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The Next Time You Talk To Your Watchman Or The Boy Polishing Your Shoes, Think Of This

By Gaurav Mehta

Being associated with the field of law I have been nurtured in the belief that the ‘Right to Life’, which has been accorded the place of a Fundamental Right under the Constitution of India, includes a plethora of rights, the foremost being the right to live with dignity. The dignity of an individual even finds a special mention in the Preamble to the Constitution.

But a recent experience put questions in my mind as to whether we treat every individual with the same respect, or if that varies with their professions. The ‘lower’ the profession of a person, lesser would be the amount of respect he commands in our eyes. Is it right to even categorise some professions as ‘lower’?

Student Mahesh Das polishes shoes on a pavement in the eastern Indian city Calcutta June 5. Mahesh supports his family and backs his education by earning 20 to 30 rupees a day which is less than a dollar. An estimated 20 percent of Calcutta's 12 milion people live in dire poverty. JS/DL - RTR4ZDS
For representation only. Image source: Reuters

I was sitting with a friend in a canteen at the Tis Hazari District Court in Delhi when I saw a 12-13-year-old shoe-shiner enter. He came to the table adjacent to ours, at which three advocates were sitting. One of them, who happened to be in his late 30s, gave consent to the boy to polish his shoes. The little boy sat down near his feet, started opening the laces and with much effort took out the advocate’s shoes. After taking off the shoes, the boy got up to take them out of the canteen, perhaps so that he could sit outside, near the stairs and polish them. I thought it was right on his part since this canteen which happens to be on the first floor, meant exclusively for advocates, does not have much space as compared to the one on the ground floor, which is open for all. Seeing him moving out with shoes, the advocate called him and said very rudely, “Oye, yahi baith ke karr! (Oye, sit here only!)”

I was observing all this very closely. It can be anybody’s guess as to what circumstances put a shoe-polish and brush in this little one’s hand instead of a pen. My point is, even if that advocate thought it was OK to get his shoes polished by the little boy, the least he could’ve done was to open the laces and taken the shoes off himself, rather than making the boy do it. Isn’t this basic etiquette? How can one’s conscience allow it? Is the boy, or for that matter, people who polish shoes for a living, not human beings? Aren’t these people entitled to dignity in living, dignity in the profession they choose? Who gave people the right to address them as “Oye”?

Last month, the safai karamcharis in Delhi went on a strike. One of the issues with these sweepers, cleaners, garbage-clearers and drain workers was the ill-treatment and humiliation faced by them. The importance of the role of these safai karamcharis in cleaning up the city can hardly be undermined. One can only imagine what state the city would be in if they didn’t do their jobs. Yet, they execute the most thankless job and also have to put up with ill-treatment.

Our society comprises of a total of individuals engaged in different vocations or professions on the basis of their educational qualifications and experience. There is a constant interaction between all of them at some point or the other. It is virtually impossible to imagine a society comprising exclusively of only doctors, or engineers, or lawyers, etc.

It is time that we discard this idea of superiority and inferiority in work and treat everybody with respect and dignity. Because every profession has a well-defined role and importance.

So the next time when you deal with your car cleaner, or the newspaper vendor, or the watchman of the society, or the boy filling petrol in your car, or the man serving you at a hotel, or the security guard at your office, treat them with dignity. They well deserve it. After all, we all belong to the same race called ‘humanity’!

Note: The views expressed hereinabove are based on my personal experience and certainly not against advocates as a body. Belonging to the same fraternity, I’ve always had immense respect for it. And my purpose is not to generalise things and paint everyone with the same brush. This was just an incident that I felt like sharing with some of my like-minded friends here on this platform.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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