out on life!” He persisted.

It was ironic because I’ve been getting more out of life since I left Instagram. No longer beholden to the time-honoured code of capturing every moment and sharing it with strangers for social capital, I’ve been left to enjoy the little vagaries of life. Besides, being stalked and sexually harassed for four years had made me intensely private and rightly so! I actually had to flee the rented apartment I was living in after I filed the FIR; I settled down somewhere safe but far because the police were worried that my life was in danger. So no Instagram or Geo-Mapping or Vlogging.

A picture can tell you everything and I was afraid of what it would tell my stalker while he was still trying to track me down; so there was nothing about my boyfriend, my family, my home, my outfit of the day, my skin-care routine, my dietary regimen, my escapades in the outback, or snapshots of something picturesque like graffiti art on coffee shop walls, old women with toothy grins selling earthen pots and splendid orange sunsets on the beach.

I’d love to dress up and go out, but I’m still a survivor waiting for the trial date of my court case and the primary caretaker of an immunocompromised parent who is at risk of COVID-19. (Image provided by author)

The truth is, I can hardly keep up with my job. I’m a human rights activist and I work as an independent consultant on gender-based violence and mental health. My reality is so different from that of my friends’ that there’s nothing that really bonds us, except maybe Netflix.

Since November last year, I’ve been acting as a lifeline to women and girls in distress. I deal with divorce, domestic abuse, sexual harassment and sexual assault almost every week. I counsel suicidal kids so they can go into therapy. I talk to people about sex education, healthy and unhealthy relationships and consent culture. I create a community that supports my clients and network with a team of lawyers, doctors, activists, police officers and mental health professionals that provide them with relief, rehabilitation and respite.

While a friend might choose to celebrate the end of the lockdown by throwing caution to the winds and going to the nearest gourmet restaurant, I might go out on a solo community campaign, discreetly sharing flyers of national helplines for domestic abuse victims with grocers and pharmacists in my neighbourhood.

While a friend might be modelling Kate Middleton’s best looks, I might be giving an interview about bystander protocol in intimate partner violence. While a friend might be going out on a romantic mini-break with a partner, I might be furtively looking over my shoulder, anxiously scanning my surroundings and looking for the telltale sign of my stalker’s car.

There’s no judgment here by the way; I’d love to dress up and go out, but I’m still a survivor waiting for the trial date of my court case and the primary caretaker of an immunocompromised parent who is at risk of COVID-19. So most days are about research and client sessions and cooking and sleeping. I wish I was cool, but I’m not.

What is cool is the women I meet at my job. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve been professionally consulted by a diverse group of young women who were struck dumb by the lockdown and had no one to speak to. Let me tell you about that.

This Patriarchal Family Almost Disowned Their Daughter Because She Was Raped

Gender inequality is the most prominent sign of social inequality in society. The pandemic has brought inequality to the fore and highlighted how prevalent violence against women is. Representational image.

There was Anandita*, an environmental lawyer who was working in London before she came home to Calcutta to live with her parents. A rape survivor who had been blackmailed into staying with her rapist, ostracised by her community and nearly died by suicide at 18, Anandita reached out to me when she started experiencing panic attacks. At 30 now, she was constantly getting triggered at home by constant reminders of the sexual abuse.

After I spoke to her, it turned out that her narcissistic mother still blamed and shamed her for the assault. Honour meant so much to this patriarchal family that they had nearly disowned their daughter. It took a long time to bridge the gap between mother and daughter and even now, her mother was pushing her buttons.

Staying at home, in the same town, near the same place where she had been through the most horrific episode of her life, Anandita was looking for a way to establish boundaries, increase her self-worth and stop repeating a pattern of abusive relationships. It took a while, but eventually, she got back in touch with her self.

Going back to horseback riding, painting, environmental advocacy and dating were major milestones for her. Demanding a partner who treated her as an equal was her ultimate victory. An unapologetic act of self-love.

The Lockdown Had Trapped Aarti With Her Mother

There was Aarti*, an 18-year-old child abuse survivor who had to come home to her parents and older brother in Noida when her college was temporarily shut down and made the decision to switch to online classes. She’d lost her mother when she was an infant and her step-mother was a mentally ill woman who bullied her incessantly.

Her uncle had molested her for two years when she was barely 10. Aarti was desperately trying to fit in with her crowd and gain some social identity. As things escalated at home and her step-mother’s verbal attacks became more vicious, she started losing hope. She didn’t know what she was going to do after completing her bachelor of arts degree.

She didn’t know if she even liked her friends, who treated her like trash and often excluded her from events. She spent all her time doubting herself and finding it impossible to sleep at night or get up in the morning. The lockdown had trapped her with her mother.

Our sessions helped her realise that she had a legal right to report a mentally ill parent and get them medical help. That she could leave home and stay with a friend if things got out of hand. That she was worthy of love and deserved to feel safe. She started writing reviews for movies and TV shows, planning a career in business administration and working out. She stood up to her mother and was so exhilarated when she called me up that I barely got the time to respond before she broke down in happy tears.

