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“Phase Born Out Of Stress” And More Ways In Which Academia Stifles LGBTQ+ Identities

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This post is a part of Kaksha Crisis, a campaign supported by Malala Fund to demand for dialogue around the provisions in the New Education Policy 2020. Click here to find out more.

Back in 2018, the ‘Lesbian Controversy’ at Kamala Girls’ School, Kolkata, sparked a discussion on how schools respond to teenage sexuality. 12 girls were made to “confess” in writing that they were lesbian and that they had participated in “indecent behaviour”. The girls were only 13 years old, an age when they are just beginning to understand and explore their sexuality.

This incident highlights the general way in which queer students are treated within educational systems.

Representational image. New Delhi: LGBT Community members and supporters carry a rainbow-colored banner during the Delhi Queer Pride March in New Delhi on Sunday. PTI Photo by Kamal Singh (PTI11_27_2016_000185B)

In schools, especially, female sexuality of any kind is not spoken about and is, in fact, chastised. It gets even more complicated if the students identify as lesbian, bisexual, or non-binary.

Tanaya Ray*, a bisexual woman, recalls that when she came out in school, she was sent to speak with the school counsellor who asked her to focus on her studies and forget about her sexuality.

It was written off as a phase born of stress. I did not receive any support, and I was already dealing with the consequences of coming out to my family. My academics suffered because of the mental and emotional turmoil I was in. The counsellor had even asked me if any other girls had ‘similar tendencies’, and I remember thinking that even if I knew, I would never ever put another girl in that spot,” she says.

The sexual identity of queer women are often attributed to being “phases” or are completely written off. Girls in school who do not assume (stereotypical) queerness in how they look or present are often given the same kinds of advice as Tara was. The emphasis lies in bringing her back into the heterosexual fold with the assumption that she is simply just a little bit confused.

On the flip side, if a girl so much as “seems” queer based on arbitrary things like her haircut, clothing, etc. she is targeted by school administrations and teachers. Bullying and punishments are meted out to girls who do not conform to the standards of femininity and heteronormativity. 

In 2019, the Delhi office of UNESCO published a study titled Be a buddy, not a bully: experiences of sexual and gender minority youth in Tamil Nadu schools which researched the bullying faced by students on the basis of their perceived or actual sexual orientation, and gender identity and expression (SOGIE). The ramifications of the bullying and attitudes towards queer students often mould the shape of their careers and lives.

In this study alone, participants attested to having a lower interest in academics, or discontinued education, or performed poorly as a direct result of the bullying. Other consequences included alienation and reduced social interaction with peers (73%), and suffering from depression and anxiety (70%).

Queer women are more likely to be subject to violence, harassment, and bullying. Not only do they have to contend with the violence that women face, but also with violence directed to queerness.

It is not a surprise, therefore, that queer women often make educational choices and decisions informed by their queerness. The possibility of harassment and abuse, institutional discrimination, coupled with a weak (and sometimes non-existent) support system lead queer students to navigate their education through their sexual or gender identities. Thus, safety within educational spaces is the biggest concern among queer women.

Ashleel, a genderqueer individual assigned female at birth, attended an all-girls school. They say, “When you’re queer, you have to navigate spaces in order to stay out of danger for your life and from being out, and also, to avoid any discrimination and bigotry because in India there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Most queer people would lose financial stability and a home to live in if they’re outed. Including me. This is why I’ve always considered the prospect of studying in Western countries where queerphobia is lesser. But most importantly, my queer identity won’t have to stay hidden. I won’t have to constantly live under the fear of being outed.”

Ritu*, a 21-year-old bisexual student, says that they actively seek out educational spaces which are relatively safer. “I look for institutions where queer language is not entirely foreign. Since we live in a heteronormative world, I find it easier to find people to connect within such spaces and am more likely to establish a trusted circle, which makes me feel safe.”

Similarly, for transgender women, where and what to study stems from how they will be received within those spaces.

Tara*, a trans-woman and student of Literature says, “My educational choices are single-handedly driven by my gender and sexual identity.”

When Tara was younger, she was advised by her psychiatrist to avoid all-male spaces and to choose subjects in the Arts or Humanities instead of the Sciences.

Tara believes that her decision to pursue literature has been driven by her desire to remove herself from predominantly male areas like Engineering or Medicine. Her experience with cis-gendered men have left her feeling unsafe and apprehensive about such fields, and she wonders if her choice in the subject would have been different if she did not feel the need to condition herself in this line of thinking.

*names have been changed on request of anonymity

Featured image is for representational purposes only.
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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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