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An Open Letter To Prime Minister From A Woman With Disability

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Sir,

First of all, let me congratulate you for all your novel ideas for running the country and for all the social welfare projects that are being undertaken by your government. Everything in the social, economic and political sector seems to be moving on quite smoothly.

Sir, before moving ahead with the conversation, I would like to introduce myself to you. I am a woman with a disability who would like to talk to you here, on behalf of the people who have a disability in this country.

Let me have the honour of thanking you for the wonderful messages sent by you on the occasion of Women’s Day on various social media sites yesterday. It is much appreciated that you are a firm believer in nari shakti or women power. Sir, you have always stressed on the upliftment of girls and women.

Let me bring to your kind notice that us, women with disabilities, are the most unguarded and unprotected among the vulnerable groups, most jeopardised among the disadvantaged, most invisible among the non-entities. Absolutely neglected, completely denounced. Yet, sir, we too are India’s daughters.

You must be aware of the fact that a family in our society is a fundamental social unit for people without disability, heterosexuals, etc. It is a unit on whose agenda disability doesn’t exist. So, we are the ones, who, on many occasions are not accepted by our own families.

Sometimes, our fetuses are aborted after anomalies are found in them, and sometimes we are abandoned right after we are born. We grow up as an object to be hidden by the world. Many families don’t want to disclose our disabilities. So, most of us remain uncounted, unseen and unheard of. Believers in eugenics want to keep us genderless. Forced sterilisation and unauthorised hysterectomies prevent us from reproducing, so that we may remain ‘harmless’ to the society. We are then discarded as socially ‘useless’.

Human Rights Watch says that women with disabilities are three times as likely to be raped, physically abused or sexually assaulted. Sexual abuse and violence of all kinds are rampant with almost all kinds of disabilities. The practice of  ‘virgin rape‘ was said to be prevalent in some parts of the country. It was believed that if someone with HIV had sex with a virgin; he would be cured. Women with disabilities, who were assumed to be sexually inactive, remained at a higher risk of ‘virgin rape’.

We live a life of contradictions. We are seen as asexual but are raped. Violence against us takes another form when we are prevented from using a wheelchair, cane, respirator, or other assistive devices. We don’t know if our criminal law takes into account the experiences and meeting the needs of women with mental and physical disabilities.

Socially, we are a forgotten tribe whose disabilities become deficits in establishing love relationships. Men do not us find us to be ‘marriage material’ as we may not have an ‘ideal body’ or be a ‘perfect match’ to be identified as a ‘female’ in politically correct terms. However, on the contrary, the same men would be ready to maintain relationships outside marriage. Many times we are duped into false marriages in the name of love.

Even women with disabilities have the right to form relationships and motherhood. So, effective and appropriate measures have to be adopted to combat stereotypes, prejudices and harmful practices and to promote awareness of our capabilities, our shakti (power) and contributions.

Sir, it is very unfortunate that we are a doomed species as we are deemed to fall outside the norm. Despite the fact that we are at a very high risk of depression and emotional exhaustion, nobody seems interested in taking up research work on the nature and extent of our mental illness, the impact of disability bias, sexism and racism, on our emotional well-being.

Sir, it is remarkable to see that our country is developing so fast that we have made a world record in launching 104 satellites in one go. However, you would also be pained to see that there are no accessible washrooms for us even in the ‘smart cities’; we have to be carried like luggage if we want to use the Indian Railways. We can’t get our diagnostic tests done in a country which is getting famous for its medical tourism.

I must congratulate you since our economy has clocked a faster-than-expected growth of 7% in the fiscal third quarter. However, let me remind you, sir, that an increase in GDP does not always show an increase in economic welfare.  Most of us still remain unemployed, underemployed and uneducated, as work for us is regarded as a means of filling time rather than offering a guarantee of independence. Exclusion and violence against girls and women with disabilities carry heavy social and financial consequences. I have a humble suggestion to make. Women with disabilities need to be included into the labour market. They need to have the same chances as persons without any disability in order to avoid living in poverty.

Sir, you have launched so many programmes for women and girls to make them economically secure but not a single one mentions anything about girls with disabilities. Unless development, advancement and empowerment of women and girls with disabilities become a cross-cutting theme across all policies and programmes, I do not think our country will progress in real terms.

With all my due respect to you sir, I would like to ask you if we are real embarrassments for the nation as nobody even wants to turn around and look at us. We are not sure if the Government of India would ever take steps to end abusive practices and inhumane conditions in mental hospitals and residential care institutions where hundreds of us are abandoned. We can live with our physical condition but we are now tired of struggling against the way we are treated.

Last year, when the world was talking about ‘Pledge for Parity’ as the theme for International Women’s Day, there still exists huge health disparities for us in terms of leading health indicators and social determinants of health. For instance, when OB-GYNs are focused on each woman’s entire well-being, what steps are being taken to improve our sexual and reproductive health in a significant way?

Some of the disparities that could have been potentially avoided are:

1. Lack of physicians in rural areas
2. Lack of accessible health facilities
3. Lack of diversity among health care providers
4. Low health literacy and information
5. Lack of insurance
6. Presence of vulnerability
7. Poverty

Sir, we waited for the whole year, but nobody came to pledge for parity for us. Who has thought of bringing us back to the centre from the margins, where we have been pushed to since ages? Has anybody ever thought of just peeping into our lives or considered our lives even worth discussing? Who has even tried to investigate the varied forms of maltreatment we suffer even while living in our natal homes, with our own people, with our own caretakers!

This year’s theme says, ‘Be Bold For Change’. How would we ourselves become bold when social discrimination demoralises us at every step? How would our voices be heard when we keep on struggling with employment bias, unaccommodating and selective health services, lack of accessible transportation, etc?

From one of India’s daughters!

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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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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.

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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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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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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.

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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.

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