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9 Times The Supreme Court Was A Hero For Human Rights

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In India, more has been said about the miscarriage of justice, than of its proper dispensing. In many cases, money, power, vested interests, and even simple prejudice stand in the way of justice. But a truly democratic and constitutional system is still possible in this large, diverse nation of ours, and these important decisions given by the Supreme Court of India, the country’s apex decision making body, prove just that:

1. Constitutional Rights

Back in the ‘70s, there was a long-drawn battle between the judiciary and government over Article 368 of the Constitution, which defined how much power the Parliament had to amend the Constitution itself. It was a time when the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, had begun to make several significant changes to the Constitution. One of the biggest things at stake, then, were the Fundamental Rights of Indian citizens. The case, which was filed by Kesavananda Bharati, resulted in the “basic structure” doctrine, meaning that the Parliament could at no point change the basic structure or essential features of the Constitution. The Supreme Court pretty much saved Indian democracy, by ruling that the Parliament could not have unrestricted and unlimited power to amend the Constitution of India.

2. Child Labour

After conducting a nationwide survey of child labour in factories, activist-lawyer M. C. Mehta filed a writ petition to the Supreme Court in 1986, drawing everyone’s attention to the children working in match-manufacturing units in Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu. It took until 1996, but Mehta’s efforts paid off when a three-judge bench from the apex court ruled that children below the age of 14 could not be employed in hazardous work, and instead must be given free and compulsory education (under Article 45 of the Constitution).

3. Gender-Based Violence And Sexual Harassment

Late Justice J. S. Verma, head of the three-judge committee that drafted the Verma Committee Report.

In 1992, four men from the upper-caste Gujjar community in Rajasthan assaulted a potter named Mohan Lal Prajapat, and when his wife and social worker Bhanwari Devi rushed to his aid, they assaulted and gang-raped her. A women’s rights group called Vishakha then took up her case, and the resulting the Supreme Court judgement is today known as the ‘Vishakha Guidelines’. The judgement also drew on international law, namely the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979) to which India is a signatory. These guidelines laid the foundation of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013, which today mandates the rules and processes that workplaces must follow to ensure safety and dignity to working women.

4. Only Literate Candidates In Panchayat

In December 2015, a two-judge bench ruled in favour of having a minimum education requirement for persons wanting to become members of panchayats, the civic body at the village level. The apex court upheld the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act 2015, which mandates that general category candidates must have passed Class X. For women and Dalit candidates the minimum requirement is Class VIII, and for Dalit women it is Class V. The move has come under criticism by many, including Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, for in effect excluding a massive number of already marginalised people who have not had access to education. However Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar said: “This amendment will enable elected representatives to be more accountable, as they would no longer be able to cite illiteracy as an excuse.” These amendments are likely to change minimum education requirements in other civic bodies as well.

5. Recognising ‘The Third Gender’

Trans women in Mumbai. (Photo by Imtiyaz Shaikh/Anadolu Agency/Contrbibutor)

In April 2014, a two-judge Supreme Court bench delivered the landmark ruling that made the State legally recognise ‘the third gender’. While the term ‘third gender’ is highly problematic, the Supreme Court judgement has set things in motion by not just granting legal status, but asking that the majority of socially, economically and politically deprived trans people be viewed as OBCs and given benefits. The judgement led almost immediately to the first census of trans people, which resulted in the figure 4.9 lakh. It also led to the introduction of Tiruchi Siva’s Private Member’s Bill on transgender rights in the Rajya Sabha, in December of the same year, which brought in right to self-determination, and recognising atrocities against the community. However, the original bill was subsequently watered down in 2016.

6. Getting Tough On Illegal Mining

In may 2014, mining in Odisha had to come to a screeching halt as the Supreme Court ordered a ban on 26 mainstream mines (including those owned by TATA, Aditya Birla, and SAIL). The ban was temporary, and due to non-renewal of licenses for the period after 2007. The order came after a Public Interest Litigation was filed by Common Cause, which in turn drew extensively on a report compiled by the Justice M. B. Shah Commission of Enquiry on illegal iron and manganese ore mining in the state. While the ban was only an interim measure, it did show the Court’s willingness to be firm on the matter. In fact, it was just last year that the Court turned down a plea from the Odisha Mining Corporation, made against the decision of 12 gram sabhas. In this case, the Court left it up to the local civic bodies, allowing them to voice their concerns about environmental damage and other threats to tribal communities in the area.

7. Equal Guardianship Rights For Mothers And Fathers

Under clause (b) of Section 19 of the Guardians and Wards Act, 1890, a woman (married or not) cannot apply for or be granted sole guardianship of her child, when the father is alive and of ‘sound mind’. But in July 2016, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of a Christian woman seeking guardianship of her son. The judgement then led to the amendments in the act, which then allowed unwed, unmarried or separated mothers to legally become the sole guardians of their children or wards, without the court needing the consent of the biological father.

8. Sec 66A Struck Down

Artist-activist Aseem Trivedi being arrested in 2012.

Between 2012 and 2015, a total of 10 people had been arrested under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act. Among these were artist Aseem Trivedi, two young women named Shaheen Dhada and Renu Srinivasan, and Jadavpur University professors Ambikesh Mahapatra and Subrata Sengupta. Why? Because they had shared content online that was interpreted by some as “offensive” towards emblems of power like. For that alone, Section 66A allowed the state to fine or imprison a person for up to three years. Noting that the law had become fodder for attacking citizens online, 21-year-old Shreya Singhal filed a Public Interest Litigation case against Section 66A, in 2012. The case ultimately led to the Supreme Court striking down Section 66A in its entirety. In its ruling, the court said: “It is clear that Section 66A arbitrarily, excessively and disproportionately invades the right of free speech and upsets the balance between such right and the reasonable restrictions that may be imposed on such right.”

9. Securing Reproductive Freedom For Vulnerable Groups

For representation only.

In September last year, the Supreme Court came down hard on the issue of forced sterilisation, ordering all states to put an end to nightmarish sterilisation camps. The judgement came in response to a petition filed by activist Devika Biswas, following the horrific and botched sterilisation of 53 women in Araria, Bihar. The Court viewed the camps as infringing upon the “reproductive freedoms of the most vulnerable groups of society whose economic and social conditions make them easy targets to coercion.” Further, it held the Centre and states responsible for exacerbating the situation. Given the damage already done by such camps, the judgement includes guidelines on compensating survivors.

More recently, the Supreme Court has also taken a firm stand on a number of other issues. For example, the case of State of Madhya Pradesh Vs. Madan Lal, dating back to 2008. The accused raped the complainant when she was just 7-years-old, and then the absurd idea of reaching a compromise through marriage was floated. In a strongly worded statement, the court opposed such kinds of ‘compromises’. Yet another example was a recent hearing in April, when the Supreme Court upheld a woman’s right to choose whom she loves. Both instances are likely to have a positive bearing on pending or future cases of sexual violence.

We are told that no one is above the law – but various threats to some of our most basic rights and freedoms have merged from every quarter, be it the smallest unit of society (the family) right up to the various seats of power that govern our nation. And while threats continue to exist, each of these rulings have certainly laid the foundation for us to keep fighting for dignity, freedom, peace, and equality.

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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 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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