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The Plight Of Sex Workers During Periods: What Can Be Done?

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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.

Sex workers are one of the most marginalised sections of our society. They are subject to atrocities and often forced into this profession either by anti-social elements of society, fraud or unfortunate circumstances. Leading a harsh life, periods only add to their suffering. Most of them believe that it is a curse from God that makes them impure and dirty.

How Do Sex Workers Manage Their Periods?

Salma (name changed) is a sex worker in Delhi. Upon asking her about her periods, she said, Hum kapda lgate hei. Ek NGO wali ma’am ne bataya tha ki geela kapda lgana sahi nahi hein. Lekin jaha hum rehte hein, waha dhoop aur hawa nhi hoti ( I use cloth during my periods. An NGO volunteer told me that using damp cloth is unhealthy, but there is no sunlight or air where we live).”

The women are forced to use dirty cloth to manage their periods. With lack of access to clean toilets with water and soap, they have poor vaginal hygiene. Sanitary pads is a luxury for them. The use of moist cloth and continuous work over this only worsens their menstrual health. Sex workers do not earn much and are are exploited by their brothel owners and clients. 

Representational image.

On asking about sanitary pads, Salma said, “Wo bahot mehnga hota hei. Mere pass doctor ke pass jane ke paise nhi hei. Main kaha se laaogi (Sanitary pads are expensive. I don’t even have enough money to visit a doctor, how will I be able to buy the pads)?”

In addition to social and economic  exploitation, sex workers are marginalised by the law as well. The State fails to provide them with basic human rights. They are rendered voiceless and the government does not consider them while formulating any scheme, not even as a citizen! 

For instance, Sultana requested to include sex workers in the survey conducted before building toilets under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. She said, “Society treats us as an outcast. When we talk about menstruation or hygiene, people think it is a sex worker, your opinions do not matter.”

The Plight Of Sex Workers’ Children

The children of sex workers, born in brothels, are disadvantaged due to limited access to the outside world.  In a webinar, Mr KM Pathi pointed out that local school authorities deny admission to children of sex workers. If at all they get admitted, they are bullied and eventually have to leave school. As a result, not only do they remain as uneducated as their their mothers, they mostly end up doing the same job.

Poor Awareness Among Sex Workers Regarding Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM)

Ignorance about menstrual health management exacerbates their condition. Two of Dr Geeta’s (name changed) patients (both sex workers) got severe vaginal infection. While one used wet cloth, the other was using sanitary pads. On inquiring about how she as able to use pads, Haseena (name changed) said, NGO walo ne bola kapda kharab hota hei aur pad de diya. Maine teen din pad use kiya toh aise ho gya (Volunteers from an NGO advised me against using cloth. They gave me a packet of sanitary pads and advised me to use it. After using it for three days, I got the infection). She did not know how frequently to change a pad. She used a single pad for three days and washed it and reused it again. This led to a severe vaginal infection. 

A majority of the sex workers have to work during their periods, too. They are not offered any choice. Some of them use a sponge or cotton to stop the flow. If that does not help, they ask the client to engage in anal sex only. However, this does not help them deal with the pain of periods. “Sponge and cotton are not good options. They are risky and unhygienic,” said Dr Geeta. While many take pills to stop their periods, others opt for removing their uterus for permanent relief. Some of them do not work during their periods. However, given their financial conditions, a week of unpaid vacation pinches them. 

Projects And Campaigns To Raise Awareness On MHM Among Sex Workers

Most of the NGOs and social workers working with sex workers focus on imparting knowledge and awareness about HIV and AIDS. They have been successful in creating awareness. Sex workers are particular about condoms now. However, there are significantly fewer NGOs that are involved in imparting awareness on MHM.

One such initiative is #ProjectFreePeriod by Stayfree and DDB Mudra. They use no-work period days to provide vocational training to commercial sex workers. Though most menstruators see periods as a burden, many sex workers await them. They get time for themselves; they go to market with their children and rest. They are trained with skills such as haircut, shaping eyebrows, candle making etc., which will help them earn a livelihood in the longer run.

Though MHM in sex trade seems a far-fetched dream, efforts are being made by private companies, NGOs and individuals to provide them with Menstrual Hygiene Management and a better life altogether.

Note: The author is a part of the current batch of the #PeriodParGyan Writer’s Training Program

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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.

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.

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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.”

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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