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In January 2012, dozens of women from extremely backward classes (EBC) gathered at a government-run middle school in Kapafora village in Araria, around dusk. An NGO had organised a sterilisation camp, and the women were promised a 600 rupee incentive if they went through with the procedure. When the tubectomy operations began (sealing of the fallopian tubes in women to prevent pregnancy), all basic procedures of the operation were shoved down the bin.

Within two hours, as many as 53 women were operated upon that night by a single surgeon. The operations were performed on the bare benches of the school under a torch light. There was no pre-operative checkup, the medicines were past their expiry date, and the operations were conducted without supervision. In his report, the investigating officer noted how women were lying on the floor “scattered like livestock”.

Why Reproductive Rights

Colin Gonsalves. Source: Twitter

It was in order to prevent such gross human rights violations that lawyer Colin Gonsalves decided to start the Reproductive Rights Initiative (RRI), an initiative solely focussed on working on issues related to reproductive rights under the Human Rights Law Network over a decade ago.

Explaining the motivation to start such an initiative, he says, “It (reproductive rights) is an area of very extreme violation of human rights, which is unrecognised in the country as yet. For example, most of the human rights organisations, the NHRC, and even the courts were unaware of the fact that it is such an extreme violation.”

“Take, for example, sterilisation,” he points out, “Sterilisation of women and then throwing them on the ground in dirty unhygienic conditions is such an extreme thing. Thousands of women are sterilised and yet it was not part of court cases, it was not part of NHRC agenda, it was not part of the human rights organisations agenda. It was one area of darkness where extreme violations took place. That is why we took this up,” he says.

One of the few organisations working at the intersection of law and reproductive rights in the country, RRI actively works towards promoting a rights-based approach to reproductive health care throughout India. It does this work not only through litigation, but also by conducting fact-finding reports to ascertain situation on the ground, providing free legal aid to the poor and organising events and workshops to promote awareness around reproductive rights in the country through as many as 30 units.

One of the major breakthroughs accomplished by the initiative came in 2005 when the Supreme Court for the first time passed guidelines on conducting sterilisation procedures. The guidelines asked for a system of an approved panel of doctors for conducting sterilisation, preparation of uniform copies of the proforma of consent and formation of a quality assurance committee among other things.

“I know that they (the government) don’t take court orders seriously but in the case of women and reproductive rights they take it like a joke,” Gonsalves says. That despite passage of guidelines sterilisations like the one that happened at Araria still continue to happen in India underscores why RRI’s work is so important today.

Sanjai Sharma (who has been working with RRI for the past 10 years) believes every reproductive rights case is important. “Each one is crucial and important because ultimately what happens is if your right to reproductive health is being violated, you end up dying. For us, the most important thing is the right to life and the right to health. If those are being violated, it is an important case,” Sharma told YKA.

Major Impact

Since its formation, RRI has been instrumental in making courts take notice of various violations happening in case of reproductive rights. The 2005 Supreme Court order in the Ramakant Rai petition became one of the first major court orders on mass sterilisation. Another set of guidelines on mass sterilisations were also given in 2016 on RRI’s intervention. “It was in our favour. The court asked for national health policy to be formed as quickly as possible and that burden should not fall on women. It also said that men should also be sterilised and that camp culture should be closed,” says Madhulika Masih, a member who works with RRI.

A significant recognition of reproductive rights also came in another case fought by RRI in 2010 when a Scheduled Caste woman Shanti Devi died while delivering her baby at her home. Devi had gone to many after hospitals, but all demanded high fees for admission, which Devi couldn’t afford. On RRI’s intervention, the Delhi High Court ordered an audit into her death. It was a first of its kind order that recognised that maternal deaths cannot be ignored.

More recently, two abortion cases that made news last year were also fought by the lawyers of RRI. The Supreme Court allowed two women to terminate their pregnancy beyond the 20th week, which is allowed only under the exceptional circumstance of there being a threat to the life of the woman.

Challenges

Despite these groundbreaking cases, activists and lawyers at RRI believe there is a lot of ground to cover when it comes to improving the state of reproductive rights in the country.

Sneha Mukherjee points at abortion laws as one such area. Mukherjee, who argued cases relating to abortion in the Supreme Court last year points out how India still hasn’t updated its abortion laws since the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act (MTP Act) came into effect in 1971.

While the court allowed two women to terminate their pregnancy beyond the 20th week in the case she fought, it didn’t allow another woman, whose child would be born with Down Syndrome, to terminate her pregnancy. RRI is, therefore, challenging the constitutional validity of the section of the MTP Act that prevents such abortions in the Supreme Court in a pending petition. “If I know that the child won’t survive, or that it will suffer, then I should have the right to choose,” Mukherjee says.

Pritisha Borah (left) and Madhulika Masih, HRLN

Pritisha Borah, another member, talks about another area that needs attention – the growing proportion of tubectomies among total sterilisations. “Forceful sterilisation was being done on men since the Indira Gandhi Regime. After there was criticism, the focus shifted from male to female sterilisation. If you see the statistics now, female sterilisation is much higher than male sterilisation,” Borah says. Borah is right. In 1980-81 the percentage of tubectomies to total sterilisations was 78.6. This proportion had steadily risen to 98.1 by 2014-15. It is only recently that courts have started making observations against this.

Sija and Deepak Kumar Singh, lawyer-activists at RRI, point to non-delivery of schemes related to maternal health such as the Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY) and the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana (IGMSY) as another area that needs work. Explaining why monitoring scheme implementation is important, he says, “Bleeding takes place after delivery. If you are anaemic, there is a very high possibility of death due to bleeding,” he says, adding that the latest National Family Health Survey indicates that about 50 percent of women in the reproductive age group are anaemic. Incidentally, this was also pointed out in the Shanti Devi case.

Government apathy, too, can take a toll on those working in the field. Says Borah, “Every day is a long struggle between us and the state. It is a challenge because sometimes you feel very happy and sometimes you feel very low, like nothing is going on.” This is, of course, apart from hurdles that come with working in a patriarchal setup. “If you talk about women’s rights, if you talk about contraceptives, abortions, vagina, these people- the men- they think we are talking in jargon,” she adds.

What do they then think can help in changing the situation of reproductive rights? Masih says that it things could change fast if men too actively start working in the sector. “We want change to happen but currently, it’s just the women who are doing this work. It has to be both ways. Until men too get actively involved, I don’t see major changes happening,” she says.

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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.

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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.”

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.

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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
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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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