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As Millions Suffer, Today’s World Humanitarian Day Is More Important Than Ever

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By Tarak Bach Baouab

On 19 August 2003, the Canal Hotel housing the United Nations (UN) office in Baghdad (Iraq) was targeted by a large truck-bomb. The attack left 22 dead, including a few UN staff members involved in the provision of humanitarian assistance to Iraqis affected by the aftermath of the March 2003 US-led military invasion. On 27 October 2003, a car-bomb attack targeted the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) office in Baghdad killing 12 people, possibly providing a defining moment for changes in the security management practices of aid agencies and increased perceptions of insecurity for aid workers in areas affected by armed conflict.

helping hand

In 2008, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution on strengthening the coordination of the UN’s emergency assistance, which included the designation of the anniversary of the Canal Hotel attack as World Humanitarian Day. Intendedto recognize humanitarian personnel and those who have lost their lives working for humanitarian causes,” it has come to represent an opportune time to reflect on the dilemmas and challenges related to the security of aid workers. While many debates agitate the microcosm of the humanitarian sector, there is a near-consensus on the worsening of the situation.

This is evident through the suspension or closure of life-saving medical projects or even the departure of humanitarian actors from a given context following critical security incidents such as the killing or abduction of aid workers. In turn, such decisions have devastating effects for populations in need of assistance, leaving pregnant women without access to basic surgical capacity or children going without basic vaccinations. There is an acknowledged risk-taking when providing medical assistance in a conflict area but the direct targeting of aid workers by parties to the conflict means that the requirement of basic acceptance for a neutral and independent “ambulance” inside the conflict zone is not attainable.

The underlying basis for a responsible humanitarian intervention is that it must be led on the basis of guiding principles. The ability to treat those most in need (impartiality) without taking sides in the ongoing conflict (neutrality) while making one’s own decisions on the allocation of resources based on one’s own assessment of needs (independence) is a complex endeavour from its inception. For a process of negotiated humanitarian access to be obtained from a government or an armed actor to be successful, principled humanitarian action must balance out all the interests at stake: its own based on its social mission of saving lives and alleviating suffering as well as those of a conflict’s other stakeholders from local levels (where its projects are implemented) to higher authority levels as required by accountability and transparency criteria enshrined in state-level regulatory frameworks or agreed-to in bilateral agreements.

But this principled view of ‘humanitarianism’ emanating from Western Europe 150 years ago which led to the codification of rules in the conduct of war and the birth of the ICRC is not always felt to be universal. Born somewhat in reaction to the institutionalized ICRC, Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) sought to extend the right to humanitarian assistance above and beyond borders, moved by an ethical imperative to save the lives of people in crisis situations even if it were to collide with the sometimes-competing concept of state sovereignty.

It is in such light for example that its decision to work inside opposition-controlled areas of Syria in 2011-2012 after the continued refusal by Syria’s government to register MSF in Damascus should be understood: not as compromising on neutrality and supporting the rebels but as concluding that the only way to provide medical assistance to the victims of the civil war inside Syria, in cities such as Homs and Aleppo, was to cross its northern borders with its own surgical teams and increase the volume of medical supplies distributed to networks of health facilities and staff across Syria, including in Damascus-controlled areas also affected by the conflict.

Whether in Syria or in an increasing number of sub-state, identity-driven conflicts such as in Myanmar or in South Sudan, the acceptance of humanitarian action, particularly from western-based organizations, is weak. But the principles carried by MSF in conflict settings across different cultures are not meant to fix disputes or impose a preferred political order over the one in place or the one that will eventually emerge from the fighting. Humanitarian assistance should be seen as a band-aid for a conflict’s victims. Guided by the principles that ensure a distinct level of transparency to the warring parties, aid actors need to be judged on their actions rather than on the perception of what they are or whom they represent.

Aid agencies do need to share some of the blame for the current impasse over humanitarian access in conflict areas. A lack of embedding into local societies, previously identified and criticized parochial attitudes towards the beneficiaries of their assistance, and negative feedback on the image they project as opposed to the effectiveness and efficiency of the action they undertake are all areas that require significant improvements. In conflict areas, humanitarian principles should continue to guide the decision-making of aid agencies, away from overly conservative risk management policies and ethically questionable compromises that turn aid actors into accomplices of abuse and exclusion. Humanitarian principles and their consistent use as an ethical compass of reference remain the most honest avenue to reduce human suffering in a chaotic world in which armed conflict is increasingly being conducted without rules or rights.

About the author: Tarak Bach Baouab is a Humanitarian Advisor with Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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