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I Shared My Phone Number For COVID Relief Work; Got Obscene Photos In Exchange

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

Trigger Warning: Mention of sexual harassment

The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has sent the country into utter disarray. In the past few months, the discovery of new mutant strains, post-recovery complications, and the dire lack of medical resources coupled with an exceedingly negligent and incompetent government has only worsened the situation. As India reports more than 3 lakh active cases each day, infected patients gasp for breath while their family members frantically search for oxygen cylinders, medication, and hospital beds. 

In these appalling circumstances, many citizens (mostly younger people) have felt the need to take action. Since April, many youth-led initiatives and support groups have been working tirelessly to provide patients and their family members with the resources they require.

I have personally been heading one such support group consisting of high-school and college students, which gathers and documents medical resources. The work has been extremely strenuous so far, as it involves tracking down leads and resources which keep changing in quick succession. It also involves sharing my personal contact number with a multitude of people in various groups, while calling up hundreds of suppliers and medical centres each day to verify leads and check their availability. 

Needless to say, I knew the risks when I decided to circulate my personal number on the public domain; perverted creeps would see it as an open invitation to ‘slide into my DMs’. Nonetheless, a part of me thought that this is a greater good that people are collectively working towards, and maybe (just maybe) they would think twice before harassing or pestering other people. I guess I was painfully mistaken, since that was clearly not the case.

 

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Amidst a flood of texts coming in each second, there were several unwanted messages and repeated missed calls from strangers, which I conveniently ignored. After all, a “hello dear” or “are you single?” text cannot hurt you if you choose not to engage with the sender.

However, it did not stop there; I started getting calls at 2 a.m. from men, asking me how much I charge for one night. Some also took the liberty to send me half-naked selfies and pictures of their nether-regions for my inspection.

My method of dealing with these degenerates was simple: report and block. It worked for a while, until I heard reports from other women in my group, complaining that the situation was way out of hand than I had expected.

Many of the younger girls in the groups, even minors, were being approached by these men. They were being hounded by similar calls and unsolicited obscene pictures all throughout the day. These predators were going to the extent of asking for their home addresses, and even where they go to school or tuitions. Even when we started to weed them out from the groups one by one, it was not enough.

Some messages received by COVID relief volunteers. Translation: Photo on top: “Didi, don’t be angry. Nowadays all girls have huge tits. What are you getting angry for?”; Photo on corner right: “Didi you’re looking super”

What came as the first real shock to me was that even the patients’ family members were not being spared. Even in these hauntingly pathetic times while desperately searching for medical resources to provide to their loved ones, women are facing rampant cyber harassment. Shasvathi Siva shares her experience of the same in this VICE article, which went viral a few weeks back.

“I woke up to find a grand total of seven men video calling me at the same time. I couldn’t even hang up for a second to block these numbers before another call would come by. Five minutes into feeling horrifically flustered, I silenced my phone, kept it aside and waited. It took some time for it to stop,” she recounts.

It is repulsive, but more than that, disheartening to see these men behaving in the way they do, especially in these times when our country has been flung into this abysmal state. It goes on to show that even in the midst of a pandemic, some men are unable to show an ounce of basic decency. Matters like these constitute sexual harassment, and should not be taken lightly under any circumstances.

Social Media’s Reaction

Social media has not remained quiet about this issue, either. Prominent activists and public figures took to Twitter to raise awareness about this deplorable issue, some even clarifying in their messages that the given contact number belongs to a ‘male’ friend.

The question that arises is: how do we deal with this sorry state of affairs? Would the solution be to discourage women from sharing their numbers publicly in order to save themselves, even if they want to help others in need? Why do women need to beg on social media, pleading these men to stop harassing them? 

However, all hope is not lost; online services such as Doosra seek to protect your identity while making calls from your personal number. It is tragic that the onus has to lie on women to protect themselves from harassment, rather than on society to reprimand these men for being misogynistic and narcissistic creeps. 

It should be kept in mind that sending unsolicited pictures is no trivial offense that can be overlooked. Such acts can be punished under Section 67 of the IT Act, which criminalises publishing obscene content in the electronic form, making it punishable by law. These acts can also be booked under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), for “outraging the modesty of a woman”. These are trying times, and we certainly do not need further undesirable distress to make it worse 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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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
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