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For Almost 5 Lakh Indians, Using A Public Toilet Means Abuse And Harassment

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WaterAidEditor’s Note: This post is a part of #InDeepShit, by WaterAid India and Youth Ki Awaaz to understand the reality behind the inhumane practise of manual scavenging in India. You can speak up against this form of discrimination and share your views by publishing a story here.

By Prabhu Mallikarjunan: 

Less than a year after the Karnataka government honoured a trans woman with the state’s second highest civilian award, she had to face humiliation at the legislative assembly premises merely because she needed to use the toilet.

Akkai Padmashali, 33, a well-known trans-rights activist, was presented with Rajyotsava award on November 1, 2015, for her endeavours. The state government handpicks the recipients and honours them on the anniversary of Karnataka’s formation. She is the only trans person to be accorded the distinction.

On August 25, she visited Vidhana Soudha, the state’s legislative assembly, to meet the law minister. While waiting, she needed to answer nature’s call.

“As I entered the ladies’ toilet, a woman screamed in horror and told me, ‘You are not supposed to enter here! This is not a place for you,’ referring to my gender. And she shut the toilet door in anger. I was embarrassed and disturbed. Though I did not confront her, I told the lady that as a transwoman, I had every right to use the toilet,” Padmashali told YKA.

Padmashali is one of the founder-members of Ondede, an organisation that aims to create awareness about sexuality, sexual diversity and the third gender. She was recently bestowed with a doctorate by the Indian Virtual University for Peace and Education at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Bangalore.

akkai-padmashali
Akkai Padmashali, Image posted on Facebook

“The incident reflected the poor mentality of people. This is a violation of the rights of the transgender people as accorded by the Supreme Court. Social stigma is beyond limits. It is because of such discrimination that we demand separate toilets for us in public places,” she added, ruing that the government had done nothing to sensitise people about the needs of the transgender community despite honouring her endeavour for the very cause.

The episode of her harassment at the Vidhana Soudha was brought to the notice of the top government officials in the state and she requested action against the transphobic staffer so that such incidents do not repeat.

Deepa Cholan, Director, Department of Women and Child Welfare, Karnataka, told YKA that she had learnt of another incident of this kind from a week ago. She said the department would take cognizance of both the incidents and contemplate action. Going forward, Cholan said the government has prepared a draft policy to allay the struggles of the transgender community. She said the policy would be released soon and the administration would take measures to sensitise the police and the public about the third gender.

While the government assures it is taking steps to make life easier for the transgender people, fact of the matter is that a lot remains to be done. According to the 2011 census, there are 4.88 lakh transgender people across the country. A lack of separate toilet for them in public places means they have to use the toilet meant for the gender they identify with. This often means having to deal with stares, taunts, threats of violence and sniggering.

Health Concerns

For transgender people who have undergone sex-change operation, it is difficult to hold back the urge to urinate for a long time. Like Padmashali, many of the transgender women do not drink water for the fear of having to use public toilets and be subjected to abuse and harassment. The practice often leads to health complications like dehydration, urinary tract infection and kidney infections. The situation is even more complex for female-to-male transgender people.

“For the fear of having to use public toilet and getting stares from people, I have avoided drinking water three-four hours before I travel or when I am about to attend public meetings many a time,” Padmashali said.

According to the US Transgender Survey 2015, nearly one-third of all the transgender people in the US avoid drinking water or eating when heading out so that they do not need to use the restrooms. About 59% of the respondents said they avoided bathrooms in the last year because they feared confrontations in public restrooms, at work, schools and in other places. No such study has been done in India.

Earlier this year in the US, President Barack Obama’s administration enforced a directive that requires public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms according to their gender identity. But about 12 states in the US have now challenged the order in the court, illustrating that transphobia is a problem the world over.

Legal Rights

Discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation or gender identity impairs the right to equality and violates Article 14 of the Constitution of India. In a landmark judgement in 2014, Justice KS Radhakrishnan—while according ‘third gender‘ status to transgender people and recognising their rights—directed the central and state governments to provide them with separate public toilets, among other measures. But not much has changed since then. Till date, Mysore is the only city to have provided a separate toilet to transgender people in a public place (bus stand).

sumathi-murthy
Sumathi Murthy, Image Posted on Facebook

Sumathi Murthy, a member of Alternative Law Forum, a Bangalore-based lawyers’ collective that provides legal services to marginalised groups, told YKA that government programmes in this regard have not yet taken off. She said government people are not even equipped to undertake such programmes as they first need to understand the subject deeply. Murthy said a common toilet for all (gender-neutral toilet) in public places could be a practical solution.

Veena S, the first transgender person to contest the election to Bangalore’s municipality corporation, told YKA where a transgender faced humiliation this time was immaterial, as it happened all the time, everywhere. She stressed on the need to sensitise people so that the third gender is not looked down upon. She said the government could include a chapter on sexual minorities in school syllabus so that the younger generation nurtures acceptance and respects them.

Transgender people have long been denied basic rights – the right to own property, the right to marry, the right to claim a formal identity through a passport or any other government identification. While efforts must be made to extend the benefits of food subsidies, education and employment reservation, and increased healthcare facilities for the transgender community, we must not forget the most basic need for humans, the right of access to sanitation. Ensuring this is as important a part of the Swachh Bharat narrative as any other.

Prabhu Mallikarjunan is a Bangalore based independent reporter and a member of 101Reporters.com. He has worked with Mint, The New Indian Express and The Financial express.

Featured Image Credit: R Barraez D´Lucca/Flickr
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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.

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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.

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.

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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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