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This Man Took His Fight For Women And Trans Rights To The Toilets Of Kolkata

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A number of issues confront us at every turn. Good health and sanitation is one of them. But today we see young people rising to the occasion to take these challenges head on.

Meet Sobhan Mukherjee, a college student who has made his mark as a game changer in two pressing issues: unrestricted access to proper menstrual hygiene and the rights of the transgender community.

Toilets Are A Right, Not A Privilege

Mukherjee is a Geography student, who also runs a poetry magazine called “Kavi Kalam”. It was in this magazine, that Mukherjee first published a self-written poem about transgender people and started sensitising the people around him about the community. But, gradually he realised that the problem was much more gigantic and deep-rooted than he thought.

He had talks with Ranjita Sinha, a member of the transgender welfare board based out of Kolkata, and found out that the primary social problem faced by transgender people was the absence of a separate public toilet.

Every time a transgender person would go to a public toilet, they would have to face the ridicule and provocations of the people around.

Mukherjee further conducted a survey and found out that, on an average, there are two transgender persons in each ward of the city. The government had proposed building separate toilets for transgender people, which would have cost at least 5-6 lakhs per toilet. Mukherjee said, “Building separate toilets in each ward for transgender people is not economically feasible. Moreover, construction of separate toilets for them would have only gone to sideline them from the mainstream. It was at this moment that I thought of using a sticker on any one of the enclosures [cubicles] in public toilets, and reserving them for transgender people.”

Mukherjee later beautifully christened this idea ‘Tridhara’ which signifies the spirit and lifeblood of ‘the third force’. Till now, Tridhara stickers have been put up in 15 public toilets in Kolkata, with the Bandsroni public toilet being the first one in India to have a separate enclosure for transgender people. In the course of this activism, Mukherjee has realised that the “mentality and thought process (of people) need to change radically.” According to him, resistance from the establishment was minimal, but many people around him had tried demotivating him. But, that did not hinder his will to usher in a change, both institutional as well as social, for the better.

Fighting Menstrual Taboos, And How!

After the release of the Akshay Kumar-starrer “Padman” early this year, there was a spurt in columns and articles regarding why it’s high time menstruation was treated with utmost seriousness. We all got to learn about the Good Samaritan from Coimbatore, Arunachalam Muruganantham, who has been working relentlessly to provide rural women with sanitary hygiene products and menstrual care. And like him, our young crusader from Kolkata has also made a big difference.

With the same enthusiasm that fuelled Tridhara, Mukherjee has also successfully installed sanitary napkin vending machines across 30 public toilets in Kolkata. Only, these are not ‘machines’ per se. These are ice cream boxes which are cut open and fitted with pads, in such a way that a person can pick a pad from the outside. It is a treat to the eyes to watch these ice cream boxes operate. Mukherjee said, “Initially, I picked up my study table, took it to the public toilet in my neighbourhood and stacked sanitary napkins on it, for women who needed them, to take them for free. Later, I realised that the napkins were being misused and some women were taking 7-8 napkins at once, so much so that women who actually needed them were not able to avail them at the hour of emergency. So, I started using ice cream boxes and also introduced a nominal price for each napkin.”

Sobhan Mukherjee with one of the newer sanitary naking vending machines in Kolkata. Image Source: Sobhan Mukherjee/Facebook.

Mukherjee has been subjected to cynicism online, and some people have alleged that he has “started a good business.” To this, he said, “I do not have any such intentions. I buy the napkins at ₹2.50 each and give them at ₹2 each. I felt hurt when people started insinuating.” He has christened these ice cream boxes ‘Bandhan’ to signify the bond which a mother and a child share, because menstruating indicates the ability of a woman to create life.

Sobhan Mukherjee does not vie for the limelight. He leads a middle-class life in an old house, in a southern corner of Kolkata, and is extremely friendly and approachable. He has received national awards from New Delhi, the Ananyo Samman from Zee as well as a host of other honours for his commendable work.

According to Mukherjee, this is a fight against the society, and is “an everlasting process.” He continues to work for the betterment of the situation, with the prize money he has received along with his own savings. “My family is my biggest support and inspiration,” said Mukherjee, adding “I hope one day the sun will shine on transgender people and they will be able to live normal lives like any of us. I am just working to help them realise this.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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