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‘Politics’ Of Exclusion: Where Are Leaders With Disabilities In India?

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The authors are students of the Young Researchers for Social Impact (YRSI) Program conducted by Young Leaders for Active Citizenship (YLAC). YRSI identifies promising high schoolers and builds their capacity as critical thinkers and problem solvers to produce thought-provoking solutions to pressing issues that affect our societies today. This article was written as part of the July 2020 edition of the program. The views expressed in this study are solely those of the authors and do not represent the views of YLAC as an organisation.

Representational image.

Before the onset of the Disability Rights Movement in the 1980s, government institutions and the general public did not even consider the rights of disabled people. The movement was able to bring a change in this outlook as the activists looked at a rights-based approach in order to bring change, an approach that aims to empower people to demand human rights from institutions of power.

As a result of domestic campaigns and international lobbying, the 1995 PwD (Persons with Disability) Act was passed. But, the 1995 PwD act majorly focused on medically preventing disability through early detection and treatment and did not emphasize measures that shall empower PwDs.

The scene changed (or it was expected to change) when India signed the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in 2007. Under this convention, it was mandatory for the Indian government to issue legal guidelines to enhance the public and political participation of persons with disabilities and make the society more accessible.

Nine years later, after continuous campaigning, a revised version of the act, RPwD Act, was passed in 2016. This act guaranteed a more accessible and inclusive society for PwDs. It also guaranteed an increase in participation of PwDs in public life through increased reservation in government and educational posts, but it failed to acknowledge the empowerment of PwDs in the political sphere.

It also failed to address social stigma. Society continues to see disabled people as ‘dependent’ and ‘defective’ and this limits people from seeing what persons with disabilities can do, over what they cannot. Professor Anita Ghai puts this disparity as “to be disabled is to be disabled by society.”

Jaipal Reddy played a prominent role in the Andhra Pradesh Separation Movement, a help prominent positions as the oil and petroleum minister, and key roles in other fields.

As a result of societal prejudices, and limited government intervention, persons with disabilities continue to be seen as incapable of being participants in the political sphere.

Although the World Bank estimates the number of PwDs in India to be somewhere between 40 to 80 million, yet according to our findings, till date, there have been only four PwD parliamentarians and six PwD Members of State Assemblies since independence.

Nevertheless, these few elected persons with disabilities have shown excellence in the political arena and stood out not because of their disability but because of their exceptional work.

One can look at Jaipal Reddy, afflicted with polio, he played a prominent role in the Andhra Pradesh Separation Movement, a prominent position as the oil and petroleum minister, and key roles in other fields like urban planning, science and technology, and earth sciences.

Or Sadhan Gupta, who was India’s first blind parliamentarian, considered an exceptional debater and who also founded the national federation for blind people in India.

Along with them, at the local level, many persons with disabilities have outshone. These include inspirations such as Minati Barik, who is the first female wheelchair candidate to ever win an election in Odisha (Kantabania Gram Panchayat) and who has drastically improved the hygiene and sanitation of her village, Bajapur.

Kendrapara: Wheelchair-bound Minati Barik canvassing in Bajapur village in Odisha’s Kendrapara district for the upcoming Panchayat polls on Sunday. PTI Photo.

Or Usha Kiran Naik, who is the General Secretary of the NGO Karnataka Vivkalachethana Sanghatane and is also Chikballapur district president of the Swaraj India party. Naik has been actively working with women with disabilities and people with HIV in Chikballapur in Karnataka.

Alongside these domestic examples, there are noteworthy examples from other countries like Marta Gabriela Michetti Illia (she, a wheelchair user, served as the Vice President of Argentina), Greg Abbott (he, paralyzed below his waist, has been the Governor of Texas), and Carla Qualtrough (she served as the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion of Canada). They have proved that disables people are as capable of being elected and subsequently participating in political life as any able-bodied person.

And yet, very few persons with disabilities participate in politics in India. A significant reason is the lack of funding. Many persons with disabilities are not able to participate in the elections because political parties are unable to spend additional funds on assistive aids that they might require during campaigning. Further, many political parties do not see PwD members as ‘able’ contestants in the first place.

None of the political parties in India has a special cell for members with disabilities, and only three political parties—BJP, INC and CPI (M)—spoke about the concerns of the disabled in their 2019 general election manifesto. No political party seems to consider persons with disabilities as a vote bank.

Another significant reason is the existence of institutional gaps that restrict a person with a disability from complete inclusion in society. Out of the 40-80 million disabled people in India[1], only 14.6 million people are literate. Of those, just a little over 1 million are graduates, and the situation for women is worse than for men. This shows that persons with disabilities are denied access to education. Moreover, a majority of the disabled people residing in rural parts of the country are not aware of their rights or are unable to access them, and this restricts them from being empowered.

We live in a society that blames persons with disabilities for the existence of their disability and fails to see its own shortcomings. Representational image.

One reason for the lack of awareness is that two-thirds of India’s states are yet to notify rules on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act passed in 2016. Other prominent reasons for lack of participation are discrimination at the workplace, inaccessible buildings, stigmatization, persons with disabilities not being able to vote discreetly, inaccessible sources of information such as websites, non-existence of interpreters in national interest speeches, use of slurs, and many more such factors.

We live in a society that blames persons with disabilities for the existence of their disability and fails to see its own shortcomings. It is the need of the hour to take appropriate steps to further inclusion, acceptance, and equality to allow people with disabilities to achieve their potential and to be known what they can, and not what they cannot do.

Authors: Aayra Walia, Ananya Agarwal, Anushka Dhankar and Penpa Dolma

References:

[1] Martand Jha, The Wire, The Disabled as Vote Bank: Is it an oxymoron?

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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.

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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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