Charchita had been raped by a cousin when she was 5

There was Charchita*, a 21-year-old college student, another rape survivor, struggling to finish her degree in law. Charchita grew up in a violent marriage, where her parents were either fighting or ignoring her. Her father would probably qualify to some degree as a sociopath – maintaining a rich social life, while indulging in constant abuse at home, exercising coercive control over his wife, lying, humiliating, provoking, gaslighting, disrupting everyone’s lives and not letting his wife leave.

Charchita had been raped by a cousin when she was 5. Living at home with her parents for the foreseeable future, she had gone into a deep depression. She had no idea that there was a local police helpline she could call that could offer her aid whenever she felt she was in danger.

She’d always thought her mother was angry and blamed her for the marital strife but it was only later through our sessions that Charchita was able to look at her father objectively; at the little things he did to ensure that his wife stayed trapped in a loveless marriage.

She had an eating disorder and a gynaecological disease that often kept her sick and now she knew it was because she was struggling to take care of herself, needing the love of her parents and never getting it. Following my advice, she had a long talk with her mother; they acknowledged each other’s pain and began focusing on a survival strategy.

A Medical Student Who Was Abused By Her Colleague

There was Yamini*. A 24-year-old medical student, smart and outgoing. She had been verbally abused and physically assaulted by a friend on a class trip who had such a formidable history of violence that he had once beaten up his sister for no reason and put her in the hospital.

He was dependent on Yamini, for notes, for company, for his general happiness. But he quickly became resentful when he realised that she had brilliant prospects and a life of her own. Racial slurs became common, about the colour of her skin, her caste, her background, her character, even her virtues.

It all came to a head when he saw her talking to another classmate and culminated in his breaking her fingers and nearly scratching her eyes out on a bus ride. She passed out from the pain and when she woke up, she got off the bus, came home, locked herself in her room and slept for two days straight.

Through our sessions, she started to learn more about reporting crimes against women and found the courage to meet with a local NGO I contacted on her behalf, which was able to guide her through the legal process. She could finally let go of her rage and fear and start living a normal life, committing to her education, enjoying her morning coffee and reconnecting with nature and wildlife.

A Violent Marriage Jeopardised This Woman’s Mental Health

There was Priyanka*, a 40-year-old housewife, marketing consultant and mother of two small boys. She’d had a love marriage that had quickly turned sour. Her husband was cheating on her, her mother-in-law was incredibly cruel and her own family no longer supported her.

Her husband treated her with cold indifference most of the time except for when he flew into a rage and raped her. Priyanka would call me up a lot and it took her many months to accept that she was in an unhappy marriage which was jeopardising her mental health. For a long time, she kept scheduling, rescheduling and cancelling her appointments with the divorce attorney and therapist that I’d found for her.

She even tried to work it out with her husband by sending him a long letter that practically pleaded with him to have an honest conversation about their feelings, their relationship and the future of their family. Her husband continued to ignore her and even suggested that she leave. In the end, she decided to go ahead with the divorce, take her children and walk out.

Has there been a rise in gender-based violence since the pandemic began?

Yes. Harassment, abuse and assault have become a huge threat for women and children not only putting them at risk at home and outside but also online. At a time like this, activists such as myself are dedicated to making a change at the grassroots level and this is mostly a thankless job.

What I’ve learned is that conflict-resolution begins at home. Out of all the eminent institutions in the world, crime has the most to do with family and the least to do with government and religion and law. When you create an equal marriage where partners are committed to peace, when you raise children to value peace above all else, when you live in a family that is dedicated to resolving conflict through peaceful dialogue, only then can you establish a community that promotes human rights.

I’ve spent my entire life being a pacifist, not in the woke, ‘make-love-not-war’ way, but in a way where the emphasis is on empathetic communication; where you can hold a conversation between two people from different races, religions, genders, cultures or nationalities, without any hate, hurt or harm.

Gender inequality is the most prominent sign of social inequality in society. The pandemic has brought inequality to the fore and highlighted how prevalent violence against women is. We will never get this moment again to talk about intersectional feminism, misogyny, misandry, paedophilia, abuse, violence, parenting, mental health, gender, crime, justice and peace. This is the defining moment in our zeitgeist where we start talking about it. The small talk needs to stop and it has to get real.

Girls dropping out of school. Girls turned into child brides. Girls burnt alive for dowry. Girls sold into sex trafficking. Girls stalked and shot dead. Girls trapped in abusive marriages. Girls denied access to abortion. Girls harassed until they gave up their jobs. Girls victimised through revenge porn. Girls who went missing.

Girls who were never born. I’ve gone from being a victim of gender-based violence to a champion of gender equality in a year. But here’s the unvarnished truth: I’m tired. It’s only been a year and I’m tired of all the suffering I’ve seen. I’m tired and I’m asking for your help.

Can we finally start talking about what it’s like to be a woman in this country?

*Names changed to protect identities 

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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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