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What Running A Failed Project With Sex Workers Taught Me About Development

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By Anubhav Singh, student of PGP in Development Leadership at ISDM:

It’s been more than two months of learning and unlearning at the Indian School of Development Management now. It has been a journey of realising and exploring about my self and my perspective of a society which has eventually shaped my actions and which has begun to change.

I wish I could have experienced this space before I started working in the social sector. All this while, I was working in the sector without even realising what development meant to me. Maybe I never bothered to think about it, or perhaps, I was reluctant to question myself because I knew I didn’t have the answers. I still don’t have complete answers – but yes, I am comfortable questioning myself, my beliefs and the choices I make. For me, not having answers is a more peaceful space now – as I see it as an opportunity to learn, grow and contribute better.

I still remember the project I was working on as a core team member with four other members and a mentor in one of the organisations that work with female commercial sex workers (referred to as didis in this piece) in one of the red-light districts of the city. The vision was to provide alternate life choices for our didis and help them break free from the shackles of subjugation, and live a life of dignity and respect.

I came up with fancy financial projections in Excel and PowerPoint presentations to sell it to different donors. The idea was compelling, and we also got our initial funding from a donor, which could sustain the project for another year. And we started a project in the catering domain with two didis who signed up to own the project.

We started off well. However, after a few months, the business started to fall drastically, and the didis found it difficult to make profits. It became a money-burning project. Even then, we decided that money was not a concern and we simply wanted our didis to build their skills in entrepreneurship and develop certain key values that would help them to excel in the life choices they made. But we could never decide on the set of values that would be necessary for them to become successful entrepreneurs.

We failed to harness their commitment as role-models. Thus, we could not get more of them to join this movement of change. We had envisioned the project to be ‘owned’ by didis – but all the decisions were made by us and only a few of the meetings included voices from the didis. Soon, it became a model where they were simply employed as salaried employees – and there was very little space for them to actively participate in decision making.

Now when I look back at those decisions, I can clearly see that we missed out on realising our values. Maybe the team itself did not have a coherence in values. We never spoke about our values as a design team. We had assumed that didis would be undergoing value-based training – but there were no clear discussions on what those values would be. In fact, it now sounds strange to me that we agreed to something which would involve the team deciding what values the didis should espouse.

Also, the project lacked a most critical component – an effective manager. Amongst the two different leaders appointed at various points of time, one of them had a different full-time job – so clearly, this was not the top priority. We were all leading it as per the convenience of our so-called ‘expertise’.

Here at ISDM, I am realising that how important it is to root your vision in the values you believe in. No one else can decide for your values except your own self. I now realise that I did not recognise my gender biases when I assumed that ‘managing the kitchen’ was a skill that all women would know, whether they be in the commercial or the domestic sector. How inappropriate was it for me to assume that our didis would be good at cooking and managing the kitchen! Maybe it was just a judgemental assumption I made for my own convenience. I think the picture would have been different had we asked the didis about what they believed – what their dreams were and what they would have wanted in life, if they hadn’t been forced into sex work.

The project was put on hold this year after a mutual decision acknowledging the fact that we weren’t ready to take it forward. It also conceded that the whole ‘kitchen and cooking’ idea needed an overhaul and that the concept itself would have to be re-imagined.

Personally speaking, I have set out on a new journey of learning and exploring of what it means to an be authentic ‘development professional’. Perhaps, a year later, I will be able to make a considerable and value-based contribution to the lives of the didis more significantly by taking a more inclusive, just and equitable approach.


Featured image used for representative purposes only.

Featured image source: Anshuman Poyrekar.08/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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