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UN’s HDI 2019: Inequalities Manifest In Multiple Ways, But Do We Know How?

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Inequalities manifest in many ways, but they are not beyond solutions. Our ever-changing world brings with it new kinds of inequalities that we will have to battle, by making sure that all stakeholders have a seat at the table. This was my takeaway from the Roundtable On Intersections of Inequalities organised by the United Nations during the launch of the Human Development Index, 2019.

The roundtable saw prolific personalities working in different fields, including gender and sexuality, caste, economics, media, and more. The report titled ‘Beyond Income, Beyond Averages, Beyond Today: Inequalities In Human Development In The 21st Century’ shows us the uncomfortable truth about our country’s progress, beyond ‘economy’.

India is ranked 129 out of 189 countries according to data collected in 2018, one step up from the 130th position in 2017. But what does this mean for the most marginalised, those whose marginalisation is invisibilised, or yet to happen, due to climate change? The report attempts to build a roadmap for policy-makers to address these questions, or at least, give them a starting point.

The premise of the roundtable was to talk about inequalities that go beyond traditional notions of inequality based on income and averages. UNDP-India Resident Representative Shoko Noda spoke about how “air pollution and the way we are responding (to it) has been a stark reflection of inequality.” She spoke about how the majority of people could not afford air-purifiers or even face masks, a reflection of how inequalities exist in our daily lives.

Averages can often disguise (inequalities), so we have to go beyond averages and unpack the problems,” Noda pointed out. The report also highlights gender inequality, she said.

Noda went on to dissect the meaning behind ‘Today’ in the title of the report and how it stands for technology, and for climate change, and to magnify how these disproportionately affect the marginalised the hardest. Access to the internet, and how many services are made available online, also reflect growing gaps in terms of access. We have only 10 years to go for the SDGs, so we have no time to relax when it comes to addressing inequalities, she said.

In our quest to document inequalities and the ways it disempowers communities, especially in a world that is changing at a fast pace, nuances of the same cannot be missed out. Political cartoonist and activist, Rachita Tyagi spoke about how in our discourse on climate change, technology and inclusion, we cannot ignore intersections of gender, caste, class and more.

Women are at the forefront of bearing the brunt of disasters like climate change, she said. Talking about technology, she said that we also need to look at how it is used to curtail liberties, and how it ends up disempowering women.

It is also important for us to constantly question what we mean by ‘inequalities’ and how new forms of oppression are constantly broadening. The HDI report, as crucial as it is, the panelists opined that this oppression should have found place in the report.

The concept of caste, SC and ST, are missing in the HDR conversation. Measuring the inequalities faced by the Dalit community, especially the educational inequality is of utmost importance,” said Dalit Activist Paul Divakar. “What kinds of inequalities are we looking at?” he asked.

Adding to the general takeaway that forms of inequalities and the ways they manifest were overlooked by the report, Joyita Mondal, the first trans woman to be appointed to a Lok Adalat, pointed out how the report and our discourse on development are still stuck in gender binaries. She spoke about how, in the 2011 Census or any other report, there is no data on access to education by trans people.

The report forgets disability completely,” Nipun Malhotra, a disability rights activist pointed out. Disability in India has been a major issue and has intersections with health, education, and more. Zainab Patel, the Director Inclusion and Diversity, KPMG, also spoke about the need for a more inclusive HDR, with more metrics that are able to account for people from LGBTQ+ communities.

In this vein, Rafiul Alom Rahman, who runs the Queer Muslim Project (TQMP) said that the marginalised cannot just be “an addition” to these conversations. “Our conversation on the LGBTQ community cannot be tokenistic,” he said, and that it is important for “intent to be articulated, and we need to see the utterance of ‘Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Bisexuals’’,” so that it leads to destigmatisation.

I am glad that the conversation on inequality along the lines of intersection is happening,” Rafiul said, as did Vinatoli Yeptho, a spoken-word poet and activist. “The language of the report is empathetic,” she said. “Human development is not just a matter of mathematics. It’s about people. We’ve come a long way in understanding inequalities. Redressing them is of utmost importance – where do we go from here?” said Suraj Kumar, Senior Visiting Fellow at Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies (RGICS).

Inequality in the 21st century is constantly taking up new dimensions, covering accessibility to healthcare, access to new kinds of technology, adapting to climate change.  Communities have been speaking out for a long time, but it’s been falling on deaf ears. The onus should not fall back on them to address inequalities,” said Anshul Tewari, founder of Youth Ki Awaaz, on whether communities speaking up alone can bridge the gap. “There’s a need for a large scale citizens’ movement to hold this dialogue and hold the government accountable,” he said.

Though there are many communication platforms in India, there aren’t enough diverse voices. Representation matters and different voices must be encouraged,” said Arun Sahdeo, Country Coordinator, UNV India. “Poverty is multidimensional and intersectional,” said Jayati Ghosh, a reality we need to reconcile with to bolster our efforts to tackle it. “I think the report recognises how inequality affects in different ways, but there is no way to separate that,” Ghosh opined.

What I like about the report is the survey which talks about the social norms index. At least an attempt has been made to recognise it,” said Alka Narang, a development professional with the UNDP.

The conversation here is mostly about poverty and not inequality. How are we planning to focus on all those factors which contribute to inequality?” said Anjela Taneja, urging us to take the conversation further.

This report recognises the importance of climate change. Our business sectors, livelihood, education will all be affected by climate change and inequality will thus broaden, this is a clear message from the report. In the coming years, we need to see how to tackle the unequal society,” said Arun Sahdeo.

The roundtable discussing the Human Development Report 2019 was a thought-provoking exercise in making us conscious of the need to keep broadening our definitions of ‘inequalities’ and the ways it exists even further. From the climate crisis, the intrusion of technology in our lives, and the political upheavals we are witnesses to, and the new metrics they will require are aspects that need our attention. 

Our rights, our identities, and other intersections, along with income inequality, as encapsulated in the Human Development report, and the aspects we tend to miss out, are crucial for our overall development.

Inequality will go beyond being based only on income for us to be able to gauge the ‘haves‘ and ‘have-nots,‘ and we need to work to actively recognise these factors. Just like our response to the climate crisis needs to factor in intersections of caste, class, gender, disability, for us to imagine an inclusive future, other issues plaguing the world need to include intersections.

Editor’s note: Do you want to know where India stands in the Human Development Index (2019)? You can access the report, released on December 9 (2019), here.

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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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