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Here”s What Indian Sex Workers And Transgenders Want From The Nation

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By Anuradha Dutt:

Delhi (Women’s Feature Service) — The fillip given by the Election Commission to register youth and transgenders on the voting list in the run up to the assembly elections in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh in December 2013 indicates that these two sections of India’s billion-plus population are finally being recognised as distinct, influential voters. Indeed, given the large number of political parties that will enter the fray during general elections 2014, electoral preferences of these new emergent groups, which include sex workers, will surely make the crucial difference between victory and defeat.

As per a 2010 estimate, there are 6,88,751 “registered” sex workers in India — and 3,79,000 in Delhi; the figure for the transgender population is pegged at around 14 lakh. In all likelihood, their numbers are much higher now. “So it’s time both these groups are counted as citizens,” asserts Geetanjali Babbar, the young social activist whose organisation, Kat Katha, is assisting sex workers in Delhi to register as voters.

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Sex workers want to be treated like regular women, who dream of a better life, especially for their children. (Credit: Kat Katha)

How can these otherwise forgotten citizens ensure their vote? What are their rights as voters? What’s the buzz in the city’s red light area, and in the colonies of east Delhi, home to many transgenders? Are they rooting for clean governance, better implementation of laws and civic facilities like everyone else? Geetanjali and Pradeep Kumar of Pahal, an organisation that works for the welfare of transgenders, have a finger on the pulse of these hitherto marginalised voters living at the fringes of mainstream society. Whereas Geetanjali’s group is interacting with the sex workers in the brothels on G.B. Road, Pradeep and his team at Pahal are reaching out to the transgenders to find out more about their expectations from political leaders. They have undertaken this exercise as part of the My Space, My unManifesto campaign that has been initiated nationwide by the Delhi-based ComMunity — the Youth Collective, along with 42 youth organisations across 15 states. Together, they are creating a Youth Manifesto that will reflect young India’s vision for the nation.

Kat Katha, which runs a school for children of sex workers in addition to providing tailoring lessons as vocational training to some women, has helped 70 of them to get voter identity cards. Besides this, its activists have been making concerted efforts to engage them in conversations about politics and governance. Explains Geetanjali, “Sex workers want to be treated like regular women, who dream of a better life, especially for their children. They want to be seen as citizens with a say in the development of their city. The unfortunate reality, however, is that no politician has ever felt the need to find out what they want.”

And what is it that they aspire for? Geetanjali has a fair idea, “Their focus is chiefly on securing improved living conditions, schools for their children, old age pension and greater social security.” Protection from abuse and violent crimes is another crucial demand from them. Ironically, they want better protection from the police, whose daily raids result in many of them being put behind bars. “They are put in the lock up for the night and can be released only once they have been produced before a local magistrate the next day. The women desperately want this ‘routine’ harassment to end. There is even a consensus building on the government shutting down the brothels and providing other avenues of work for them, although everyone agrees that this can’t happen till they undergo vocational training that will equip them with employable skills,” she adds.

Like the sex workers, the transgenders suffer from an acute sense of disillusionment and neglect. Bawraji, 55, a Muslim transgender, stays in East Delhi’s Laxminagar locality and used to be a member of a dera (group) till about a decade ago. She says, “I am also a citizen of India. I have been voting regularly ever since I came to Delhi from Varanasi many decades ago. This Lok Sabha polls will be no different. I plan to elect a leader who is sensitive to our needs.” Recently, Bawraji sought the help of Pahal to replace her lost voter ID card. Incidentally, the NGO has assisted 150 transgenders to get their voter ID cards, while 90 have been registered as voters.

The transgenders in Delhi are looking for greater safety and financial security for themselves. (Credit: Pahal)
The transgenders in Delhi are looking for greater safety and financial security for themselves. (Credit: Pahal)

Elaborating on the issues that trouble her community, Bawraji says, “We have the same concerns as everyone else. Price rise is one. Hygiene and sanitation, water and power supply, national security, communal amity — all these matter, too. The country’s progress and development are important to us as well. Thanks to the Delhi Metro, mobility in the national capital region has become easier for all of us.”

Pahal’s Pradeep, who has interacted with around 500 transgenders in east Delhi over the last few months to collect their promises for the Youth Manifesto, highlights some of the key demands: “They want financial support in the form of a pension just for them. The removal of Section 377, which can be used to penalise them, is of utmost importance, as is the sensitisation of the police force and the establishment of a special helpline number and help desk within police stations for those among them who have suffered violence. They feel they are as vulnerable to sexual abuse as women and so the same kind of facilities should be extended to them.” Schools, voter ID cards, ration and Aadhaar cards and shelters for homeless transgenders are also on the list. He adds, “A demand that is common to sex workers and transgenders is reservation in educational institutions and government jobs since both see themselves as minorities.

Of course, what is noteworthy about both the groups is that even though they have faced societal and systemic ostracism, they have not been mere passive observers at least where politics is concerned. Way back in 1993, Nimmibai, a madam at a brothel on G.B. Road, had contested the Lok Sabha seat from Delhi’s Chandni Chowk although she eventually lost. Her aim was to get prostitution abolished. Even now she is confident that “her chance [and of those like her] would come someday”.

Transgenders have had mixed luck in the electoral race. Shabnam Mausi from Madhya Pradesh had made history when she became India’s first elected transgender An MLA in 1998. Asha Devi was elected mayor of the Gorakhpur Municipal Corporation in Uttar Pradesh in 2000. Raj Hasina and Shobha Nehru in Haryana were elected to the Hisar Municipal Council in April 2005. Kamla Jaan, elected mayor of Katni in 2001, demitted office after two years, following a court order that she was ineligible for the seat reserved for a woman. More recently, representing oppressed and marginalised sections, Ramesh Kumar Lili contested unsuccessfully from Delhi’s Mangolpuri as a candidate of Indian Bahujan Samajwadi Party.

New vote banks and unconventional aspirants are already changing the dynamics of politics in India. The meteoric ascent of the fledgling Aam Admi Party, run by untested young leaders and cadres, is being ascribed to its successful mobilisation of the youth and anti-corruption and anti-status quo proponents, disenchanted with shoddy governance. Clearly, inclusive politics, which takes into account the aspirations of the marginalised, can turn things around for many who have been trying to break free from violence, social rejection and penury.

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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.

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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.

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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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