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Schools Are A Spiral Of Silence Of Caste, Sexual Harassment And Hypocrisy

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Six months into Class 8, I was called into the counsellor’s room. I was nominated as the student representative for the POCSO committee in my school. I was elated! Over the next few months, all I had to do was sign every time there was a meeting, although I was never a part of it. This seemed like a golden opportunity to me — no work, and full credit. Two years later, I realised how I was wrong.

What Had Happened?

A commerce teacher who taught at the PSBB school in KK Nagar, Chennai, was booked under the POCSO Act and arrested by the Ashok Nagar police on May 24, 2021, after the teacher was questioned by the Deputy Commissioner of Police (Crimes against women and children) Jayalakshmi.

Sex education in Indian schools is anything but enlightening. Amidst everything else that it lacks, sex-ed also fails to imbibe the idea of consent and boundaries, consecutively fostering an environment that promotes sexual harassers, including PSBB teacher G Rajagopalan. The teacher was accused of making remarks of sexual nature on female students, showing up to an online class with only a towel tied to his waist, forcing a minor to drink, sending porn links on class groups etc. The school version of this #MeToo movement was started by a student on Instagram and supported by more than 1,000 students.

The ironic statements made by the school’s management have highlighted the hypocrisy that exists in institutions. Principal Geetha Govindarahjan said in her statement that the school authority did not receive any “written complaint”. She added that “students’ welfare is absolutely sacrosanct” and that a teacher’s actions do not reflect their “high standards of professionalism.”

In their previous statement on May 24, the management said that they had not received “any complaint” regarding this matter. These statements reflect the Indian polity’s ignorance of victim-blaming, survivor-guilt and feign ignorance of rape culture. This also makes one question the competence of authority and capacity of prevention.

Popular alumni of the school cricketer Ravichandran Ashwin and musician AR Rahman’s statements came to light after the incident. The school has been alleged of caste hegemony and favouring Brahmin students. Mr Rahman’s (who had dropped out of the school) statement from an earlier interview narrates that teachers in the school had asked his mother to beg at the railway station if she was unable to pay the fees. Cricketer Ashwin expressed his distress in a tweet and said, “a complete overhaul of the existing system” is the need of the hour. “I know justice and law will take their course, but this is the time for people to come clean and revisit the existing system,” he tweeted

Who Is Suffering The Most?

Women in rural India suffer the most from sexual harassment. According to a BBC news report, Dalit women in India are among the most oppressed in the world. “We are victims of violence because we are poor, lower caste and women, so looked down upon by all,” a Dalit woman told researcher Jayshree Mangubhai some years ago. “There is no one to help or speak for us. We face more sexual violence because we don’t have any power,” she added. Dalit women, who constitute 16% population of India, are subjected to gender bias, economic deprivation and caste discrimination.

Some employers expect sexual favours from women of oppressed classes in exchange for employment; around 27% of women experience sexual harassment by relatives. These horrendous experiences cause them lifelong mental disturbance, normalising sexual harassment for 65.53% of the rural Indian population. These are some regions where students have little to no learning of sex education.

What Can Be Done?

PSBB has taken action after the incident by declaring the formation of a special senior group, drawn from both legal and non-legal backgrounds, who will be guiding them to ensure that such incidents don’t recur. While a seemingly suitable compensation for the teacher’s misdeeds, the senior group may prove ineffective for several reasons. Schools in India do not have safe forums nor do they cultivate a safe ecosystem for students to report acts of harassment. Employing more professionals to improve the situation may lead hypocrisy to trickle further into the meshes of the organisation, yielding no concrete results.

Schools in India do not have safe forums nor do they cultivate a safe ecosystem for students to report acts of harassment.

In places where fear acts as a barrier to justice, grapevine communication is one of the best channels for the identification of survivors. Involvement of students in counter-harassment initiatives is imperative to sensitise people and implement solutions on grassroots levels. Although POCSO committees have been established in schools, there are no official statistics indicating its implementation. The CBSE special guidelines on the POCSO committee calls upon one male, one female, one student, a teacher and other non-teaching staff to be a part of the committee. This may foster a queerphobic environment and make it unsafe for queer and intersex students to voice out their problems.

More than 246 million children are subjected to gender-based violence in or around schools every year (UN Women statistics). The formation of such committees and student-based initiatives will increase gender-neutral sensitisation at a young age. Along with self-defence workshops (suggested in the implementation of the POCSO act guidelines), these coupled efforts may increase alertness. These counter-harassment efforts need to be funded by state and union governments (under the concurrent list), especially for municipal schools or schools in rural areas.

Obliterating rape culture will take a long time and efforts need to start today. Anti-cyber bullying initiatives are needed in educational institutions, especially in the age of online education. Anonymous confession boxes, ameliorating sex education as a gender-neutral experience, preventing sexism or queerphobia is the place to start.

India needs to stop stereotyping harassment survivors and start self-enforcing consent in full force. A survivor does not need to act a certain way. Be it a female or a non-binary person, a survivor should not be asked what they were wearing, what time it was or why they did not report it earlier.

We have to start by asking the right question: “What can justify harassment and/or rape?” It is time we recognise all caste and gender minority groups are recipients of not only basic educational rights, but also social courtesy. It is time we listen to the screaming voices in the darkest of nights (minds).

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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.

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)’.

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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.”

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.

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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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