Make Your Voice Count

An Intersectional and Feminist Reponse to Sexual Health, Mental Health, and Community Building: Shruti Venkatesh, India

By Tharindi Devasurendra – Friday, October 16, 2020

On the surface Shruti Venkatesh is a 22-year-old youth advocate from India. Her preferred pronouns are she/her. Shruti has an academic background in psychology and is passionate about mental health. She has joined  various mental health platforms, such as The Minds Foundation and Desousa Foundation, raising awareness on mental health issues and ensuring that mental health is on the agendas of CBOs that work with young people As part of her engagement, she reaches out to her peers explaining what mental health is and raising awareness about different mental health issues. She also provides peer-to-peer support and counseling. Apart from that, she’s also working for the queer community in her role as Programme Director of the Queer Rights Center of One Future Collective (OFC), a feminist youth led not for profit organisation that works on building compassionate youth social leadership in India. The Queer Rights Center is a community based intervention set up to create awareness and empower individuals towards advocating and supporting the queer rights movement in India since 2018. 

With the world now facing a global pandemic, young leading advocates such as Shruti have been working tirelessly to address the difficulties that the vulnerable and less privileged communities are facing in India. Some of the work that she has been doing during the pandemic involves capacity development and training, wherein sessions with over 200 people were organized on different themes. These include topics on understanding gender and sexuality, queer sexual health and pleasure, human rights, media representation and being a good ally of the LGBTIQ community. The OFC team has also developed a manual on sexual health and pleasure prior to the lockdown.

Additionally, a percentage of the revenue made by the organization is donated for COVID-19 relief programmes, such us providing food packs and other essentials, to organizations who work with transgender people and sex workers. Moreover, with OFC, she is part of a  virtual queer mental health support group accessible all over India to help queer people severely affected  by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, lockdown measures have forced schools, offices and organizations to move their activities online; OFC had to also adapt to transitioning their programmes to virtual platforms. It took some effort  for  the OFC team to acclimatize to this new way of working and as Shruti explains “I wouldn’t say this was a challenge but it was definitely something new for us, to take everything online. And making it adaptable and understanding how it would all work out.” She also explains that participants of their programmes found it a challenge to be actively involved in these ‘queer-centric’ sessions because most of them were at home and risked privacy and security issues outing themselves to their families. Through a video, OFC celebrated the work done by different organizations in India who have rallied together to provide COVID-19 relief programmes, like finance assistance to queer people  who have lost their main sources of income, .

Shruti and her team has strived to make the sessions more participatory within the limitations of it being virtual, such as revising curriculums and adapting strategies to optimize the learning experience of the sessions. Additionally, she recognizes that the new online methods have helped facilitate a greater outreach to the community. It has become a time of new realizations and significant moments for Shruti, especially working with support groups where a lot of issues were brought up, including some emerging issues that queer people are facing due to the pandemic. 

Through Instagram, OFC has also facilitated a discussion on maintaining sexual health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The challenges identified by young people include inaccessible sexual and mental healthcare services because of the lockdown measures, negative experiences of violence and discrimination while living in unaccepting homes, and financial difficulties that communities continue to face. The driving force that helped queer groups cope with these challenges is the community-led support. 

We learned from Shruti the importance of intersectionality, which she describes as being central to LGBTIQ advocacy and to the work of OFC. She reiterates that work is futile and detrimental if an intersectional approach is not being applied and practiced. She mentions that the content and the curriculum which they have developed have been created to be as inclusive as possible. She also explains that their standard practice at OFC is a culture of being open to evaluating and reviewing their work according to the feedback received. Since they engage people with such diverse backgrounds, the feedback helps improve their work and ensure it is inclusive and takes into account young people’s identities and experiences. 

Allies play a major role in supporting the LGBTIQ community through the work that OFC  is doing. OFC has  produced manuals and guidelines for allies to become better support systems to the community at such a crucial time. During the pandemic, one of the guides that was created by OFC was focused on how educators in the country can be good allies to queer students and queer learners. Being a great ally in India becomes particularly important because of the widespread stigma and dehumanisation of queer persons. This also means that parental acceptance is generally low, leaving queer millennials to seek support mainly from their peers and their allies. This manual is meant to serve as an introductory guide to learn how to be a good and affirming ally. They hope to disseminate these to educational institutions to create more awareness. 

 

Since the pandemic has started, the expression “new normal” has become part of our vocabulary as we try to adapt our routine and daily activities to this new way of life. However, we should not forget that in these difficult times, transgender people are struggling to access health services while subjected to discrimination and violence. As the lockdown progressed, domestic abuse and violence rates have increased. We cannot be complacent with this “new normal”. We need to double our efforts to make sure the marginalized communities get the support they need.

Shruti emphasizes the fact that we need to always reevaluate our work. This is especially important when we ask, “Who is benefiting from our work?” and “Are there people who are supposed to be benefiting from our work”. Civil society needs to keep in mind that the pandemic is exacerbating the challenges faced by already marginalized communities as they are moved further away from the center. She highlights the importance of identifying these affected communities continually and vigorously, building solutions targeted towards including these communities and making them central to the work we do.

