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‘Discriminated, Treated As Slaves’: What I Saw After Visiting A Rohingya Camp In Delhi

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As a student who has been trying to understand ground realities in India and state responses to it, visiting a refugee camp at Shaheen Bagh added a lot of meaning. Bringing in an understanding of how it is time we crack the nuts to scrutinise the state of refugees in our vicinities, pitch demands to the state and ask about their involvement in providing asylum to our refugee communities.

Two family members were missing. We didn’t know where to find them. We went to the police to lodge an FIR, faced an identity crisis. They said they wouldn’t help us because we were refugees,” says Usman ji, the community leader.”

The above extract is a narrative by a Rohingya Muslim who migrated away from the violence in Myanmar around 2010, assuming that the new settlement would provide relief. He lives in Shaheen Bagh with 50 other families.

Shaheen Bagh is a neighbourhood in South Delhi, hosting fancy hotels, markets, and demarcating dry acreages of land for 63 Rohingya families to set up tin houses down the lane. The route till the camp is heavily cloaked with big construction sites, making it vulnerable to identification.

The camp is occupied on a private land. The refugees have to pay a monthly rent payment of ₹700 per family to live there. The camp is filthy and consequently, affects the health of the people living in it. The male members of the family (as women are mostly engaged in household chores) earn their living through rag-picking and selling their labour to nearby construction sites (where minimum wage is not guaranteed). As financial instability looms large, the nostalgia of their distant home renders them emotionally wounded, pregnant with problems of securing their means of subsistence.

These families don’t feel optimistic about change because the present generation has no access to education. The children in these families cannot be admitted to schools due to lack of identification. Moreover, both psychological and physical undernourishment are common in the children. The excessive lead content in water, only two-course meals a day, lack of medical facilities and awareness, contributes to their poor health status. This further obstructs the very hope of building better human resources within the community, the reality of which would be under-reflected in the Human Development Index.

Meanwhile, it becomes the most difficult for women. They lose their identities to this masculine space because of the dogma penetrated in the community, which disallows women outside the purview of four walls once they hit puberty. Women hesitate to communicate about menstruation, passing down the social stigma to the present generation adolescent girls, who also suffer from the lack of knowledge, and fail to avail sanitary facilities.

Sanitation and hygiene are considered secondary elements which are justified even when their means of sustenance are doubtful. Therefore, while a male adolescent’s health is fragile, girls suffer an added disadvantage of turning anaemic due to societal taboos.

UNHCR refugee office se jo identification card milne the, woh abhi tak nahi milein hain humko, hamare pass na to aadhar card hai, na koi bank account, aur shayad itni taakat nahi ki Hindustani government se kuch aasha rakh sakhe,” (The refugee cards which we were supposed to get from the UNHCR office haven’t come yet. Neither do we have an aadhar card, bank account and perhaps not enough strength to have some hopes from the Indian government) says Usman ji, the community leader.

Refugees in the camp complain frequently about discrimination, along with policemen treating them as slaves, which is demeaning and renders them prone to emotional breakdowns. No provisions have been made to get United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) cards issued for them, which if received, could averse a lot of complications.

On my visit to the camp, I saw kids humming rhymes along with a mentor in a tiny hut. An organisation called Youth For Peace International has been facilitating groundwork advocacy and Rohingya Refugee Rehabilitation Project under its project name ‘Sangharsha’ (meaning struggle). The team has been working to develop physical, psychological and financial stability through workshops, awareness camps, therapies, and youth mentoring. Weekly classes are scheduled for kids aged between 4 to 12, where volunteers engage kids in learning through lessons and games. They are also partnering with an international research group that would advocate policies at the higher level, possibly in the UN.

The very theory of cosmopolitanism is challenged when the State fails to address their issues. These people in the camp have not received their identification cards from the UNHCR, and sadly, there aren’t many to advocate for their distress. The involvement of the State in this context looks absolutely dissolved. There is no central body that deals with the refugees and no law has been enacted by the government for these refugees. While it is easy to put up words aligned in an article, the depth of the situation cannot be so plainly defined.

The efficacy to being a human and its essence proliferates with the right to accessing basic amenities, civic virtues and living a dignified life. But where will refugees be contextualised in India, especially when it has no uniform code or law enacted for refugees, which frames the larger debate in texts today, with vague answers looming large?

UNHCR says, “Refugees are people fleeing conflict or, persecution. They are defined and protected in international law, and must not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom are at risk.” But it fails to improve the situations in their new settlements that aren’t less than abstracts of restricted freedom.

Image source: Burhaan Kindu/ 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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