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An Open Letter To Ensure Safety And Protection Of Residents At Shelter Homes

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The disgraceful news of “mass sexual abuse” of minor girls at government-funded and NGO-run shelter homes in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh has shaken the nation and drawn attention once again to the issue of safety and protection of residents in those institutions. We, the members of Utthan Survivors Leaders Council, found the incidents utterly shameful and disgusting.  We are extremely angry about the fact that spaces considered safe for women and children have now become places of abuse and exploitation.  As survivors ourselves we have had experiences of staying in shelter homes, some of us have visited them, and many of us are working with women who have lived in these homes.

Utthan is strongly against the forced institutionalisation of women who are 18 years and above. We have had opportunities to talk to some of the residents in some shelter homes in Maharashtra. The residents, who are survivors of human trafficking, shared that they were kept and treated like prisoners in the shelter homes; their movements were restricted and were under constant surveillance. They also told us that they had very limited interactions with family members and had to wait for years to be united with them. This often leads them to self-harm. We have seen that long-term and forced institutionalisation has adverse effects on the lives of the women and children.

However, even if one needs to be in the shelter home for any length of time, the question that disturbs us is – are these shelter homes really doing what they are supposed to do, in terms of protection and rehabilitation?  When a woman or a girl child is placed in the shelter home, she expects it to provide her safety and security unlike the place from where she has come or has been rescued.  On the contrary, our states are funding homes which are nothing less than brothels if we take into account the two shelter homes in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh that are currently in the news.

Young girls being sexually abused in shelter homes is something we had heard about. However, this revelation really proves that whatever is said about these places is actually true.  Our experiences say that traffickers and brothel managers conduct their business in secrecy and fear because they know that they might get punished if they are caught, but the people who were arrested for the Muzaffarnagar or the Deoria shelter home were doing their business without any fear of retribution or shame. This gives an impression that the owners/managers of the shelter homes enjoy a certain degree of impunity – they probably thought they could get away with the crime – so brutal and gruesome!

We are shocked to hear that the people who were running and managing the shelter homes are the ones who are abusing them and have links with powerful and influential figures having political connections. Since they seem to be hand in gloves in this dirty business, we fail to understand who can then be trusted in this system when it comes to the safety of victims of violence.

From Utthan, we would like to offer some suggestions based on our experiences and learning about how shelter homes could be made safer and better for women and children:

  1. No adult person should be forcibly institutionalised, and kept in shelter homes against their wish in the name of protection. Adults have a right to free mobility and should not be incarcerated for years in the name of protection.
  2. If it is deemed necessary for women and children to temporarily take refuge in a shelter home, then we propose that these homes should not be like jails, they should be made more friendly and open.
  3. We recommend shelter homes inside communities and community-based care inside shelter homes. This would make women and children feel at ease and are also able to heal faster.
  4. There should be a proper mechanism to monitor these homes, which should be done by external agencies who are neutral.
  5. Surveys should be conducted by outsiders in a periodic manner, with private interviews so that the interviewees can share and open up to them. Very similar to the TISS psychologists who did an audit at the Homes.
  6. We in Utthan have the power to rate our Social Workers and the Duty Bearers on a quarterly basis using an app developed for this. We rate them on their responsiveness, and how satisfied we are with the services they provide us. If the residents also get an opportunity to rate their social workers or their attendants like that, it can be an indicator of the functioning of the shelter home.
  7. Link needs to be established between the Police at the destination and the source area, to locate the family of the women and children quickly, so that she does not have to remain in the shelter home for long.
  8. Families of girls/women who are brought to the shelter home should be immediately contacted to send them home, and only girls/women whose family cannot be traced or whose legal proceedings requires them to stay should be kept in the shelter home.
  9. The people who manage these homes should consist of a team that will include survivors who have stayed in shelter homes and have the first-hand experience in it and people who are trained to deal with rescued victims.
  10. The team of people managing shelter home should manage a particular home for a limited period of time and then transferred to other homes.
  11. If it is a women and child shelter home, men should not be included in the management of them, they should be solely managed by women, and the same for men as well.
  12. The residents should form collectives among themselves to support one another and raise their voice against injustice.
  13. It is important that the residents are also empowered inside the homes, they need to be made aware of what to do, who to call in case of emergency.
  14. The responsibility for shelter homes is not just to give them vocational training which is of no use to them once they are out. The focus should also be on building their capacity, teaching them self-defence techniques as well so that they can protect themselves.

From all of the scandals that have broken in the news regarding shelter homes in the past months, we feel extremely angry and saddened. We would like to extend our support to the residents and explore opportunities of working together. We also heard how Ms Maneka Gandhi has asked for social audits of shelter homes around the country. We feel that it is high time and fully support this action of hers.

Utthan is a survivors leaders’ collective. They are a group of young women survivors of trafficking who are engaged in collectively combating trafficking, exploitation and slavery, through policy engagement, media awareness, strategic litigation and research.

If you are a survivor, parent or guardian who wants to seek help for child sexual abuse, or know someone who might, you can dial 1098 for CHILDLINE (a 24-hour national helpline) or email them at dial1098@childlineindia.org.in. You can also call NGO Arpan on their helpline 091-98190-86444, for counselling support.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.”

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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
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