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Urgent: A Look At What Govt. Needs To Do To Protect Rights of Persons With Disabilities

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By Misbah Ul:

A physically disabled man casts his shadow on the ground as he walks inside a tricycle distribution centre by the state government during an event to mark World Disability Day in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad December 3, 2012. REUTERS/Krishnendu Halder (INDIA - Tags: HEALTH ANNIVERSARY SOCIETY) - RTR3B5PH
Image credit: Reuters/Krishnendu Halder.

The twenty-first century witnessed its first human rights treaty that was chiefly concerned with disability in the form of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in the General Assembly in 2007. India was among the primary members which signed and ratified it which makes it mandatory for the Indian state to bring its domestic laws in consonance with the Disability Convention.

The BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which has formed the government at the Centre with a thumping majority, had also promised during its election campaign to protect the rights and interests of the weaker sections of society. This is the appropriate moment for this government to facilitate the enactment of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPD) Bill with necessary amendments. This bill was introduced in the upper house of the parliament two years ago. It was subsequently referred to a standing committee for review due to the demands of activists throughout the country because of its retrograde undertone. It was considered to be against the spirit of UN convention.

An Effective Institutional Framework

The bill proposes to replace the existing office of Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities (CCPD) by a National Commission for Persons with Disabilities (NCPD) at the national level and State Commissions at the state level by replacing the State Commissioners. It provides for a multi-member body with a Chairperson as its head which is somewhat similar to National Commission for Scheduled Castes, National Commission for Scheduled Tribes and National Commission for Women. This is indeed a welcome step in terms of ensuring an effective institutional framework for the most deprived and neglected citizens of the country.

But there are obvious and serious lacunae in this bill which the government needs to address before it gets a green signal on the floor of the parliament. The major contention is that like the existing CCPD, the proposed NCPD may also be headed by an able-bodied person. This means that it is not necessary that a person with disability will the head this institution, which will ironically be dedicated to the empowerment of persons with disabilities.

The UN convention explicitly directs the ratifying members to ensure not only the representation of the interests and voices of disabled persons in the institutions but also to promote the inclusion and representation of disabled persons themselves, especially in those institutions which work to promote their rights and interests. Therefore, given the commitment of India’s Constitution to empower weaker sections in our society and ensuring their adequate representation in public institutions, the National Commission solely dedicated for protecting and promoting the rights and interests of the disabled, must be headed by a competent, capable, independent and impartial person with disability.

In the NCPD, which is proposed to be a multi-member body, the majority of its members must necessarily be disabled persons. To ensure the efficacy of NCPD it should be provided constitutional status. Its decision and findings must be binding on concerned parties and not merely recommendatory. To ensure independence and autonomy it must be detached, in the form of a separate wing, from the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DEP) and the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE).

An Empowered Body

The other key limitation to the proposed NCPD is that it has only recommendatory power. Besides, it also lacks punitive power. It cannot direct anyone to strictly comply with its decisions. This may often result in non-compliance with its decisions and with authorities only complying with the same if and when they wish to respect its moral authority. This may render this watchdog institution toothless which is also the case with the existing office of the Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities.

Marriage With Reality

According to the latest census, 2.21% of Indians are persons with disabilities which is a highly underestimated figure given the fact that almost half of Indian children are chronically malnourished which is one of the dominant reasons for acquiring any disability. India’s social and cultural atmosphere also prevents most families from disclosing any sort of deformity of their members because of the obvious stigma attached to disability. It has also been admitted recently by the Minister for Social Justice & Empowerment that this government will undertake another head count of the disabled soon because of the faulty counting techniques and other factors. Even by conservative estimates, India may have around 10 to 15% of its population which is disabled.

It is also well known that we are still far behind in terms of physical infrastructure as compared to the advanced economies. In this context, the physical accessibility to India’s judiciary is not adequate for disabled citizens. To address this serious accessibility concern for the disabled and providing them their basic right of access to justice, instead of scrapping the existing office of Chief Commissioner, as proposed in the draft bill, it will be in the interest of both the Indian state and its disabled citizens to continue with this institution. It could be dedicated solely for the purpose of grievance redressal by sorting out the issues of inadequate infrastructure and limited staff which have hitherto plagued the normal functioning of this watchdog body.

If India really wants to ensure justice and empower its citizens with disabilities, then it must have a strong and effective institutional framework which can truly provide unhindered democratic and civil rights to its millions of disabled persons.

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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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