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We Can’t Empower Sex-Trafficking Victims If We Still Stigmatize Them

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By Prerna Trivedi

I was once a girl with a lesser understanding of the problems around the world but now it feels impossible to take my mind off of it. In India, there are more than 800,000 prostitutes and sex workers who are discriminated against, exploited, and deprived of basic needs.  These issues are accentuated during times like the Covid-19 pandemic.

Image Credit: Apne Aap

Ruchira Gupta (pictured above) founded the ‘Apne Aap’ NGO.

Apne Aap’ an NGO founded by Ruchira Gupta, a journalist, and activist with ‘1 Million meals’ has ensured food, medical, and hygiene security consistently even during the times of a pandemic that has affected India worst with its second wave. More than fifty lakh meals have been served to the most vulnerable communities i.e. women and girls who are victims of sex trafficking, underprivileged women in refugee camps, etc. Sounds inspiring, doesn’t it?

Obstacles To One Million Meals

The economic distress and stigma attached to the community of sex workers have made it very difficult for them to survive during the lockdown and the pandemic. They are left with no food, shelter, running water, or personal hygiene for themselves or their children. The community was grateful for the aid provided by ‘Apne Aap’ and ‘1 Million Meals’ but the process of collecting and distributing the meals had many obstacles which delayed and maybe even hindered ‘Apne Aap’ and ‘1 Million Meals’ aid for the most underprivileged and neglected community.

An impact analysis report by student volunteers from Ahmedabad University on the work done by both the NGOs said that food trucks had to go through a lot of hassle related to acquiring passes to reach the villages. How can government intervene here and help? They can make it easier for food trucks to reach through a simple method of checking the trucks and letting them pass through without any policy or pass hassle.

Moreover, creating awareness through different platforms of communication should become our responsibility as citizens without attaching a stigma to it. Might I suggest, using technology to its best, a human chain of volunteers can be created for supplying and distributing resources and funds? Rather than centralizing the distribution of resources like food and sanitary pads, it can be divided into district and city-wide projects with the help and collaboration of other local NGOs.

What Can We Do As Citizens?

What can the general public do to ensure food security for these young vulnerable women? Well, do not hesitate to talk about their struggle and raising a voice for them, encouraging people to donate who are financially capable of it. Normalize helping these women for a better tomorrow.

Underprivileged and vulnerable children can be given training on reaching out to helpline nos. and toll-free lines when they sense danger or need aid. They can be trained about good and bad touches. The lines can get blurry for them as it has been normal for them to see intimate physical touch around them. Underprivileged women who have ration cards make up a very small percentage of the rather larger population who are left without any source of getting food grains.

So, rather the government can redistribute or create new food and hygiene passes for all the underprivileged women including victims of sex- trafficking which would also help keep a record of the beneficiaries. Those people should be made to feel inclusive and accepted and their upliftment can be aimed through vocational training programs.

Their physiological and mental health should also be looked after especially in the time of a pandemic where no income flow has left them in states of distress, sadness, and anxiety.  For that, student volunteers or any volunteers with a psychology background and verified certificate course in counseling without a language barrier can set up a 24×7 helpline through which the beneficiaries can talk thoroughly to without any language barriers.

Sanitary pad companies or factories can help uplift them by providing free menstrual hygiene products and standing for a cause with the product that they sell and factory owners can recruit women for training for specific working hours ensuring economic empowerment of those women without them getting exploited.

All of these recommendations sound like simple answers to complex problems but making simple choices as a simple solution to fill someone’s belly or ensure a little hope sounds fair. Might I suggest we take a step towards understanding their needs and problems? Might I suggest we accept them and uplift them together? Might I suggest just make a simple donation for a noble cause?  Might I suggest and highlight how we can play a part to make their world a little better? Might I suggest a better tomorrow?

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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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