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From Disha Ravi To Rhea Chakraborty, Here’s How India Vilifies Its Women

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A break between hectic tasks and a black coffee in hand, I opened my Twitter account to see what was trending.

Expecting propaganda-laden hashtags, I saw Disha Ravi “Joseph” trending. For those still unaware, she has been arrested for alleged involvement with a ‘toolkit’ that Greta Thunberg had tweeted. Of course, I wasn’t shocked at the tweets. In this day and age, hatred has been normalised to a large extent. Her religion was targeted (with her friends debunking the lies being spread about her religion and background). I am not even discussing the offensive remarks here.

But what continues to anger me is the way her pictures have been strewn all over social media and the so-called mainstream media. Pictures that have no relevance are being tweeted, retweeted and shown during prime time debates – selfies with her dog, pictures with her friends and during volunteer work. The same treatment is being meted out to another activist who’s been in the news, Nikita Jacob.

Her picture is accompanied by typical news graphics on literally every news channel. Ironically, for another activist in the news for the same reason, his picture is nowhere to be seen. I am definitely not advocating for derogatory remarks or unwanted publicity for him. However, the way these news reports are being handled talks a lot about the way we treat our women.

To mention a not-very-long-ago example, I’d have to take you to Kerala, a state with the highest literacy and a high human development index. It was also ranked as one of the best in sex ratio, until recently. But one fine day in July 2020, news channels across the state popped up with pictures of Swapna Suresh, an accused in a massive gold smuggling case. She was linked to a vast network of smugglers, politicians and high-profile government officials, including the Kerala Chief Minister’s former principal secretary.

Image result for swapna suresh
Kerala gold smuggling case, where the male and the female accused were treated differently. Picture Credits: NDTV

Whether or not she is guilty and whether the ruling party politicians were involved are issues the courts are deciding on. But what irks me is the way her pictures were downloaded from her Facebook profile and put up for display in every prime time debate. Her selfies at late-night parties, pictures with the co-accused and alleged videos of her ‘enjoying’ life with the money she got through smuggling were up for public consumption, with details that didn’t matter.

She was linked to the accused civil servant with primetime anchors claiming eyewitnesses saw him leaving her house late at night. She was painted as a shopaholic and a terrible mother who thrived on money and only money. Her character was assassinated and unbearable for any sane person to witness. Just do a Google search and you’ll understand.

Female news anchors too jumped in the pool of vilifying Swapna Suresh. I am not defending her here, because if she is guilty, the judiciary will hold her accountable. But live updates were fed to the Malayalis who were glued to their screens as the saga unfolded. Ironically, the news channels and the social media community treated the male accused differently here.

Does this remind you of another case up here in North India? Yes, Rhea Chakraborty. She was vilified, followed and hounded. Her pictures were dug out to feed the voyeuristic pleasure of sick minds everywhere. It’s not just news channels and the social media trolls who are guilty here. You’ll find the offline version in your own neighbourhoods.

Let a woman return home late at night, be it after work or with friends (it’s nobody’s business), your neighbourhood aunties and uncles will start their gossip cycle.

It’s utter vilification here, choosing to slander a woman whether or not she’s guilty of the alleged crime. It’s abusive to target an accused based on her gender, because hey, shouldn’t we be respecting women instead of just writing it in our Twitter/Instagram bios or claiming to work on women empowerment projects to make our resume look cool?

Don’t just read this and stop. Maybe the next time you see a woman being vilified irrespective of what she’s done, engage in a conversation or start a meaningful debate. Let the discourse be more about practically respecting women instead of just mere catchy slogans. Start questioning yourself if you have ever behaved in a manner that vilified a woman. If one person changes their mindset, there’s hope for us.

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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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