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What This Bangladeshi Activist’s Horrific Murder Says About LGBT+ Rights & Justice

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Just last Saturday, a Hindu man, Nikhil Joarder, was hacked to death in the Tangail district of central Bangladesh. Some reports have suggested that his killing may have been linked to a claim, dating back to 2012 when people complained against him for making comments about Prophet Muhammad.

Just days before this, Bangladeshi LGBTQ rights activist Xulhaz Mannan, editor at Bangladesh’s first LGBT magazine Roopbaan, along with Tonoy Mojumdar, a fellow activist, were hacked to death.

It is clear that extremist violence is on the rise in Bangladesh, with at least 16 people killed in a spate of machete attacks and brutal murders in the past three years. The numbers are telling, and it’s clear that an atmosphere of fear and persecution is rising. As The Guardian reports, among the dead are six secular bloggers, two university professors, two foreign workers an Italian priest, and LGBTQ activists who live in a country where homosexuality is criminalized.

Indeed, as things look grim for many, it is important to look at Xulhaz Mannan’s killing in light of a larger narrative of individuals identifying as queer, constantly being pushed to lead lives of hidden identities, and facing very real threats across the world. Even in countries with more progressive laws for LGBTQIA+ identifying individuals, 22 trans women, in particular black and Latinx trans women were murdered in America in 2015. As of 2012, 20% of the homeless in America were from the LGBTQ community. If a country with legalized gay marriage is still so far from progress, and even as I type, currently has state level politicians embroiled in another incident over discriminatory bathroom laws for trans people, then what about Bangladesh, or for that matter even India, where colonial era laws like Section 377 continue to persist?

Bangladesh’s Criminal Penal Code decrees sodomy (and its advocacy) as a crime punishable by the law. Much like India’s own Section 377’s provisions, what happens in practice with a law that isn’t just about prohibiting gay sex per se, the Sodomy Act of Article 377 A has been utilized to generate an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, acting as a deterrent to homosexual people from coming out or seeking legal justice for same sex relationships.

While calls for collective action against Islamists have grown, many are still unsatisfied with the ruling Sheikh Hasina government’s response to growing intolerance and brutality. Today, NGOs such as Boys of Bangladesh strive to build a support system for Bangladesh’s gay community, and raise awareness through workshops, festivals and social gatherings such as picnics. Public health officials and NGOs such as the Bandhu Social Welfare Society have been and should continue to push for sexual health rights which would also encompass protection of and raising both awareness and sensitivity towards sex workers in Bangladesh, which includes a number of homosexual men facing health risks. As photographer Gazi Nafis Ahmed tells The Guardian, “The LGBT scene in Bangladesh is very, very underground. There are essentially two different social groups. The upper/middle classes. They refer to themselves as gay, they have access to the internet, they’re part of the global network of gay communities and have friends all over the world. This group set up an online Yahoo peer-networking group the Boys of Bangladesh (BOB) a few years ago, and help and support each other. And then there is the different social class who don’t refer to themselves as LGBT but as MSM. This is a public health designation which stands for Men Who Have Sex With Men. They are low income – cooks, dancers, rickshaw pullers – and there is huge stigma towards them. My work was with both groups.”

But the onus shouldn’t only be on the NGOs and persecuted persons to prove their humanity. Much like India, Bangladeshi media and press can and should play a role in challenging the status quo and introducing more narratives to represent the LGBTQ community positively in public mindset. Given press censorship and the risk of being killed themselves for voicing support for such a cause, it is of course dangerous. But a discussion needs to be had, and political leadership needs to be accountable to ensure the safety of every Bangladeshi, including the safety to engage and discuss homosexuality in the open. It is also vital to have a more honest discussion with the reality of political Islam and its influence in the daily lives of secular Bangladeshis. Even though Bangladesh’s constitution establishes itself as a secular republic, Islam continues to be the state religion. Following a 1988 petition made to drop Islam as a state religion, the country’s Supreme Court only recently turned down the claim within minutes. Given the fact that the government has yet to show accountability and persecute the killers of earlier attacks on secular bloggers, coupled with the failure to express dissent against an overwhelmingly Islamic religious status quo, extremists have managed to exploit a system of poor governance, Islam’s status and the country’s demographics to further their cause.

It is important to have a conversation, and push for change. Bangladesh’s scenario should also provide impetus for us as Indians to look to sensitize ourselves towards the vulnerabilities that LGBTQ youth in our own country face in their everyday lives. We need to have LGBTQ friendly cells across schools and campuses, a push for security of homeless LGBTQ youth, rising awareness through media and pop culture, and an ability to create an environment where we can challenge homophobia among friends, relatives and elders, for a better, safer and more inclusive society. The onus is on us to prove ourselves worthy of our non-heterosexual friends’ and community’s trust. #LoveWins, after all, but maybe a hashtag is not enough for societies like ours, which despite progress on legalizing transgender identity, still have a long way to go.

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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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