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Why Sexual Rights Are Human Rights For People With Disabilities

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“Radha (name changed) is asymptomatic, has a speech impairment, and attends computer classes. She communicated to a social worker in the transit care home, of a mutual attraction that was forged with another man in class. They consider themselves as a couple and meet often in other places (beach, tea shops). She sought information on safe sex, while we also made her aware of various nuances of consent, and mutual satisfaction.”

This is a story that Lakshmi Ravikanth from The Banyan, a mental health NGO in Chennai, shared with us for our newly-released working paper ‘Sexuality and Disability in the Indian Context, 2018’.

What is the need for such a paper? The reality is that sexuality – a term that encompasses ‘sex, gender identities and roles, sexual orientation, eroticism, pleasure, intimacy and reproduction’ – is as much a core aspect and concern in the lives of people with disabilities as it is in people without. Sexuality is not seen as an ‘important enough concern’ for people with disabilities when there are other ‘pressing’ concerns such as education, employment or accessibility. While these are important, no doubt, sexuality is so intertwined in our everyday lives and identities that it is impossible to remove its traces: women with disabilities are far less likely to be out and about compared to men, for instance, and this affects their education and employment prospects.

Radha in the above story was lucky that she had access to someone who could give her non-judgmental and accurate information related to sexuality, rather than dismissing her concerns. Unfortunately, for most of the millions of people in India with disabilities, this is far from reality.

People with disabilities are unfairly placed at either end of a dichotomy when it comes to sexuality. Merry Baruah from Action for Autism says,  “Interestingly, often it is more the parents and professionals who need to be guided: there is a perception that individuals with disabilities are ‘over-sexed’ and can pose a ‘danger’ to others! On the other hand, they might view the person as a sexless individual with no sexual needs.” The result of such assumptions is that people with disabilities are considered as unable to make decisions for themselves and are disconnected from sexuality and their own sexual selves.

TARSHI’s latest working paper explores these intersections between sexuality and disability and the socio-economic-political environment related to these two topics. It is an update of the first working paper on this topic, which was released in 2010. The working paper is full of rich anecdotes and experiences shared by activists, researchers and organisations working on disability, and with people with disabilities, their families and their caregivers.

In the eight years since the first working paper, we have seen an encouraging increase in the conversation around this topic. There are new laws, such as the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 and the Mental Healthcare Act 2017. Although far from perfect, these laws have made a beginning in incorporating sexuality-related aspects for people with disabilities.

Films and discussions on online portals are bringing out strong connections between sexuality and disability. Nidhi Goyal, activist, trainer and researcher working in the field of disability rights and gender justice, gives an example: “As a film, “Margarita With A Straw” was significant in opening up/pushing conversations on sexuality and disability. It directly challenged the hierarchy of needs that is assumed for people with disabilities which leads to focus on one aspect at the expense of another, unlike in the case of persons without disabilities.”

Society is slowly warming up to the idea that services need to be inclusive of people with disabilities. Nipun Malhotra, a disability activist and self-advocate, got online restaurant listing company Zomato to list restaurants that are wheelchair and disabled friendly. Inclov, which describes itself as ‘the world’s first matchmaking app focusing on people with disability, and with health disorders to find love’, is accessible to persons across diverse impairments, as well as for persons without disabilities. As mentioned on their website, Inclov also organises offline opportunities for meeting, an initiative called Social Spaces, ‘to bring people with and without disability to come and meet in-person.’

While we appreciate the positive aspects, we also need to recognise the work that needs to be done. For one, comprehensive sexuality education is often ignored. Nidhi Goyal, who conducts workshops on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights for people with disabilities, says, “There is a huge gap in knowledge about bodies, sexuality etc. across age groups of people with disabilities. So for our workshops, we not only reach out to special schools but also disability rights organisations. This is the easiest way to access persons with disabilities, in an environment that is accessible to them, and the environment they trust –particularly for girls/women with disabilities. But many disability rights organisations act as gatekeepers to information as well. There is a strict policing on the topics that we can cover – so sometimes they want us to cover menstruation and hygiene but not the reproductive process; in others, they are keen on HIV information but not on body literacy.”

By highlighting personal experiences that reflect the wonderful work that is happening, as well as the gaps that need to be plugged, this working paper is a useful resource for research and advocacy by people working on disability-related issues. It can be read by parents, caregivers and service providers in say, health and education, who are working with people with disabilities. It provides relevant information and ideas for organisations working on sexuality or disability, and institutes of care.

Sexuality is an integral part of the lives of people with disabilities, and denying this connection is denying a basic human right of people with disabilities. We hope this paper contributes to a growing awareness around this topic.

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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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