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Did You Know Sex Workers Get Periods Too? Who’s Going To Talk About Their Rights?

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This post is a part of Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management in India. Click here to find out more.

In India, there are over 800,000 sex workers, and when combined with the unofficial figures, these numbers go far higher. Prostitution is regarded to be the oldest profession, yet the social stigma attached to this profession makes the identity of these workers invisible to society. According to Ms Lalitha S.A., the Vice President of Society For Participatory Integrated Development, getting funds is the biggest problem for sex workers because neither NGOs nor CSR groups want to fund for sex workers programme.

A sex worker at Sonagachi. Credits: TRF Multimedia on Flickr.com

There are many brothels operating illegally in major cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. The places are dark and dingy, the life of sex workers are at stake, and they are prohibited from practising their profession within 200 yards from a public place according to The Immoral Traffic (Suppression) Act of 1956. The government estimates that millions of sex workers in India are not only HIV affected but also suffer from various other diseases.

Sex workers are often expected to be in poorer health conditions. Most of them use old and dirty pieces of cloth that are often not appropriately washed during their periods leading to diseases such as urinary tract infections, vaginal infections and rashes that can lead to further complications. Menstrual hygiene management is not prioritized in this sector. With more than 10-15 people crammed in one room sex workers barely have access to proper sunlight and clean environment, further making the hygiene conditions horrible.

According to Samarjit Jana, in 2000, the usage of sanitary napkins among sex workers was 20 per cent, and now more than 85 per cent of them use sanitary napkins. However, the irony was when 12% of GST was imposed on sanitary napkins under the new tax regime. This further made it difficult for the sex workers who already deal with financial issues to buy a decent packet of pads for periods. There is a myth in the society that prostitutes earn a lot, and that is not true.

Sex workers are among those at highest risk of HIV in India. It is a chain of several factors that led to the suppression of voices of sex workers in India. The verbal, mental, physical abuse and sexual violence are linked to higher levels of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and lesser use of condoms.

The problems and challenges faced by the sex workers during the coronavirus pandemic have further deteriorated their lives. There’s no money for food, the stress of paying rent to the landlords and concern to feed the families and kids is the biggest problem. If any individual will try to understand these problems, then it is easily relatable to identify how worst would be the menstrual hygiene management with no money to spend on pads during the periods. No medical claims, police brutality and pressure from landlords have made the lives of sex workers terrible.

Sex workers of Kamathipura have been struggling with doubled rent by landlords, are forced to sleep on streets, no access to soaps, water and basic hygiene have landed them to a phase where they demand dignity and no discrimination due to their profession.

As a report by National Commission for Women (NCW) recognizes, “No woman suffers more discrimination in access to services, whether for health care, fertility regulations or safe abortions as much as women in sex work. However, sex workers are not just women and also include trans folks, men and minor girls abducted.

Free legal aid is enshrined in the Indian constitution. The committee recommended that the state party should ensure free legal services to poor and marginalized and monitor the quality and impact of such services, but access to legal services for sex workers remains a pipe dream. Sex workers are not protected under the normal labour laws.

The National Commission for Women observed that accessing health care is a major concern for sex workers because of the immoral ‘whore image’ it is difficult to get good medical treatment. Other factors such as illiteracy, ignorance and fear of the medical establishment render them open to exploitation and extortion of money and resources.

What is really required is for the government to include these workers who are made invisible by the society to policies related to COVID 19 and reach out to them with support and medical aid. On a positive note, the National Network of Sex Workers (NNSW) comprising of 50,000 female, transgender and male sex workers prepared a list of sex workers in immediate red of help and sent 700 food kits to different parts of the country.

The age-old prejudice against sex workers can be solved by first, accepting them in society and demanding stringent laws against people who are involved in trafficking. Trafficking is a criminal offence and should not be confused with sex work. Features such as poverty and inequality are other reasons for people to enter sex work and indicate inadequate “free choice”. It is important to ensure the participation of sex work organizations in suggesting and amending policies related to legal and health-related relevant services for the lives of sex workers.

Organizing campaigns related to periods and conducting surveys can only work well and hold some meaning if the sex workers actually have full access to pads, menstrual cups, cloth pads or whatever suits them and clean place to wash and change during periods.

 

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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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