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What About The Mental Health Needs Of Female Students In Campus Spaces?

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As I googled “mental health of female students of India” expecting to find several articles and studies on the issue, I was shocked at what I found. There were barely any pieces focused on female students and their problems, which speaks a lot about the kind of work being done around mental health.

After speaking to some female college students about what factors affect their mental health, it was clear that a major gap exists between female students and their male counterparts. 

Representational image. Photo credit: jagranjosh.com via dailyexcelsior.com

Operating In A Male-Dominated Space

“On the same road, I would have to go through rocks, boulders and uneven terrains, while my male counterparts get a smooth track to run on.” This analogy by Afrah Asif, a law student from Hyderabad, sums up the difficulties faced by female students.

Among the many important issues raised, one that was mentioned by all of the interviewees was the difficulty in socialising and networking in a male-dominated, male administered society.

In a piece on Scroll, several women talked about networking issues faced by them in a male-dominated field. The same goes for educational institutions which are built around the needs and requirements of men. 

Even among peers of similar age groups, women have difficulty fitting in because of the sexist biases prevalent in society. “As a Muslim hijabi I feel that people get biased, and I feel like they judge me,” said Anam Asif , a psychology student from Hyderabad.

Women in educational spaces are expected to do only certain kinds of work or behave in a certain manner. Madiha Majid, a medical student in Kashmir says, “As a female medical student, you are not considered well enough to opt for certain fields like surgery.”

Another issue faced by Madiha and Janvi Gupta, both of whom are medical students in Kashmir, was that female medical students and female doctors are assumed to be nurses by the patients and sometimes, even by their own male counterparts. The patients keep looking for “doctor saheb” i.e., a male doctor.

Are Women Safe On Campus?

Safety was another issue raised, as many female students do not feel safe among their male teachers and peers. Janvi summed it up by saying that, “We cannot trust anyone.” In a survey of 500 female students across India, it was found out that one in 10 students had been sexually harassed in their higher education institution.

Most of the cases of sexual harassment go unreported as there are no committees set up for female students to reach out to. In some cases, the lives and/or futures of the female students might get endangered just by reporting it.

The administration and the policies of the institution play a role in the mental health of female students As mentioned by Afrah, “the behavior of the institutions” has a major impact.

The institution expects women to dress a certain way i.e., “modestly”. If the male staff is blatantly slut-shaming women and not facing any kind of repercussions; if the institution is appointing more male students in its elections and leadership rolesthese issues end up affecting the mental health of the female students. 

As the administration in institutions is mostly male-dominated, the policies are attuned towards male students. This can be seen by the lack of policies against sexual harassment.

As all the policies are centered around men, there is a total disregard for the menstrual health of female students, as they have to sit through exams, sit through eight hours of classes etc. even when they are going through their menstrual cycles.

Women Are Not Taken Seriously

Another problem agreed upon by most of the interviewees was the inaccessibility of the male-dominated administration. As Anam says, “Men have this idea that when a woman talks about important issues it should not be taken seriously as they cannot think in a practical way”, which can clearly be seen by the male-focused structure of the educational institutions.  

After speaking to four female students (Afrah, Anam, Madiha and Janvi), it became very clear that the structure and policies of educational institutions, combined with the inherent sexism of our society, negatively affected the mental health of female students severely.

The lack of safe spaces for female students in their educational institutions and a large number of male staff and male students blatantly partaking in inappropriate behaviour towards their female counterparts, leads to increase in anxiety and depression; and in some cases, even self harm.

All four of my interviewees strongly agreed about these major, negative impacts on their mental health. I would like to pose this question to the readers: how can we increase awareness about the mental health of female students in India?  

We, as a society, need to take steps in the right direction. In order to do so, we need to educate ourselves and the people around us about the issues faced by women. Administrators and policymakers need to work on policies centered around women in educational spaces.

Featured image is for representational purposes only. Photo credit: Pxhere.
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.
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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.

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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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