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Can We Ever Afford To Trivialise The Human Rights Argument?

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With deaths and infection rates spiralling up each day in different parts of the world, one can hardly ignore the systematic political dysfunctionality and a misplaced human rights debate that has catalysed the entire process. I was speaking to my friend, Micheal, the other day who has been living in a remote beach town in the Mediterranean for the last thirty years.

A strong supporter of the Black Lives Matter rallies over the last one month, he finds himself in a peculiar predicament today. Ever since masks have evolved to become a powerful tool to express dissent for racial inequality, a lot of his colleagues have been wearing them to work demonstrating slogans like “Black Lives Matter” and ” Proud to be Black”.  One part of him wants to join them and humanize the outcry, the other half of him rejects the mask as an instrument which challenges his individual freedom and civil liberties. He is not sure what to do. He feels strongly for both the campaigns, but he is fearful that in his preference of one, he might just be trivialising the other.

Masks have evolved to become a powerful tool to express dissent for racial inequality.||Credits: New Indian Express

More than half of protestors across the world find themselves in Michael’s shoes today, where they are being forced to choose their battles. With George Floyd’s death bringing back the spotlight on a highly-legacied demon, this time around the human rights dispute for people of color seems to have much more potential. Over the years, from social media hashtags to the creation of forums, from protests in streets to rallies outside judicial establishments, from subtle sentences to violent demonstrations, the Black Lives Matter movement has tried all platforms for inclusion in mainstream dialogues. Every time it felt like a change was coming. Every time it felt different. Just like now.

With an additional layer of international support, the campaign does again reflect strong capabilities to shift the status quo, if not eliminate it completely. And the results have already started coming in. I have been reading about how with the switching of narratives around police brutalities, racial profiling, and the overall justice system, victims of erstwhile racial abuse are now feeling more confident. They are now opening up their living room for such conversations with their children, something they would usually push off to only those times when they felt violated.

This is good. They are receiving mass reciprocity to their struggle. For once, the cry for human rights is being heard by the right ears, the sufferings aren’t going unnoticed and society is standing united and strong in both conscience and action.  Therefore, it feels like this time it’s not just a fleeting discussion. A change is brewing.

That being appreciated, there is another side to the fight for human rights where the world finds itself disproportionately divided. One half of the population, those who act with public safety into consideration, are seen respecting the cause of wearing masks. They believe that true freedom can only be achieved when everyone is masked up thus allowing for people to open up economies and also feel safe at the same.

The other half is strongly reckoning masks or face coverings to be symbols of submission, vulnerability, and surprisingly ‘effeminate’. For them, this simple piece of cloth is a political and cultural weapon, emblematizing their definition of personal freedom and human rights. By being policed into masking, they say, you become a conformist and accept the hierarchies of a dictatorial society.  You are no more free.

To the point of the pandemic, their belief is that masks cannot save anyone from the infection, it’s just designed to convey weakness and a false sense of security.

Therefore, in protest, on Twitter they write- ‘I will not be muzzled’.

Both these arguments are running parallelly in the world today. While one side of the street parades with slogans like My skin is not a crime, the other side releases images of torn masks with privileged statements like My body, my choice. The questions, therefore, which comes to my mind are: Are we even fighting the right debate? In prioritising the second, are we somehow trivialising a more critical one? Will Micheal ever be able to join his colleagues in their silent movement? Or will he only find himself shouting slogans on the streets?

Well, my guess here is as good as yours. We might just have to wait for things to play out. Until then, all we can do is go back to reading those innovative hashtags and muse over their hopeful consequences.

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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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