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Can Integrating Trans Community’s Voices Make Sanitation Work Inclusive?

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By Priyanka Samantha Pinto, Associate, Urban Sanitation

Shalini, a 34-year old transwoman, works as a caretaker of a community toilet in Warangal, Telangana. Born as a boy, she faced tremendous resistance and stigma when she chose to change her gender. Shunned by her family and her community, she had to resort to begging at traffic signals to earn the bare minimum.

During that time, she got introduced to a Self-Help Group (SHG) of vulnerable communities formed under DAY-NULM and SBM convergence program. Shalini saw this as an opportunity to get access to earning a dignified livelihood and became a member of the SHG.

The SHG was selected for the operation and maintenance of the community toilets. Today, she earns a sum of ₹16,000 as the caretaker of a community toilet. Her journey towards financial independence was a huge step towards finding her own identity and fighting against injustice and discrimination.

Shalini and several other transgender community members do not begin their day with begging; they work towards maintaining sustainable sanitation. This change would not have been possible without a collaborative effort to promote sanitation-based livelihood options for the marginalized communities.

The Deendayal Antyodya Yojana-National Urban Livelihood Mission (DAY NULM)-Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) convergence has provided occupations to several community members across various stages of the sanitation value chain such as collection and transportation of waste, operations and maintenance of sanitation facilities such as community/public toilets and faecal sludge treatment plants and waste processing units. Several models have also been developed to support state and local governments with engaging transgender communities across the value chain.

However, their journey to empowerment has seen its own set of roadblocks. Being at the bottom of the social and economic ladder, transgender women often face discrimination and are marginalized. Throughout their life, they have been subjected to transphobic harassment, physical violence and sexual abuse due to lack of agency, voice and participation in matters that concern their rights and dignity. Being ostracized for their identity, initially made it difficult to mobilize them into community platforms as they were suspicious of the programme’s intended outcomes.

Therefore, a concerted effort was crucial to earning their trust and developing long-term sustainable solutions to empower them and reverse these injustices. Vulnerable groups like transgender persons are identified and organized into common interest groups by local and state governments. They are selected for various sanitation occupations through MoUs that detail the skilling process, roles and responsibility and remuneration.

Focusing on empowerment for leadership and decision-making, transgender community platforms like SHGs and their federations have been strengthened through sanitation-based livelihoods. This includes skilling of these groups, support in accessing finances, capacity building on business management as well as placement in sanitation sector jobs.

Programmes like DAY-NULM are created on the principles of inclusivity, the guidelines envisaged are developed for all groups in society including transgender persons, persons with disability etc. and more transgender groups have been integrated into the programme as a result.

The National Faecal Sludge and Septage Management (NFSSM) Alliance is also championing the crusade against this social stigma and discrimination of transgender persons with several state and local governments in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Odisha through livelihood opportunities for a meaningful and dignified life.

In Cuttack, Odisha, The Cuttack Municipal Corporation (CMC) selected the ‘Bahucharamata Self Help Group’, a transgender SHG to operate and maintain the Cuttack Septage Treatment Plant earlier this year. The SHG went through several rounds of classroom learning, and on-site training on aspects of faecal sludge and septage management, operations, maintenance, business management, leadership, communication, etc. before the plant was officially handed over to them in June 2020.

“The partnership with CMC is a huge validation of our potential and identity. We have come a long way from begging at odd places to managing a treatment plan,” Sheetal Kinnar, a 33- year old transwoman and member of the SHG. Such interventions have not only aided in creating dignified livelihoods for the community but have also lead to their empowerment and given them the opportunity to raise the collective voice of the community.

In Trichy, under the Citywide Inclusive Sanitation Programme, an intervention aimed at mitigating sanitation problems and providing equitable and inclusive sanitation services at the city level and the Tamil Nadu Urban Sanitation Support Programme, many transgender SHGs have received training on behavioral change for safe sanitation and have now become community trainers.

As community trainers, members of transgender SHGs have played a pivotal role in building community awareness on varied subjects like menstrual hygiene management, regular desludging of septic tanks, etc. Additionally, through the trainings and capacity building, members of transgender SHGs have even developed mechanisms to address the sanitation-related challenges within their community.

In many cities, the transgender persons still don’t have access to separate public and community toilets and continue to face violence and discrimination due to lack of access. The transgender SHGs have played a pivotal role in bridging this gap and raising the collective voice of their community to ensure that their concerns are addressed.

These sanitation-linked livelihoods have certainly helped in raising the profile of this vulnerable community, especially during the on-going COVID-19 pandemic. The nationwide lockdown added additional barriers and difficulties to the existing challenges for the transgender community, especially for those who are dependent on social interaction for their daily earnings like weddings, birth ceremonies, begging and sex work.

While governments at various levels are focusing on creating frameworks and initiatives, improving working conditions and providing social protection and rights for sanitation workers are crucial elements in India’s journey towards an inclusive and sustainable sanitation ecosystem. In this long run, we have the duty of not only breaking stereotypes and changing our perception about transgender sanitation workers but also recognize their invaluable contribution to India’s sanitation makeover.

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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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