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Not Just COVID, The Taboo Surrounding It Is Just As Deadly

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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.
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When India was standing divided between her conflicting views and beliefs on politics, religion, nationalism, economy, Delhi riots, and many such issues, she didn’t know that an invisible enemy was standing at its fragile doorstep. When she had just reached its molten point as a polarised society, she hardly had any idea about this new enemy and how to cope with it.

And then a sudden tremor of shock passed over her, and the people started realizing that if they would have prioritized what is essential rather than fighting over petty things, then the situation would have been different and much better. At the heat of the moment, I also anticipated that this would bring a new revolutionary spirit of unity, humanity, and realization.

I thought people would realize that what is most important for a human race – health, education, and development to tackle such situations rather than false pride surrounding trivial issues.

But to my dismay, what I saw was a new form of narrow mindedness breeding in our society, washing away all hopes of change. It is unfortunate that as a society, we stooped further low to ostracize and taboo people who came under the grip of this global pandemic, which had already dug the mass graves in many countries, including China and Italy, Spain, and the US.

The people failed to understand that they can also be on the other side, sooner or later.

Right from the patients to the doctors, whoever came into the radar of being or getting infected suddenly started realizing that more than a health hazard, it has become an issue of taboo, making them the new untouchables of the society.

Though a couple of times, some stories of marginalizing the COVID- 19 patients had grabbed my attention, I couldn’t understand the gravity of the situation until one of my best friends, Poornima, was diagnosed with Corona. Like Poornima, there are many such incidences that once again exposed the ugly side of our society.

Here is an account of her horrific experiences of how society judged and marginalized her and her family when she needed their support.

The Ugly Blame Game 

Poornima, an employee in the Zila Panchayat office in the central Indian state Chhattisgarh, didn’t have the liberty to work from home. During a mass check-up conducted in her office in June, she and her 17 other colleagues tested positive for Corona. And there started her ordeal.

Within minutes of her diagnosis, she found herself caught amid the ugly blame game. Poornima, who had travelled back from Uttarakhand before resuming her services, was blamed for bringing the virus. While all her positive tested colleagues are from different departments and had hardly contacted her, the ones who came in contact with her had tested negative.

More Than The Disease, The Taboo Is Killing People 

Poornima said that this is why people with symptoms apprehend from going for a test, and in case they do and test positive, then many do not reveal. This is ironic that, on the one hand, it is expected from infected people to intimate the authorities regarding their status while, on the other, they are blamed, when they do so. More than the disease, it is the taboo and the fear of getting ostracised that is killing people.

The New Untouchables

She says at this time when the patients need to be most stress-free to ensure faster recovery, the society is not only showing its back to them but is also not leaving any stone unturned to make them feel as culprits or the new untouchables. Her neighbours continuously called her already stressed parents and asked where their daughter went to catch COVID.

Is Corona a taboo?

Only Those Who Suffer Can Understand 

During these testing times, her family felt ostracized by her neighbours and community, while only friends came forward to help. Her friend Shantanu used to take food for her every day and hand it over to the authorities outside the COVID ward. She couldn’t bear the poor quality food of the government hospital with bare minimal facilities.

She was also asked by her house-help and neighbours to show the COVID report results to check if she had been negative before letting the maid work in both the homes consecutively.

Poornima said, “We don’t have any problem showing the report, but the question is, to how many people will we have to be answerable and why?” She added further by saying only those who suffer can understand how appalling the situation can become for a COVID patient in our society.

The Paradox Of Wanting Doctors Only In Hospitals And Not In Homes?

In another incident, one of our family friends residing in Chennai, Sahil, a doctor, shared his plight of being judged because of his profession. He shared how his neighbours ganged up against him and his family and asked their house-help (common to all homes) to quit working in his home to avoid contacting doctors as they are more prone to infection.

The cases of doctors being expelled from rented apartments, not giving access to the crematorium by the nearby residents, and getting rape or assault threats if they refute from vacating the apartments are numerous. It is so paradoxical of our society to expect doctors to treat in a situation like this but not be a part of it.

Despite our government and Prime Minister’s repeated appeals to treat the COVID patients and Corona warriors with dignity, numerous incidences were reported from all across the country, exposing how the families with COVID infected patients were harassed.

In such a horrifying incident that came to light in July, two flats near Domlur in Bengaluru were sealed with metal sheets by the municipal corporation’s workers after one of the family members tested Corona positive. Only after a national outcry, those barricades were removed following an apology from the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) Commissioner, N Manjunatha Prasad. This is not an isolated case. Innumerable similar incidences happened after this, giving way to many questions and implications.

Are we turning into a society that believes in creating more taboos than solutions? And in a society, as divided as India in between so many castes and creeds, has COVID emerged as a new caste or parameter to judge and stigmatize people?

(All the names of the people mentioned above have been changed to respect their privacy) 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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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