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“Feeling Empathy Is Wonderful But Letting It Transform Into Guilt Is Not”

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We live in an unequal society. This inequality is inherently linked to anxiety levels within our population. People with less privilege are anxious about their income and seek to prove their worth; while people with privilege are anxious about maintaining their current status but feel guilty for the privilege they possess. 

There are people who want to change the structure of our society to reduce this inequality. Activists are actively campaigning for political and social change. However, society tends to place these activists on a pedestal – idolizing them, but also recanting their support the minute a mistake is committed.

Activists are expected to lead a simple lifestyle, sacrificing opportunities and experiences, to be regarded as someone with a strong moral compass and deep-rooted values.

The expectation that activists must live a difficult life and have a frugal lifestyle to advocate for things they are passionate about and wish to change in the world appears ridiculous when written, but this is the reality we observe. 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), an American politician and activist, recently attended the Met Gala wearing a gown with ‘Tax the Rich’ etched on the back. An activist campaigning for progressive taxation attending one of the most expensive events of the year, surrounded by only the rich, screamed hypocrisy.

Survivor’s Guilt

However, AOC was invited to the event as a ‘guest of the museum’ and went for free, to emphasise her stance on a wider platform. Why was her decision to utilise an opportunity provided to her criticised so heavily? 

Further, when an activist with certain privileges is advocating for, as in AOC’s case, marginalised and under-represented communities who do not possess the privileges she does, these societal expectations seem to imply inherent ‘wrongness’ in her advocacy due to her privilege. This could lead to survivor’s guilt. 

One way of understanding survivor’s guilt is the difficult, almost painful feelings one faces when one has survived a situation others did not. This is commonly observed in war veterans – they feel as though they’ve betrayed the comrades they’ve left behind. 

A wider definition of survivor’s guilt is associated with privilege and stems from empathy. Individuals with the privilege to remain largely unaffected by COVID-19 have experienced a crippling sense of guilt and shame when they compare their situation to others who are less fortunate than them.

A similar sense of guilt could develop in activists who are bombarded with expectations from society to live their life a certain way to gain credibility. They feel guilty for possessing privileges the communities they are advocating for do not possess. 

The current structure of our society heavily promotes hustle culture and working 24/7. People often feel guilty for taking breaks, or time off work. We have observed that this leads to burn out as well as a lack of care for one’s own mental health and well-being.

The constant feeling of sadness for you having an edge in resources over others turns into a cycle that never stops, it just amplifies anxiety and guilt. 

In the show, It’s Okay To Not Be Okay, we see Moon Gang-tae display some variation of survivor’s guilt stemming from his need to protect his older brother who is on the autism spectrum, after his brother witnessed the murder of their mother. Gang-tae’s entire life revolves around his brother and his needs, so much so that Gang-tae often neglects himself.

Thappad is a movie that picked up on the misogyny prevalent in Indian homes and placed it on the large screen for all of us to reflect on. Amrita’s story was compelling and made all of us empathise with her and every other woman going through a similar situation.

We felt guilty for the sexism we’ve perpetuated or turned a blind eye to, and for allowing her story to be the story of many in Indian society without the same ending – many aren’t able to separate from a family that disrespects and abuses them. 

The movie Parasite highlights class differences and how the effects of a situation impact people differently. One scene displays this – while the woman from the rich family exclaims about the beauty of the rain, the driver sits grimly because the same rain had destroyed his house.

Viewers cannot help but empathise and feel survivor’s guilt owing to their privilege. 

After hearing the stories of female domestic workers in relation to the discrimination and sexism they face daily in their own families, one cannot help but feel guilty for the safe spaces and security one possesses. This is true in many dimensions.

In a society where more voices of the under-represented are being raised to tell their stories, people feel a sense of guilt owing to the privilege they were born into. 

How To Deal With It?

Comments on various social media platforms can exacerbate the guilt one already feels. Under AOC’s Instagram post, there are several comments that read: “You are rich, tax yourself more.” and “Did you collect tax revenue from all your wealthy, tax-avoiding friends with whom you partied tonight?

These insensitive comments can amplify an individual’s sense of guilt when talking about a cause they are fighting for. This guilt can be overwhelming and can have serious implications for the individual’s mental health and well being. 

Coping with survivor’s guilt is difficult; the best solution would be to approach a therapist for their professional support and guidance. Accepting your feelings and understanding that they stem from a place of empathy is a crucial step.

In a society where more voices of the under-represented are being raised to tell their stories, people feel a sense of guilt owing to the privilege they were born into. Representational image.

Doing what you can to help out others who are in less fortunate situations is a way of consciously using that empathy for good. But, it is crucial that your own individual mental health is good. The mindset of ‘well, others have it worse than me so I can’t complain’ is not a good one – your struggles are as valid as others’ are. 

Empathy is a powerful feeling – it can change lives for the better; we see this with activists who bring about positive change. Feeling empathy is wonderful, but allowing it to manifest as a debilitating form of survivor’s guilt is not. We need to decrease inequalities in society to decrease the survivor’s guilt the population feels.

The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program
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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