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How Can India Make Workplaces Safer For Women?

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The work women are generally engaged in is rendered as unimportant and overlooked in policymaking. Lack of reproductive autonomy and decades of neoliberal macroeconomic policies have “funnelled and segregated women into low wage and low-status job markets” while rendering invisible the incredible burden of women’s unpaid care and domestic work. 

Their service as domestic workers, home-based workers, street vendors, agricultural workers and many others provide essential services which lack social security. The lack of socio-economic protections makes survival in the industry precarious.

Workplace safety is a women’s issue. The informal sector and its certain sub-sectors are highly gendered with a large number of female workers depending on them for their livelihood. According to the ILO, 58% of women globally are employed in the informal economy and in developing countries, the proportion goes up to 92%. Besides, women also contribute to 75% of all unpaid work. 

Currently, there is Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act, 2013, drafted on the lines of Vishakha Guidelines following a PIL filed in 1997. The SC along with Articles 14, 19 and 21 also invoked the Directive Principles, fundamental duties and international conventions like CEDAW (The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women) and the agenda of Beijing Platform for Action (an international convention that India had signed relating to the case) in the process of drawing out the guidelines for dealing with sexual harassment at workplace. 

Addressing of VAW (Violence Against Women) at workplace coincides with the recognition of gendered forms of violence other than sexual assault, i.e. sexual harassment.

The high profile case of 1995 involving IAS officer Rupan Deol Bajaj and IPS officer KPS Gill is said to be the feminist signpost by creating the ground for sexual harassment provisions. 

A senior officer molested Bajaj at an official dinner in front of her colleagues and other government officers. After being unable to pursue the case from Punjab, Bajaj approached the Supreme Court, and the accused was held guilty. It led to otherwise trivialised “eve-teasing” be re-inscribed as “derogation of women’s right to dignity”. 

Before the inception of Vishakha guidelines and the POSH Act in the circumstance of not having any provisions to counter harassment at the workplace, the cases witnessed the practical application of the archaic “outraging of modesty” provision. IPC was the only statutory code that mentioned “modesty”. However, though it forms the crux of sections 354 and 509 of the IPC, the term hasn’t been defined in it.

Several judges, therefore, in the past, have associated workplace harassment with notions of “shame”, “chastity” and “inherent bashfulness of women”. This is where the existing provisions stand out. The earlier perceptions were unidirectionally seen in terms of a women’s chastity and modesty. But the guidelines sought to change the framework to view it as an assault on women’s right to a safe workplace and access to equal opportunity.

A safe working environment where a person can work with dignity is very much synonymous with the right to life and personal liberty as “dignity” and “safety” are essential prerequisites for anyone to live. While the laws and codes pertaining safety of workers have always been present, a gender-specific legal provision addressing violence against women at the workplace is relatively new. 

The essential switch in the perception of laws points us towards the inherent masculinities in the workplace. The way men and women perceive each other in the private spheres, like within their families, is similar to the way they are treated by each other “outside”, like in a workplace. 

Traditionally considered a male bastion, women continue to be seen as “outsiders”. Pay gaps are justified based on men orthodoxically being responsible for the financial needs of the family. This gendered family burden is reinforced at the workplace in the form of a contest between who can work under the circumstance of fewer leaves and longer hours. 

Therefore, workplace violence is not always sexual

sugarcane fields women
The fear of losing out on wage drives Bahujan migrant women to get hysterectomies as a “permanent solution”.

An example of this can be found in the sugarcane fields of Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra where women workers, due to prevailing superstitions against menstruations, end up getting a hysterectomy in order to not lose out on the daily wage.

The fear of losing out on wage drives these Bahujan migrant women to get this medical procedure done as a “permanent solution” for even minor gynaecological issues due to lack of basic awareness, sanitation and healthcare facilities. Women are, therefore, presented as a biologically lesser productive workforce due to their requirement of period and maternity leaves.  

In the education sector, the stop-gap arrangement of the 1990s, the system of contract teachers have been turned into a large-scale ad hoc solution for recruiting teachers in the public school education system. This has happened even though no policy has mentioned hiring teachers on contract. Contractualisation helps employers evade from providing paid leaves to workers, especially women. As a result, an increasing number of women are employed as casual or contract workers and they do not appear on company records.

Since the pandemic hit, many informal workers have been forced to assume unprecedented risks to hold on to their livelihood without appropriate protection from contagion in the form of protective gear or access to healthcare.

Many have faced violence and stigma as alleged carriers of the virus. Others have seen their jobs and incomes disappear overnight, triggering a food crisis and the looming prospect of homelessness.

Women have faced increased GBV (Gender-Based Violence) and exploitation, including through demands for sexual favours in exchange for jobs and even essential goods.

Informal workers are enduring violent circumstances worldwide. CEDAW recommends governments to take effective measures to monitor and improve the working conditions of women in informal and private sectors by ensuring regular labour inspections and social protection coverage. While regulating unions can invite backlash, long due leadership in trade unions can also create a power dynamic favourable to the cause. 

The ILO has called for promoting a transition of women from the informal to the formal economy and extend labour protections and social security coverage, including the planned pension scheme and the universal health insurance system, to women employed in the informal economy.

This year, the 16 Days of Activism Campaign has called for the ratification of ILO Convention-190 by countries which deal with gender-based violence in the world of work. India still has not ratified the convention. It’s fair to believe that C-190 ratification will create an international obligation on India to pay attention to this shadow area.

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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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