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JAN GABRIEL CASTAÑEDA

Philippines
He/Him
Board Member

Jan is passionate about seeing through the potential contributions of psychological sciences and human rights advocacy in LGBT people’s lives. He is currently Program Associate of ASEAN SOGIE Caucus and is a member of the LGBT Psychology Special Interest Group of the Psychological Association of the Philippines. He has written for various platforms and publications on a diverse range of topics from gender and sexuality to human rights experiences in different contexts. Jan’s desire is to engage in productive and meaningful work that bridges scholarship with practice rooted in people’s real experiences.

PATRICK JUANICO

Philippines
He/Them
Graphic Designer

Currently, Nico is a college student studying in the Philippines and is simultaneously working for Youth Voices Count as one of the graphic designers for the organization. He lists producing the brand logo and look of HRPlus Asia as one of his significant achievements. His interests in literature and creating films have also honed and continued to improve his skills in graphic designing.

JAN ELLA BRILLANTES

Philippines
She/They
Social Media Officer

Jan Ella is currently taking up her undergraduate studies at the University of the Philippines Visayas and has been a consistent academic awardee since 2019. She is involved in various organizations such as the Catalyst UPV as the Volunteer Director in 2021, former Publications Committee Head for UP Lipad and former member of Iloilo Pride Team.

JE-ANN PALMAIRA

Philippines
She/Her
Project Finance Officer

Je-ann is the current Project Finance Officer under the Finance Department. She graduated from the University of San Agustin with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration major
in Marketing Management.

Her involvement in her University’s Little Theater organization led her to find an interest in theater, films and the arts. Aside from theater arts, she also partakes in the company’s production work including stage management and most notably, heading the organization’s marketing team.

MARION REA CAMEROS

Philippines
She/Her
Accounting Associate

Marion graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Accounting Technology which has made her suitable for being the Accounting Associate of Youth Voices Count. She lists watching movies as one of her hobbies that helps her wind down during her leisure time.

ATTY. RONIFELLE L. BARRIOS

Philippines
She/Her
Legal Counsel

She is a graduate of AB Political Science from West Visayas State University (WVSU), in Iloilo City. In her days in college, she was the founding Prime Minister of WVSU Debate Circle, the ROTC Corps Commander and later a Volunteer Instructor in the Air Force Reserve Command. When she ran for the first time in their University Student Council, she was elected number one councilor. Her interest in leadership grew when she joined the 10th National Youth Parliament, organized by the National Youth Commission in 2014, where she later on became the Regional Convener for Western Visayas.

She then pursued her studies to take up law in San Beda University in Mendiola, Manila. As a law student, she was still active in student organizations: She joined moot court competitions, she served as layout artist in 2 of San Beda Law’s Official Publications: The Barrister and San Beda Law Journal. In her last year in law school, she was the President of San Beda Law Human Rights Advocate (HRA), where she was later conferred Leadership Award by the Association of Law Students of the Philippines (ALSP) and her organization, HRA was awarded top advocacy organization.

She passed the 2019 Bar Examinations and became a full-fledged lawyer by 2020.

She worked as Associate of Javier Santiago Torres & Panghulan Law Offices. She now runs her own RLB Law Office as a solo practitioner and serves as Notary Public for and in Quezon City. She serves as legal consultant to MSMEs and Non-profit organizations. At present, she is the Vice President for Communications of the National Society of Parliamentarians, Inc., the Chief Legislative Staff of Councilor Quin Cruz of Pasig City Council and part-time law instructor in Malayan Colleges Laguna – a Mapua School. Interestingly, she is the creator and blogger of The Young Lawyer PH. Recently, she served as Resident Parliamentarian during the Bangsamoro Youth Parliament held last Nov. 7-11, 2022 at Cotabato City.

A lawyer by profession and an artist by heart.

LOUELA MARIE PRADO

Philippines
He/She/They
Admin Officer

An advocate at heart, Louela is a part of several youth-led organizations in the Philippines with various advocacies ranging from climate justice, environmental protection, gender equality, human rights, SRHR, mental health prioritization, youth empowerment and HIV/AIDS awareness. She is currently the Interim Chairperson of Iloilo Pride Team after serving the organization for 4 years as the Admin Officer, Executive Secretary at Proyekto Philippines, Member of Team Dugong Bughaw, and more.

She graduated as Summa Cum Laude at West Visayas State University majoring in English Language Studies and is currently taking up her Masters in English Language Studies at the same institution. During her stay at the university, she served as the Vice Chairperson at the University Student Council and Federated Student Council where she organized programs and initiatives that advocated for student involvement in societal causes and being the voice of the students that lobbies their concerns to the administration.

