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If The Rohingya Are Illegal Immigrants, Then We All Are

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If people’s natural rights are not provided, they take different forms; oftentimes very violent.

Akash Pandey

What if one day you woke up and came to know that your government has revoked your citizenship? And not just yours, but of your whole community (whether regional, ethical, religious, caste or creed-based), and declared you all illegal immigrants? If it declared you illegal, because your ancestors settled in India hundreds or thousands of years back as Aryan invaders? What would you do? Where would you go? Do you think any other country would provide you with citizenship rights? And even if they do, will they be on par with the rights and homely feeling that you enjoy in your native country?

It is a right that has become so ingrained in us that we all take it for granted. What we don’t realize is that all the human or fundamental rights that we enjoy are accorded by the state to its citizens. But what if you are not a citizen of any country – what rights do you have then? This situation or feeling can be termed as being ‘stateless’.

There is a community that is dealing with this situation right now. They are the Rohingya Muslims of the Myanmar.

The Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar are often claimed to be the ‘most persecuted minority in the world’. They are also popularly known as the ‘Boat People’. This is because, since 1982 thousands of Rohingya’s have been fleeing from Myanmar to other neighbouring countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and India, usually via country made fishing boats. They are often stranded in international waters since they are not welcome and are stopped from entering the other nations and forced to return back. This results in high casualties as these people don’t have enough food or water for these long journeys.

The reason for these people fleeing from their homeland and running to other countries for refuge is the 1982 Citizenship Act passed by the Myanmar Government, which doesn’t accord citizenship rights to the minority Rohingya Muslims and identifies them as ‘illegal immigrants’ – ‘Bengali people’ who migrated illegally from Bangladesh to Myanmar during the British colonial rule of India and Myanmar. The 1982 Citizenship law is practically quite similar to the 1948 Citizenship law of Myanmar, but the situation has deteriorated due to Buddhist Extremism and Islamophobia, leading to an even more severe push to send them back to where they ‘belong’ and denial of special permits to work or study.  This denial of citizenship by their homeland and refusal to take them in by other states makes them stateless people with no basic human rights or guarantees.

But the logic used by Myanmar government is flawed because after all aren’t we all immigrants? Modern research has shown that humankind was born either in Africa or in Europe, and from there, we all migrated to different parts of the world. Most of the modern day nation states are made up of migrated demographics from various places. Can this then be the criteria for refusing someone their citizenship rights?

And like I have already said in the above quote – if people are not given their natural and inalienable rights, then their angst, oppression and anger can take various forms. It could be manifested in peaceful forms, like Mahatma Gandhi’s Civil Disobedience and Martin Luther King’s Civil Resistance. Or can be converted into violent forms, like the Russian Revolution or the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany. Well, the same has happened in the case of Rohingyas. Denial of their citizenship rights and other fundamental rights led to the formation of Rakhine Salvation Army. I personally don’t support violence, but what other option do they have – because after all, you can’t talk peace with a deaf government which is carrying out violence on its own people.

In the words of top UN Human Rights official Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the Myanmar Government’s action on Rohingya Muslims is a “textbook example” of genocide. And you just can’t persecute an entire ethnicity for the crimes of a few people. If the security forces are unable to find the real culprits among the civilians, then it’s their failure, not the Rohingya people’s fault. Otherwise, it is a clear-cut case of ‘ethnic cleansing’ by the Myanmar Army, with the government’s support. And what bothers me the most is that there is no civil society outcry or general, popular outrage against the military and the government of Myanmar by Burmese people. But the biggest letdown is that Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and the de-facto leader of Myanmar, is unable to control the violence against the minorities of her country. Her unrepentant attitude towards the atrocities carried out by her armed forces against the Rohingyas is deplorable.

Let us hope that someday the extremist Myanmarese Buddhists will understand the value of peace that Buddhism preaches, and the leadership and government of Myanmar will understand how the good treatment of a nation’s minorities reflects on its democratic values. And as the largest democratic state of the world, it should be our duty to make sure that our neighbour also understands and implements democratic principles and values. Any turmoil in Myanmar can also have a negative impact on India.

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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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