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To Indian Lawmakers: There Is A Difference Between Safety And Suppression Of Women

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TW: Mentions Of Rape, Sexual Assault, Harassment

Women empowerment and women security are two boats that India struggles to balance on a rugged sea of a patriarchal society. Sexual assaults against women are a day-to-day reality that, as of now, occupy no greater space in the mind of a reader than allocated in a newspaper. Protests against assaults escalate every once in a while (mostly before imminent elections) and die down with strong condemnation of such assaults by all political leaders, academicians, journalists, film stars and all other individuals who have a word to say.

Safety laws aimed at providing security to women are brought-in by various governing bodies but no law seems capable enough to put a cork onto these assaults. One main reason behind this inability can be attributed to unquestioned moral policing that aims at suppressing women in the name of safety.

K Chandrashekhar Rao (pictured above) decision to not let TSRTC women employees do night shifts really just justifies unwritten societal rule that women shouldn’t be out at night.

On January 5, 2020, an ‘Anganwadi’ worker was reported to have been gang-raped and tortured to death by a temple priest and his cohorts in Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh. The usual uproar grew across the country against the brutal assault. National Commission for Women immediately sent a delegation of two members to get first-hand information about the crime from the victim’s family. It was later reported that one member of the delegation apparently made a comment that the victim should not have gone alone to the temple and that had she at least taken a child with her, this situation would have been avoided.

Statements like these are not uncommon in India. On December 3, 2019, Chief Minister of Telangana, K Chandrasekhar Rao, in the wake of a sexual assault against a veterinary doctor, was reported to have immediately announced that TSRTC women employees shall not be asked to do night shifts anymore. In the year 2017, Karnataka government was put under huge public criticism for bringing out a law that says women need not work in night shifts citing reasons of home and child care as a priority for women.

Such laws, though they seem to have been proposed keeping in view the safety and security of women, are in reality a way of suppressing the freedom of women. by passing legislation that denies women from working at nights, governing bodies are justifying the unwritten societal rule that women should not walk onto the roads after nightfall.

Safety Vs Suppression

It should be noted that a thin line demarcates safety from suppression. In the year 2016, Bombay High Court gave a landmark judgement by prohibiting a ban on entry of women into Haji Ali Dargah’s sanctum sanctorum. One of the reasons stated by the promoters of this ban was the protection of women from harassment at places of worship. To defend the entry ban of women to public places citing possible harassment among crowds clearly explains the thin line that separates safety from suppression.

Soon after Yogi Adityanath took over as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, special vigilant teams named anti-Romeo squads were deployed to tackle sexual harassment and eve-teasing in public places. These anti-Romeo squads were comprised of police personnel as well as vigilant civilians who apparently made sure that no couples were found hanging out in public places. Their moral policing, in place of tackling eve-teasing and harassment, reportedly, dealt with freedom of women in meeting their partners in public. Patriarchy’s key motto of protecting women from committing ‘immoral’ acts is visible in such incidents. Suppression, in such scenarios, takes place in the guise of safety and security norms.

Similar to anti-Romeo squads of Uttar Pradesh, SHE teams of Telangana are also deployed with an aim to prevent harassment of women and eve-teasing in public places. While anti-Romeo squads received backlash from many women groups, SHE teams received great accolades for their work. The difference between the working styles of both these deployments explains the difference between safety norms and suppressive norms.

The Difference Between Protecting Safety And Honour

SHE team carries a hidden camera to record crimes at the scene of action. Culprits are held for charges like stalking, passing lewd comments, touching inappropriately, social media harassment, taking photos without the knowledge of victims and creating nuisance at girls’ colleges and hostels. SHE teams are involved in creating awareness on self-defence techniques for women as well as in counselling offenders if they are found to be minors. SHE teams’ systematic approach to serious issues like eve-teasing and stalking reportedly helped curb such minor crimes at a significant level.

The term anti-Romeo itself indirectly hints at the attitude of the lawmakers towards the concept called “love”. Anti-Romeo squads, unlike SHE teams, are launched to protect the honour of women. Innocent girls are allegedly protected from falling into “immoral” activities like hanging out with their male friends. Protection of honour, a word notorious for its justification of the killing of girls in a bid to protect it, is the core intention of the anti-Romeo squads. It is reported that anti-Romeo squads are turning out to be greater harassers for women with their moral policing and male chauvinism.

Representational Image

Anti-Romeo squads are based around male chauvinistic ideals of female ‘honour’ and suppress women.

What differentiates SHE teams from anti-Romeo squads is the element that they intend to protect. While the former intend to protect the freedom of women, the latter intend to protect their honour. While protection of freedom ensures the safety of women, protection of honour ensures their further suppression in society.

The Need For Better Laws

Sexual assaults across the nation call for better laws and amendments in the existing laws in order to prevent further crimes. Acts like Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, Indecent Representation of Women (Prevention) Act, 1986, National Commission for Women Act, 1990, Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 stand as defenders to the protection of women rights.

More such acts intended to protect women from sexual harassment are needed on par with vigilant police mechanism to ensure the safety of women in the society. Women empowerment is only possible when women are allowed to move freely and safely without fear of harassment or assaults. Easy get-away laws like preventing women from working during night-shifts and banning their entry into public places to protect them from harassment do not do the intended task at hand. Better laws are definitely the need of the hour to ensure the betterment of the status of women in society.

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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.

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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)’.

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.

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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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