In July 2022, she was awarded by JCI Regatta as one of the Top Outstanding Students in Iloilo and a Top Circle Awardee which is the most prestigious recognition given by the award-giving body.

RONAN JAMES B. PENUELA, RN

Philippines
He/Him
Project Officer

Ronan passed the Philippines nursing licensure exam in 2022 immediately after graduating his Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing from the University of San Agustin. While juggling his academics, he was elected governor of his college’s student council (Nursing Student Council) in 2021 and board member in 2019 where he was awarded the leadership award and Agustino para sa Tao award due to his excellence in service. He is also a certified Safety Officer (SO1) after completing his training.

He is currently a dialysis nurse in training. He handles the Intersex projects of YVC.

ANFERNEE NENOL KAMINAGA

Marshall Islands
He/Him, They/Them
Project Officer for IGNITE! Empowerment Grants Program

Having done some activism for the Marshall Islands both locally and regionally with climate change, youth empowerment, LGBTQI rights, and nuclear injustice, Nenol takes pride in being an advocate for the causes he is passionate in, being a part of Youth Voices Count and taking a step in amplifying young LGBTQI+ voices. This also inspired him to co-found the first Marshallese LGBTQI Youth Support called Brighten the Rainbow. He is featured in “We Have a Dream” which is a collection of stories from young leaders around the world.

THARINDI DEVASURENDRA

Sri Lanka
They/Them
Project Manager

Tharindi is currently a feminist activist and researcher based in Sri Lanka, and has worked with the Youth Advocacy Network Sri Lanka (YANSL). They are a trainer on advocating for comprehensive sexuality education and providing knowledge on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) where they actively advocate for safe abortion and bodily autonomy for women.

One of Tharindi’s brainchild initiatives is an Instagram page which mainly focuses on the process of reaching out to queer women in Sri Lanka, a platform that helps in providing them visibility and strategy direction on programming through social media and other means.

They have completed their Bachelors (BA Honors) in English and Linguistics at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Sri Lanka.

JOHNMEL ESTIMAR

Philippines
They/Them
Finance Manager

Johnmel M. Estimar is the founder and senior adviser of La Villa Pride, a grassroots-level organization for LGBTQI in Villa, Iloilo. They are also a member of the Iloilo Pride team, a Community Based Screening motivator for HIV and an LGBTQI Rights Activist. Miles, as they like to be called, graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration at John B. Lacson Foundation Maritime University-Molo, Inc. They also hold an Associate Degree in Cruise Ship Management in the same University.

They have ample experience in clerk and accounting work for nine years from their previous employer, they are currently employed with Youth Voices Count as Finance Manager since 2019.

ANTHONY DE VICENTE LOPEZ

Philippines
He/Him, They/Them
Deputy Executive Director

Mx. Toni graduated with a bachelor’s degree of secondary education majoring in English at the Capiz State University back in 2021. Aside from this, they sought out other educational opportunities such as Advocacy and Project Management at the Women Deliver Digital University (2015), International Women’s Health and Human Rights at Stanford University (2014), and Global Health and Humanitarianism at the University of Manchester (2013).

An advocate of many causes, they are members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, and Y-PEER Pilipinas, founder of the Y-Cap for SRHR, founder of United Colours of CapSU, and Alumnus of Women Deliver Young Leaders Program. Back in 2018, they were awarded as the SDG 5 Youth Champion due to the amiable service they have rendered for gender equality.

JUSTIN FRANCIS BIONAT, MA HRD

Philippines
He/His/Him
Executive Director

A learner for life and a seeker of knowledge, Justin graduated his Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Political Science at West Visayas State University, Philippines and took on a Master’s of Arts in Human Rights and Democratisation (International Program) at the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies at Mahidol University, Thailand under the APMA / European Union Scholarship. At present, Justin is pursuing a Juris Doctor (JD) degree (Law Degree) from the College of Law, University of San Agustin, Philippines.

Justin entered Youth Voices Count, Inc. in 2018 while studying in Thailand. He later took on the role of Executive Director beginning 2019 and successfully set up the legal registration of the organization in the Philippines under the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Since then, he has been leading the organization in various programs and projects centered around LGBTIQ children, adolescents, and youth. Outside Youth Voices Count, Inc., Justin is active in other initiatives in the field of research and law. He was a law student fellow of the Legal Education Advancement Program (LEAP) of the Legal Education Board and the UP Law Center in 2022.

As an aspiring lawyer, he hopes to one day be instrumental in providing legal support for marginalized populations. Justin has also published reports, journal articles, commentaries, and book articles in the fields of law, HIV/AIDS, LGBTIQ, and Human Rights.

In 2018, he was awarded the Young Achiever HERO Award by APCOM Foundation during the HERO Awards reception at the Royal British Embassy in Thailand for his outstanding work on equality and human rights. He is one of the Youth Council members of the Global Fund, an international financing and partnership organization that aims to “attract, leverage and invest additional resources to end the epidemics of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria”, and a Board Member of the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia Committee.