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For This ‘Wheelchair Wanderer’, Taj Mahal Is Inaccessible (Yet Her Spirit Is High!)

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By Vinayana Khurana:

“Don’t forget the wheelchair!” I squealed with excitement from the car while waiting for my parents to drop me off to college. It was a cloudy day (as I like it!) and the day of my college trip, and my friends and I did not sleep a wink all night. Only one thought kept recurring in my mind, “How beautiful would The Taj Mahal be? Would I be able to see it in proper light?” And as I lay in my bed thinking about it, the sun rose.

Vinayana at Taj mahal with her friends
Vinayana with her friends, at Taj Mahal.

Ten of us from the same class – Siddhi, Nisha, Sandhya, Suparva, Priya Saklani, Shweta Sharma, Priya Nagar, Vaishnavi, Vidushi and myself, were going and as instructed, we reached half an hour early. In the middle of our chattering, we were told to board the bus. I suddenly grew very attentive and slightly tense; I now needed to request help in folding my wheelchair in a proper way. It was a new experience for my friends, and once they had followed my instructions, carefully, I felt relieved. It was my first year at Vivekananda College in Delhi, and my friends were trying to know each other. But more importantly, they were trying to know me and my disability better (I have cerebral palsy, which impairs the control of some body movements). So, this trip could give me the opportunity to mix around with friends as well as teachers. I felt grateful that my college had not objected to me taking this trip (subconsciously, rejection is something I have come to expect. Perhaps this is why I find myself often apologising to people around me. If a person talks to me with a smile, I feel gratitude).

As the bus started its engine, we roared “Jai Mata Di”, an Indian tradition of proclaiming God’s name before any trip. We played songs and games and it was a delight to know my seniors, who were very helpful as well as encouraging. On reaching, we got to know that we had to take an electronic-rickshaw; cars and buses are not allowed around the Taj Mahal, as this would increase pollution, which is harmful for the marble. So, my teachers planned to put my wheelchair on one rickshaw and get someone to sit along with me to prevent it from falling. It was a little difficult for me to board the rickshaw because of its height, but my friends helped me and we somehow managed. As we started our journey towards the Taj Mahal, my eyes were filled with astonishment by the beauty and grandeur of the Mahal’s structure. As we moved closer, it appeared to be moving towards us. It was as if I had seen the most beautiful thing in the world, and I couldn’t help but just stare.

When we alighted from the rickshaw, one of the girls pushed my wheelchair towards the Mahal. But on reaching the building, we realised that while it had a ramp, it was unusable; the slant was much steeper than usual. As a result, wheelchair kept sliding back each time my friends pushed it forward. Eventually, they got tired, and we took the help of our male teachers who carried me and the wheelchair up the stairs. When we reached the main tomb, I felt relieved. I had made it to the most beautiful monument in the world!

As I wheeled around with our group, the travel guide shared that the Taj Mahal was built in such a way that if ever an earthquake were to occur, the four minars would bend outwards, so as not to  fall on the main tomb. I can never resist sharing this fascinating fact. Yet, strangely, even though we were at possibly, the most astonishing monument on earth, it was I who was the centre of attraction; my lecturers kept quizzing me about my well-being. “Are you hungry or thirsty?” or “Are you feeling tired?”. It made me realise that they really cared, and this gave me a good feeling. My only issue was that I had difficulty with the public toilets; they were neither maintained nor accessible! Many public toilets are slippery and everybody has to risk their life to use one! As for me, to go to the washroom is simply beyond question.

At lunchtime, we discovered that the nearby restaurant had no ramp. Once again my classmates had to help me. And even when we sat down to have our lunch, I found that the level of the table at the restaurant was higher than my wheelchair. This made it very difficult for me to eat my food on my own, and my friends had to feed me.

For me, this was most disheartening – that Agra, one of the major cities for tourism in India, is inaccessible to wheelchair users. I have my dignity, and so do many wheelchair users like me who don’t wish to be a burden on others every time there’s a step in the way.

As an avid wheelchair wanderer, I have also had the chance to observe the attitudes of people, quite closely (though they may not even realise it!). Many behave most strangely around a wheelchair. Some look very uncomfortable. Some simply stare as if they have seen a flying saucer. And many ask silly questions. Some of the silliest are: ‘Is she not able to walk?’ , ‘Is she able to understand me?’ , ‘Can she speak?’ The questions, I noticed, are almost always, never addressed to me. Perhaps, because they think I am one brainless creature! Some people start interrogating me right away about my physical condition. When I say that I have Cerebral Palsy, they think that there’s some problem with the way I think. The most cruel question, however, is this – ‘Why did you bring her here?’ Hello, do I, as a citizen, not have a right to travel in my own country?

No doubt such experiences dampen my spirits for a little while. However, a true traveller, has a seeking spirit; she never stops and never loses hope, so how can I? I am a traveller on a wheelchair and I will continue finding new paths and undiscovered places to visit. And one day, people will become accustomed to seeing me on the road, and all they will see is my boundless passion for travelling.

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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.

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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.

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.”

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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.

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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