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Panellists Discuss Challenges Around Gender, Disability, Abortion And Healthcare In India

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By Palak Aggarwal:

The panel on ‘Addressing Young India’s Challenges Around Gender and Health’ presented by United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and United Nations Volunteer (UNV) with Dr Zoya Rizvi, M. Suman, Nidhi Goyal, Jasmine George and Rituparna Chatterjee began with an introduction to all the speakers. The panel was led by Rituparna Chatterjee, who has worked extensively for gender rights, intersectional feminism, the #MeToo movement, Reporters Without Borders, and many other related concerns.

The panel was an all-inclusive, detailed talk with Dr Zoya Rizvi; who works in the Ministry of Health, M. Suman; a transgender activist, Jasmine George; the founder of Hidden Pockets who provide abortion facilities for young people and Nidhi Goyal; disability and gender rights activist and also the founder of Rising Flame. It covered issues from consent, privacy, access, gender, disability, trans bill and many other related issues.

Rituparna Chatterjee On Discrimination In Health Services

The talk began with Rituparna Chatterjee highlighting the major causes of discrimination in health services, which include economic disparity, caste, class, and gender. She spoke about the problems with the recent Trans Bill, like the right to self-identify, and who determines what healthcare facilities we get.

Rituparna Chatterjee said, “It’s only recently the World Health Organisation has said that being a transgender is not a mental disorder. It took us so long to even acknowledge that.” She also highlighted the problem of female genital mutilation, the expensive costs of mental health facilities, and lack of facilities and policies, for Adivasis and Bahujan women.

Nidhi Goyal On Privacy And Access In The Sphere Of Disability

The concepts of consent, privacy and access in the sphere of ability and disability in healthcare were focused on by Nidhi Goyal, who spoke both in English and Hindi, considering the diversity of the audiences. Nidhi focused upon the problems of access, such as ignorant treatment of the disabled, which makes them feel undignified, vulnerable and dependent.

She substantiated her point through an instance of her friends, who were on wheelchairs, and wanted to have a scan. She showed the audience how their treatment by the hospital staff put them in a very vulnerable position, where anyone could touch them, in any way they wanted to, without seeking consent.

The desires and sexuality of disabled people are ignored, and not encouraged, which leads to stereotypes against them. It also goes much deeper than this, because in cases of sexual violence and rapes, doctors and society do not understand the trauma from their point of view.

Thus, it becomes important to sensitise doctors and train them, through proper communication. The talk also highlighted the problems of patriarchal discrimination and the ignorant treatment of doctors, while treating women patients, and disabled patients. The case worsens when doctors treat mentally challenged rape survivors, who are not even considered sane enough to describe their problems. Nidhi left the audience with thoughts and stories to think about and discuss further.

M. Suman On Her Struggles As A Trans Woman

The discussion continued with the struggles of M. Suman, who talked all about her story as a trans-woman. She began with problematising the hierarchy in gender, as first, second and third being male, females and transgenders, respectively.

She highlighted the systematic domination faced by trans people and substantiated it through her own experience, in a hospital, where the medical staff was completely uninformed about issues of gender and sex. A staff member who was medically educated asked Suman about her uterus. Quoting the exact statement- “Tumhara uterus gayab hai(Your uterus is missing), leaving Suman very uncomfortable.

The doctor inappropriately asked Suman, who quotes- “Tumhara kya hai vaha par” which translates to “What do you have there?”. Suman points out the very ignorance of the medical industry. The lack of information about gender and sex, especially in specialists like doctors, is highly problematic. This lack of information also creates stereotypes and discrimination, propagating knowledge gaps.

Suman wrapped up with the problems of the Trans Bill, that violates the rights of trans-people, forcing them to get physical checkups and losing their privacy in the hands of district magistrate officers, who aren’t even specialised and trained in gender and sex education.

Jasmine George On Abortion Laws In India

The talk moved on to Jasmine George, who talked about abortion laws and their situation in India. She highlighted, that unlike most countries in the world, India has facilities for legal abortion, but they are highly problematic, due to the moral judgements accompanying the treatment.

She explained the poor condition of abortion laws in India through her own example; when she went as a young woman of 25 to get an abortion as a single parent. It was then that she was called “illegally pregnant” which made her realise how people in India are still not able to access abortion facilities.

The problem lies with the treatment of doctors, who judge the girls morally for getting an abortion. She explained how people come prepared for judgement and with loads of money to get an abortion. She showed how abortion is actually an emotional, economic, physical and health issue; something that is very personal and not something to judge. Jasmine talked about the role of religion in the moral judgement because as a Catholic, abortion is a sin. However, she totally disrupts the regressive concept.

Jasmine also highlighted the role of men in such cases. She believes that men undergo a lot of social stigma and prejudices when talking about their sexual problems. They are made to feel less ‘man-like’, making them vulnerable and forcing them to take their rage out, sexually.

She ended her talk by emphasising on proper planning, like usage of contraceptives to make sex safer. To summarise her talk, “Something as beautiful as love, sex, relationships which end up in abortion, which is legal in our country could be handled so well, but youth is busy crowdsourcing fund for abortion and busy figuring out who wouldn’t judge them.

Dr Zoya Rizvi On Healthcare In Government Hospitals

Meanwhile, Dr Zoya Rizvi highlighted the work done for accessing healthcare in government hospitals. She said that they are working on making such facilities free. But, the education around sensitivity and communication is still lacking, which should be worked on.

Dr Zoya also highlighted the lack of counsellors and psychiatrists in government hospitals. She said that the number of actually trained counsellors is very less because it is not a very high paying job; it has less increment and has high pressure.

She also focused on the state’s need to prioritise the budget. It is because the budget is more focused on childbirth and infant health, but negligible about adolescent health and youth.

The talk concluded with one major point highlighted by the panellists in their spheres, like immediate awareness sessions for non-binary, sexual and gender awareness by M.Suman, accessible healthcare for disabled and women by Nidhi and an opening up of the maternal fund for abortion, by Jasmine.

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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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