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Most Wastepickers Experience COVID-19 Like This: Marginalised, Jobless

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

I went to my sister’s place,” Rama said. “She told me, ‘I have two kilos of rice left. Let’s just divide it up’.” That’s what they did. Divided up the rice, cooked it with salt and made it last for two days. Now, when I called her up, she was brewing tea leaves for breakfast. “What to do? There’s nothing left,” she sighed.

Rama picks trash on one of Delhi’s largest landfills. In her gali (slum-alley), the kids are all being fed tea for lunch and dinner. “Lal chai-what to do?” Rama’s neighbour, Shanti, told us. What she means is boiled tea without milk and sugar. One of the problems with this, they explain over the course of our various telephonic conversations, is that the tea runs out of colour and flavour. Truth be told, the children of Bhalsawa landfill are drinking boiled water for meals.

These are the same children who excel in science and math—the focus of Chintan’s No Child in Trash Programme here. Two years ago, a child invented a cooler for the summer, made entirely of the trash from the landfill nearby, so his mother wouldn’t sweat so much while cooking his lunch. Today, she can’t sweat, because there’s nothing to cook. A community kitchen that the Chief Minister promised hasn’t yet started. Nobody has seen this scale of a crisis, and they’re struggling to with relief.

Meanwhile, there’s the curfew. The police are not letting anyone out of their homes. It’s the most desolate you’ll ever see this city of 25-million plus. Zoom is the new Chintan office, where dozens of people are collecting donations to create ration kits. A kit will have enough rice, wheat, oil and a few spices for a family of 6 if they eat modestly-enough, but nothing to spare. There’s soap too, and masks. School students, interns, retired folks, former colleagues have all been transferring donations. While one team tracks this, another is getting permissions to step out to distribute the kits. Two colleagues are convincing stores to let them buy in bulk-assuring them they are no hoarders or profiteers.

Wastepickers who offer formal services can hope to work—Chintan’s got them their documents. But, they won’t get to sell the recyclables they collect, leaving them without significant incomes. Those who work at landfills, or operate in dumpsters and other informal spaces, are entirely jobless. They have nothing, not even the money for food, which they buy every few days, as they sell waste. Most Indian wastepickers experience COVID-19 like this: jobless.

Bordering Delhi and Haryana, Kusumpur Pahari has been ravaged by hunger. Located on the border of one of India’s most ancient forests earlier, this slum began asking for a basic human right to survive the pandemic: water. It had none. The government ignored its plea. “How are we supposed to survive this disease? They’re saying wash your hands. But with what?” asked Ram Agya, an anguished father of two.

A twitter campaign by Chintan and Safai Sena resulted in a response by the government: There are hundreds of places to wash hands, use those. Problem was, there was nothing walking distance. “The police are beating us if we go looking for water,” said a despondent Rekha, on a video that the community had made. Eventually, using phones and videos, the story was shared with the Indian Express. And then, after pressure, water reached these folks.

Most wastepickers also experience COVID-19 like this: marginalised. They often live in un-recognised slums (yes, the worst housing is also stratified). This means they need to fight harder to ride out this pandemic. “Here we are, serving all these people all these years, keeping their localities spotless,” says Rokhan, a waste-picker in New Delhi. “Don’t you think we are right in asking for their help now? We also have to keep our children safe.”

He’s been asking people whose waste he collects, to help. Some give him food every day, others some money. Some have told him it’s also hard for them. “I know everyone won’t help us, but I know some people are decent. And some understand that if we don’t show up tomorrow, the disease may become worse for everyone,” Rokhan pointed out. “I’m seeing who is what kind of person. It’ll be clear now.”

Representational image.

Tips To Score High On The ‘Rokhan Test’:

    • Be civil to waste collectors. Tell them you know of their conditions, and you are available to help them in ways they need.
    • Give them dry rations to cook
    • Give them soap
    • Help them wash their hands when they finish their work near your home
    • Give them money-even small amounts help
    • Segregate your waste, compost the wet fraction
    • Hand over dry waste, without sharps
    • If anyone is ill or even quarantined, don’t hand over waste. It can infect. Follow municipal advisories.
    • Talk to your neighbours to do the same.
    • Ask the waste collectors what specific problems they face. Help iron it out.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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
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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