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In Sangli, Love And Partnership In The Lives Of Three Couples With Disabilities

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By Srinidhi Raghavan:

Sarika, 20, would prefer that her husband talk to her after he gets home from work in the evening. She says as much, complaining about his tendency to text his friends on Whatsapp instead. But Sagar, 26, retorts that he needs to relax after a long day at work. The couple live together in the village of Valva in the Sangli district of Maharashtra, where Sagar works as a manual labourer.

The two met the way scores of Indian couples do — their parents decided it was time for them to get married, and looked for matches. There would be nothing unusual about this, except that Sarika and Sagar both live with hearing and speech impairment in a country where people with disabilities are largely excluded from conversations about marriage.

The marriage market is ruthlessly transactional — it deals with markers such as caste and class, and the presence of a disability makes it, like so many other things, inaccessible. The stigma is so widespread that the government has even launched a scheme incentivising marrying someone with a disability.

When marriage does take place, it can take the form of mass swayamvars or proposals that problematically match only people with disabilities with each other.

Sarika, wearing a green and gold outfit, and Sagar, dressed in a pink shirt, sit beside each other on the floor of their home, smiling. We see brick walls in the background.
Sarika, wearing a green and gold outfit, and Sagar, dressed in a pink shirt, sit beside each other on the floor of their home, smiling. We see brick walls in the background.

Sarika and Sagar have been married for two years. Sarika confesses that she took some time to grow fond of Sagar. Her initial impression of him was marred by the skin colour bias that is widespread throughout India. “He is a little darker than I would like,” she says. “But he works hard and is a kind man,” she is quick to add. Sagar, on the other hand, says he liked Sarika instantly. “She was a simple girl who wore no jewellery. There was something about her that I knew was right.”

He describes their romance in a lot of detail. ‘She was hard to please. Initially, it was very difficult to convince her to come on long rides or eat bhelpuri with me. She always worried about money and what my mother would say. I used to tell my mother that we were going to the nearby Ganesh pandal, (but I’d) take her far away instead.’ He didn’t mind lying to his mother if it brought him and Sarika closer together, he says.

Sarika says they have been trying to conceive, but are having some difficulty. Sagar shakes his head, and says that they’re in no hurry.

Around 20 kilometres away, in Nandre village, Nilofer, 25, and Sharif, 26, who are both hearing and speech impaired, have a different story to share. “I had met five men before Sharif. Many of them could speak and hear. I feared someone who spoke and heard would eventually leave me for someone else. So I kept looking till I found Sharif,” she says.

Sharif says he was in love with another woman long before he met Nilofer. Her family forced her to marry someone else. “My first love and I grew up together. She couldn’t hear or speak either. We walked to school and returned together,” he says. Sharif gestures a broken heart and says he had to let her go when she asked her parents if she could marry him. Her parents were not willing to negotiate on the status of the family their daughter would marry into.

Sharif is from a modest background and didn’t have a big house. “The house you see now is new. We recently built it. Before this, Sharif had only a small house,” Nilofer says, encouraging Sharif to reveal more details. They struggled to build a bigger house together, managing only after pooling funds from Sharif’s earnings, and contributions from both his father and brother.

Sharif and Nilofer were both fortunate to have access to schools that cater to students with hearing and speech impairment. They have both studied till Class 10 and often use handwritten notes to talk to each other. “When we fight, we always use sign language. But I like to write and talk to her. I even leave her (love) notes sometimes,” Sharif says, coyly.

Sharif and Nilofer sit crosslegged on the floor of their home, looking directly at the camera with smiles on their faces. Their daughter, a young child, sits between them.
Sharif and Nilofer sit crosslegged on the floor of their home, looking directly at the camera with smiles on their faces. Their daughter, a young child, sits between them.

In a couple of months, he wants to buy her a new phone so they can communicate without any restrictions. Technology has made it possible for couples with visual and hearing impairments to communicate with each other across distance.

When Nilofer was pregnant and staying at her mother’s, their communication was monitored and facilitated by her parents. But when she gets her own phone, they will be able to speak freely either via text messages or through video calling, which they both are comfortable with. “She will message me when lunch is ready and I can come home from work to eat with her,” he says, glancing at her.

Sharif is a trained artist; he paints pictures and the letters of the alphabet on school walls. Their house is decorated with his artwork and her trophies from her days as an athlete. “I take videos and pictures of my work in the schools so she can see them,” he says. He feels that he is happy in the larger house as it gives their child, who is three years old, enough room to play. Both of them are looking forward to their child going to an English medium school nearby.

Imran, 26, works in a dairy near his village Bendre, which is also nearby. Imran, Sharif and Sagar are close and often spend a lot of time texting each other. When Imran met with an accident, his wife Aisha, 22, says Sagar was the first person to show up.

Imran was adamant that he wanted a partner who couldn’t speak or hear. His mother says he saw several women who could speak and hear but Imran threatened to never return from the dairy if he was forced to marry one of them.

“I knew someone who could speak and hear wouldn’t understand me. She would agree at first and later be unhappy. But when I met Aisha I knew she would keep me happy. She has such a lovely smile,” Imran says.

A black and white photograph of Aisha and Imran looking into the distance together.
A black and white photograph of Aisha and Imran looking into the distance together.

Aisha, who had seen three men before Imran, agrees with Imran. “One of them had a disability in his leg and the other didn’t have an ear; I was hoping to meet someone who was also hearing and speech impaired so we would relate (to each other) better. When I met Imran, I knew (I wanted to marry him) for sure. He was good-looking and sweet. He was educated like me. I thought we would be able to understand one another,” Aisha says.

Imran and Aisha communicate via text messages when he is away at work. “I sometimes send him messages. I remember when we were trying to conceive, I sent him a message to tell him we had failed. He came home early that day,” Aisha adds.

Imran and Aisha have a four-month-old baby together. When they agreed to marry, Aisha says she spent the weeks prior to the wedding knitting things for their new home. She made a case for a mirror, a wall hanging and even something for their future child to play with.

Aside from infrastructure and accessibility issues, people with disabilities all over India must deal with being infantilised and stigmatised all their lives.

Depending on their location and context, they can either be stereotyped as hypersexual or asexual. Women with disabilities are further marginalised, since they must contend with both patriarchy and ableism.

In this scenario, these couples have broken away from assumptions about the lives of people with disabilities and have charted their own paths towards each other.

In a world that seeks to rob them of agency, they have forged relationships and possibilities that are rich with agency.


Srinidhi Raghavan is a feminist who works on women’s and child rights. She is an introvert, a lover of poetry and sometimes, a writer.

This post was originally published on Skin Stories.

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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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