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From Casteism To Harassment, The Indian Education System Needs Radical Reforms

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*Trigger Warning: Sexual Harassment*

For the glorious baggage of pioneering work in the education sector, India is revered as the land of education, culture, knowledge and intellectual supremacy. Indians around the world are especially celebrated for their cerebral capacity.

As much as we could bask in all the glory of those who have made it, we must address the deep-seated issues of casteismgender inequality, lack of inclusivity and trustworthy safe spaces in the Indian education system and call for radical reforms collectively.

Active Need For Caste Sensitisation

Slum in India
Representative Image. (by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

The problems of casteism are so deeply ingrained in Indian society, yet, a chunk of mass denies its existence. This denial speaks about the lack of voices, their amplification and acute social segregation.

Rural India sees the horrors of casteism every single day. The Bhangi, Harijan and Dalit communities are terrorised, ostracised and heavily isolated systematically. The schools of rural India categorically differentiate between lower-caste students and higher caste students, making the former do chores like cleaning school washrooms, sweeping the floors, even making them sit behind in class.

In certain areas, they are not even allowed to access education, for it is supposedly the duty of Brahmins solely.

However, in urban India, the grandest debate regarding casteism is stipulated to reservations, low cut-offs in educational or official institutions for them. The majority of mass hugely overlook the systematically imposed inaccessibility to resources, making students from backward castes begin the race with great disadvantage.

Many people can be rightfully angry for not being able to enrol in premiere institutes even after being “meritorious”. In a social construct like ours, “merit” becomes a bourgeois concept as well, which is heavily backed by capital and intellectual resources. The right demands would be to increase the number of seats and stop the corrupt distribution of caste certificates that facilitate blockage of seats by the privileged.

Recently, an incident from IIT-Kharagpur triggered a row of protests which made the #End_Casteism_in_IIT trend on Twitter. An associate professor thrashed out on students for not standing up for the national anthem. The class in question was preparatory English classes meant for SC, ST, OBC students and students with disabilities.

Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC), a student body of IIT, released an official statement saying, “She knows that the savarna-dominated IIT administration will protect her from any backlash.”

This is why it becomes crucial to promote caste sensitisation in educational institutes to prepare for a better future. If teachers themselves abuse students on the lines of their caste, then the future sure is troubled by more misery. We need more implications of reforms backed by laws that prevent such professors from getting away, laws that promise equality, dignity in every institution.

Additionally, a report released by The Wire in 2018 states that out of the 642 faculty members across 13 IIMs, only four are from the SC group. A solitary faculty member is from the ST group and 17 faculty members belong to the OBC category.

In January 2019, the Union Ministry of HRD said in the Lok Sabha that of the 6,043 faculty members at the 23 IITs, 149 were from the Scheduled Castes and 21 from Scheduled Tribes. This means less than 3% of faculty members belong to the reserved category.

As per the Government of India’s requirement, 27% of the seats are reserved for NC-OBC, 15% for SC, 7.5% for ST candidates, 5% for Persons with Benchmark Disabilities (PwD) and up to 10% for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) in IIMs. But there are accounts of how students experienced institutional othering by the savarna majority of the administration and a disparity in their salary during placements were also noticed.

It indeed is a long journey before we can expect an atmosphere where reservations don’t work as mere tokenism but empower communities to come at par with the “apparent” majority and showcase their mettle.

Inclusivity, Gender Sensitivity, Safety

Student
Representative Image.

When we talk about casteism in premiere institutes, we look at individuals who have been conditioned over time, their early experiences forming their opinions and perspectives on a certain issue. This conditioning calls for more responsible training in the early years of life when a person is extremely impressionable.

A student spends most of their formative years in the premises of a school, majorly known as their second home. The experiences, incidents and values absorbed in their time in school condition them for their lives. These conditions are formed over a vast period and can take multiple years to undo them.

The Indian schooling system is a reflective mirror of society, a society that is constantly bargaining for “the best spot”, that is busy differentiating between women and men, forget about being inclusive towards the ones who don’t identify as either.

Conversations about one’s sexuality, gender identity and expression are finally surfacing and these conversations need to begin early in children’s lives. Many people bottle up their experiences, get bullied in silence and eventually are scarred for life. The trauma of all these appalling experiences does not leave them. It sometimes stays lifelong and interferes with their health, choices and life at large.

Indian schools, small or big, have to radically begin a dialogue about gender inclusivity and promote a welcoming, forgiving and kind atmosphere. The clear demarcations of boys and girls, the stereotype of uniforms, the separated bathrooms, all reek of regression, of a culture that is unacceptable in the 21st century.

We have heard harrowing accounts of harassment in the name of discipline in schools and it exposes the incorrigible motivation of Indian society to look at things in binary. This binary system of judgment can never empower the student society as it romanticises “the grind”.

classroom stress
Representative Image.

The grind to be the best in academics, best in sports, best in music/dance. Children normalise a culture that encourages them to overwork, “beat opponents”, and climb the ladder of success. The truth is there are multiple ladders, many more beyond what the binary lens of the education system can envision.

The usage of binary language in academic curriculum and conversations at large is alarming. They must be encouraged to sound gender-neutral. The arbitrary rule of “he/she” pronouns conditions the students’ studying the same into believing that the world is limited to two constructs.

It, however, sounds foolishly radical to expect such progressive movements holistically when the entire education system reeks of regression concerning the narratives of gender stereotype, syllabus design and assessment structure.

Safety issues have also been a rising concern in schools. The agenda of safety, cultural practices in schools and academic content are intersectional. When a young girl is labelled “asking for it” for her short skirt, a skewed idea of safety is planted into the heads of students, as if it becomes a responsibility for women to “protect” themselves. In contrast, schools should be proactive in teaching the students, the boys better, to stop another “Boys locker Room” incident from happening.

Conversations are always a pragmatic way of addressing an issue. It is the most civilised way of expressing empathy and promising a space that is not judgemental, is accepting and safe. Opening rooms for students to talk to authorities and teachers about their uncomfortable experiences in campuses across issues can help liberate them individually and bring to light the issues bothering students on campus.

Sexual harassment cases in schools are unfortunate and should be called out extensively. The young are extremely vulnerable as they don’t know better and can be potentially subjected to institutional silencing. However, in times of digital learning, harassment from teachers, classmates and authorities is a new terror and demands extensive conversation.

In the recent incident in PSBB School, Chennai, a teacher, Mr Rajagopalan, was accused of harassing students by sexually inappropriate behaviour exposing the perils of digital life. Students took to social media to talk about their accounts of harassment. Alumni and model M Kripali shared them.

It soon took momentum as more and more students opened up about his problematic gestures, messages, even physically uncomfortable accounts experienced previously. The alumni association called for his resignation and he was then arrested, complying with multiple sections.

Ex-teachers and students have collectively mentioned how he was not monitored previously, even if many students have had unfortunate incidents because of him. If schools provided an atmosphere of safety, not just from predators, but are also able to be open to hearing from them and acting upon the complaints proactively, assertively, schools would truly be safe havens for students.

Years after we pass out of our educational institutes, we always reminisce about our times on campus (and now off-campus, too), miss our good old days with our friends, and most of us have a wholesome smile on our faces, thinking about the glorious memories.

The same years that we yearn to get back to are also the years that were horrifying, harrowing, disturbing for some and they still feel crippled by the anxiety from all these years. It is indeed one of the saddest experiences.

We as a community must advocate for spaces that become empowering, help students in their holistic growth, and create healthy, confident and kind individuals ready to take on for the world.

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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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