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“Am I Differently Sexed If I’m Differently Abled?”

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By Nandika Kumari and Ujjwal Gupta

I spent half my adult life locked behind the bathroom door, slipping my hand into my underwear. This night was like any other. Finally, I struggled into my pajamas and walked back into my room. Carefully placing my crutches by the bedside, I collapsed into bed after a long exhausting day. Unwittingly, all the day’s activities flashed before my eyes and thinking of the tasks for the next day, I slowly slipped into sleep.

Photo Credits: Gary B. Watts
Photo Credits: Gary B. Watts

The sea was calm that night in my dream, very calm in fact. I propped myself up on my crutches and adjusted the sails on the boat, trying to catch the best wind as I sailed westward into the Indian Ocean. It had taken years of practice to get the balance right and make sure I didn’t fall into the water. When I had been little, I had gone sailing with my father, who taught me special tricks that didn’t need me to stand up much.

After sailing a while, I turned and looked for the shore but saw nothing. The vast expanse of water stretched out as far as I could see. As I let thoughts pass through my mind, I saw storm clouds gather on the horizon. I sat down suddenly, as the boat jolted under me. In panic, I began pulling the sails down and turned the stern towards the shore. The clouds were faster than me and I was unnerved by the loudest thunder of them all, Taboo. I knew it was coming to silence me.

Nobody ever talks about S-E-X in India. Not at home, not in school. We can only ever learn from the limited experience of our friends or what the Internet can teach us; that is if we can access these in the first place. It is hard enough for an ‘able-bodied’ person to openly talk about sex, let alone explore their sexuality. This Taboo is further exacerbated for us, as we experience a greater sense of guilt and alienation. Classified as being either child-like or hypersexual, we are almost always left out of these conversations, even among peers. A simple lack of privacy makes this an even bigger struggle. A discouraging environment and the internalization of this Taboo, limits the opportunities for a challenged person to discover and understand their sexuality.

As the thunder of Taboo grew more violent, I tried to speak but couldn’t hear myself. The thunder was loud enough to drown out my thoughts and it ordered me to push them to the recesses of my mind. I crouched in the boat and waited for the thunder to stop, but it didn’t give way. Waves lashed around me, spilling dangerous levels of water into the boat. Conformity, as these high waves were called, forced the salty water down my throat choking my individuality. Expectations – the severe blustering winds of the Indian Ocean rushed towards me, sweeping my crutches into the water and pushing me down to my knees.

Society has constructed a set of strictly defined moulds for us to fit into, in order to be accepted. These moulds, in the context of sexuality, reflect rigid societal Expectations of ideal standards of beauty, sexual competence, success and sexual orientation. This fosters an environment that suppresses diversity and inclusion, coercing its members to strive towards Conformity. Every individual battles with these expectations, but the struggle is compounded for a person with challenges. Ideal standards of beauty are often central to self worth, especially with reference to sexuality. One’s ability to sexually satisfy their partner is an added factor to contend with. With the stigma and prejudgement attached to persons with challenges, we are almost never considered to be plausible contenders in the game of romance.

Society’s definition of success in primarily financial terms belittles alternative manifestations of success. People with challenges are seldom viewed as self-sufficient, let alone capable of providing for a partner. This predicament is magnified by prevailing patriarchal gender norms, which place additional pressure on men with challenges in particular. Adding to this tyranny, heterosexist norms decide who a person is meant to be attracted to, further limiting individual expressions of sexual identity.

Battling Taboo, Conformity and Expectations I pushed myself towards the mast of the boat using every last ounce of strength. Before I could bring myself to my feet, I felt the boat being yanked away from underneath. I didn’t have to look to know that it was Captivity – the most unforgiving whirlpool in the ocean. My boat lurched in the whirling waters of Captivity and it seemed as though I would be sucked in. As all these forces became fiercer before my eyes, I wondered if this would ever end.

Captive in society’s rigid understanding of an ideal relationship, people with challenges are often restricted in their choice of partners. We are expected to be with another challenged person, or consider ourselves ‘lucky’ with whoever accepts us. It is difficult to have a happy and secure relationship when society constantly presumes and perpetuates an asymmetrical power dynamic, with the challenged person often being considered inferior to the other.

Sexuality is in itself a complex concept for a young person to understand and come to terms with. Disability brings with it added layers of struggle. A person living with challenges grapples with a number of factors, both internal as well as those imposed by a dogmatic and hostile society. While it is possible to address these individual internal struggles, it is over simplistic to think that this will create a level playing field for all. A real solution is only possible if we understand how a person internalizes the experience of living within a particular society. These experiences of family, friends, community, culture and political systems play a defining role in whether a person is allowed the opportunity to reach their full ability – sexually or otherwise.

While the external forces of Taboo, Conformity, Expectations and Captivity seem like insurmountable challenges, the one thing you and I can do is to actively participate in the creation of an inclusive society that each one of us truly wants to be a part of.

About the authors: 

Nandika is a voluntary team member at the Amrit Foundation of India. Having graduated with a Masters in Human Rights from the London School of Economics, she is currently working in the fields of gender and disability rights.

Ujjwal is a voluntary team member at the Amrit Foundation of India. Having graduated with a Bachelors of Science in Management from the University of Warwick, he is currently interested in the study of marginalized groups particularly the inclusion of sexual minorities.

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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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