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Until We Eliminate Misogyny, It’s Just Me And My Pepper Spray Against The World

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I wonder if it’s just me. Every time I would step outside my house as the lockdown 2020 was partially getting lifted around June- to buy groceries or take a walk sometimes- the male gaze would make me so uncomfortable that I would rush back inside.

Well, but I do live in India. Should I not be used to it? I have been ogled at on the streets since I was 12 years old, I was punched on my chest at 3 in the afternoon one day in a very prominent locality of my city and, I have been followed on winter nights. The fear does not dissolve with time. It only becomes more present with every incident, so much so that I don’t even like going out anymore.

Representational image.

Patriarchy is the pandemic that has been keeping women in lockdown since generations now.

For several days after the lockdown was uplifted, I avoided the streets.

Yes, I was afraid of the virus but more so, I was afraid of reliving the fear again that every woman in this country is subjected to. I was afraid that I have lost the habit of somehow trying to exist despite the stares.

So, I stayed inside more. At the cost of my mental health. I have been at home for months at a stretch. Surely there is an undeniable privilege in that. Most women in this country cannot afford to stay at home just because they feel scared. They have to go outside and work, fend for themselves. They don’t have a choice of staying at home and working from laptops. But am I asking too much if I want to feel safe in my skin?

The psychological horror that was preventing me from wearing my favourite clothes before had now manifested into a bigger fear post the lockdown. I am not a social scientist; I have no idea why men act the way they do. I stayed inside because the once or twice that I did go out, the eyes of those semi masked faces would follow me, and my heart would shrink.

Tokyo Made Me Feel Safer Than My Own Country, My Own Home

Perhaps, I had lost the habit of exposing myself to this fear and craved the safety of my room often. Perhaps, I am so exhausted from carrying all the fears that I do that I don’t have the energy to go out. I was in Tokyo when one night I had a terrible fight with my sister. I was so sad and decided to take a walk to clear my head. It was 11:30 at night and that was a country where I did not even speak the language or read the signboard on roads.

I only knew how to say thank you in Japanese. But there, I felt safer than I ever felt in my own country, my home. Just two days before, a poll had indicated that Tokyo was one of the safest cities in the world and it sure felt like that. I walked in lanes that were partially dark and empty. I went to drink beer at a shady bar. I was safe throughout. I just felt human on the streets, not a woman whose body is made to feel like it’s not her own at all in some places more than others in this world. In some places, it is a dream for a woman to take a night walk or go for a jog early in the morning without fear of being stared at, groped, or worse. Why do I feel we don’t talk enough about this?

Representational image.

Somehow, the image of these men’s eyes who would stare at me during the walks post lockdown is ingrained in my mind.

The eyes following me as long as they possibly can while the men pass me walking, cycling, or driving. I tell myself that I know better than to know that it is from an immense entitlement that one thinks they can ogle at someone without the sense of personal space. I know better but, in those times, it feels like I am losing the agency of my own body.

I wonder who gave him that much power over me that he by only looking at me can make me feel such discomfort. It is the power handed over to him through generations by a structurally flawed society.

In March when it felt like our lives were going to change- and it surely did thereafter, amidst all the worries and chaos, a tiny part of me felt that now we could reimagine a better world from here. Didn’t crisis make people empathetic? Somehow, now it feels, it drove people to their worse. Sometimes we fail to recognize the elephant in the room. We normalise abnormal behaviour so much that it becomes the new normal. That is how much we have normalized hate, intolerance, violence, and the constant fear of it in our lives.

I understand the fatigue that comes from fighting these fears and other ailing problems of living in a misogynist society. But I hope someday we will have that the strength to do something- I don’t know what but something good enough to battle the centuries-old power politics and break it. Somewhere deep down, I believe if we all come together and fight this war; we might win it.

Who knows? Till then, it’s just me and my pepper spray against the world.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)’.

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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.”

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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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