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As Trafficking Survivors We Too Wanted Our #MeToo Stories To Be Heard, So We Gave Birth To Utthan

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Utthan was born because a number of us who had suffered a similar kind of suffering came together and decided to lead the fight for a much larger group of women, a fight that all of us had in common with each other. This battle began at a time when we had entered the fray with scanty resources and next to no knowledge of strategy or winning method. Our hearts were burning with a fire. We were fighting for justice – not only our own but our sisters’ too. Determination, sincerity, fervour rippled in the air around us.

All of us had been trafficked for commercial sex work, often by people in our communities. Some of us were rescued, others ran away. We had come back to live at home. Sometimes, it was hard to bear up with the negativity that our neighbours and even our families sent our way, shaming us for having been on sale as a sex object. We had very little opportunity for improving our lives. There were days we wouldn’t feel like stepping out of the house and dealing with the inevitable stigmatizing. It was easier to crawl into a hard shell that nobody could break into. But when we met each other through our social workers and traded stories, we knew, for the first time, that we were not alone. Each of us had felt the same anger and helplessness, the identical feeling of being lost and powerless, the need to channel this sense of disquiet in productive ways.

And thus Utthan was set up, and we have done advocacy work for the rights and rehabilitation of trafficking survivors for the last two years, and counting. We are assertively feminist, and we make efforts to participate in community conversations of social relevance and to have our opinions on public social and political dialogue out in spaces where they can have visibility. As a marginalized group on the way to earning its empowerment through hard struggle, we consider this visibility important.

On this note, as Utthan members, we felt kindered to show our support for this second wave of the MeToo movement that is sweeping the Indian social media sphere. Most of us are only tentative social media users, but we do use smartphones and have become comfortable with WhatsApp and we can feel the world getting smaller at our fingertips. News finds its way to us. We hear about events of assault in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. We hear about farmer suicides. We hear that an American filmmaker has made ugly passes at several actresses he hired to work in his films and that they have named and shamed him on the media.

Other bits of news, not always having to do with a celebrity, keep finding their way into forwarded chain texts. Sometimes, the girl or woman raising a complaint protects her identity, and the identity of the man who harassed or molested her. The revelations do not shock us. We have been through beatings, deprivations of the worst kind, rape. But so have they. They are not alone. We are not alone.

Some girls we read about talk about emotional abuse their partners put them through. We learn about gaslighting and stonewalling. Some of us have experienced both. We didn’t know what these draining, enervating encounters with were called.

We heard that an actress called Tanushree Dutta has made allegations of sexual harassment against a co-star. We already knew the co-star’s name – Nana Patekar, much more famous than the actress who brought charges, and we thought, that’s often the way things are. Those with money and power leverage these stockpiles for the exploitation, sexual and otherwise, of the less affluent and powerful. It has been this way since history has been written down.

We talked over Tanushree’s Dutta’s case and felt the old rage rising in our hearts: hadn’t we been taken advantage of, too? Hadn’t we been degraded and humiliated and battered? Isn’t it the lot of every woman to have to put up with objectifying gazes, rules that confine and constrain, gender roles designed to protect the body that, otherwise, will be violated, intruded upon, used and then discarded.

Tanushree had pluck, some of us said, she had the courage to call her perpetrator out, and we summoned all our goodwill and hoped she would have good luck.

We are hoping for ourselves too, and the girls we work with. We are hoping that tolerance dies a quiet death, and women everywhere rise in splendid anger together.

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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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