Ashif Shaikh (born 18 October 1982) is a social entrepreneur and activist from India and founder-director of the community and survivor focused non-profit organisation Jan Sahas. He is also the founder and current national convener of Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan (National Campaign for Dignity) for the eradication of the practice of manual scavenging. Through Jan Sahas, he has launched campaigns to end sexual violence against women and children, forced labour practices, caste based commercial sexual exploitation of children, trafficking and manual scavenging in India.
In the last two decades, Ashif Shaikh and his team at Jan Sahas have been supporting 16,268 survivors of rape and sexual violence in gaining access to justice and rehabilitation. Additionally, his efforts have been towards prevention of caste-based commercial sexual exploitation and along with his team, he has prevented 5,400 young girls from entering into this caste-based exploitation. He has also liberated 6,800 women from bonded labour and 44,000 people from the inhumane practice of manual scavenging. To end the silence around sexual violence and the culture of victim shaming and blaming in society, he organised the Dignity March, a 10,000 kilometer national march, which was led by 25,000 survivors of rape and their family members across 200 districts of 24 States/UTs in India. The march started in Mumbai on 20 December 2018 and culminated in Delhi on 22 February 2019. During the Dignity March, 10 million citizens were mobilised on the issue of sexual violence against women and children.
Ashif was born in Dewas, Madhya Pradesh and completed his postgraduate education in Political Science from Vikram University, Ujjain. In the year 1999, along with a few friends, he formed a student union called “Sahasi Ekta Group” whose aim was to ensure human rights of students from the most excluded communities, liberate children from labour, provide education, and increase participation of students in social development. The group would gather early in the morning and discuss issues that they wanted to work on.
Ashif took varied efforts towards educating children from marginalised communities including Dalits and Adivasis. He started night schools for children in Anand Nagar and Gajragear slums in Dewas, with support from the Rotary Club. He got a fellowship from a Mumbai based organisation YUVA (Youth for Voluntary Action), to develop a cadre-based system for Dalit empowerment across communities. During the fellowship period he worked with Dalit youth on eradication of discrimination and social exclusion. These youth in turn have formed groups and associations to work on social change issues.
Under the fellowship of Center for Education and Documentation, Mumbai, he worked on the documentation of struggles undertaken by the Dalit community in the Malwa region and the Kabir Bhajan Mandalis movement.
On 13 December 1999, a child labourer along with two adult labourers died in a firecracker factory accident at Ujjain. Of the 19 workers in the factory, 7 were children. Ashif and a group of youth activists raised this issue in order to compensate the dependents of the workers. “The prevention of child labour exploitation” was addressed to the government to implement a scheme under the National Child Labour Eradication Program (NCPL). The Government launched NCLP in the Ujjain district. After this incident, efforts were undertaken to identify and address child labour in the district. As an effect of this, around 1400 children were identified and successfully released from exploitative and hazardous workplaces and 5400 out-of-school children were mainstreamed into formal education.
Ashif understands that a larger number of organisations are needed to meet specific and specialised needs and he has helped create several organisations all over India to begin and improve their work on fighting caste-based discrimination and sexual violence. The nature of this support includes ensuring legal compliance, management structures, program management and fundraising.
Ashif soon realised that a regular and strategic approach would be required to empower marginalised and socially excluded communities. As a result, Ashif along with his activist friends formed Jan Sahas in the year 2000 with a staff strength of 12 volunteers to promote and protect social transformation. Over the years, Jan Sahas has emerged as one of the leading organisations transformative change for the most excluded social groups in India. Today, almost two decades later, it has grown to a formidable team of over 600 staff and 4800 volunteers based out of 8000 villages and towns. Jan Sahas works intensively in 55 districts in India across Rajasthan, Bihar, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi-NCR and Uttar Pradesh. Through its network of collaborating organisations Jan Sahas has a presence in the states of Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Pondicherry and Jharkhand.
In 2012 Jan Sahas under Ashif’s leadership began intensive work on eliminating caste-based commercial exploitation of minor girls and has developed unique strategies to work within very closed patriarchal caste networks to enable girls to liberate themselves from this caste-based sexual slavery. Till March 2019, Jan Sahas has prevented 6800 young girls from entering the vicious system of caste-based commercial sexual exploitation.
In the year 2020, due to COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, several migrant workers in India have lost their livelihoods or were stuck in places a thousand kilometers away from their house. As a response, in April 2020 Jan Sahas team initiated a rapid assessment survey of migrant workers in India to understand the situation. Based on the findings team initiated COVID Relief Response with the support of thousands of individuals across India and more than 30 philanthropic partners and developmental organisation. As a result in 100 days the team was able to reach out to 10,40,000 individuals from the migrant communities, 1,237 survivors of sexual violence, 12,480 frontline health workers and state actors in 19 states across India. Similarly, in 2021 the second wave of COVID-19 affected the nation, and the fresh lockdown was implemented to control the spread of the virus. These situations aggravated the conditions for vulnerable families. From May 2021 Jan Sahas team initiated relief activity for the second wave and in four months more than 5 lakh individuals from vulnerable sections of the society received emergency support of dry ration kits, safety kits and medical assistance.
In October 2020, just after the first wave of COVID-19 Jan Sahas initiated the Migrants Resilience Collaborative (MRC) to focus on the long-term economic recovery of migrant families. This is a grassroots-led multi-stakeholder collaborative of nonprofit, philanthropic, and private sector organisations focused on ensuring safety, security, and mobility for vulnerable migrant families across India. So far the collaborative has a strong presence in 88 districts of 12 states across India. The objective is to support 10 million workers and their families in 100 districts and cities in the next 5 years. The collaborative will be India’s largest non-governmental initiative dedicated to migrant workers and their families.
Rashtriya Garima Abhiyaan
In the year 2000, Ashif had started working with women who carried, cleaned and disposed of human excreta manually under extremely cruel conditions in villages of Madhya Pradesh. It took about a year of discussions and organising them to overcome the deep sense of impurity and inferiority they had internalized.On 30 November 2012, Ashif Shaikh, Social Activist Swami Agnivesh, Shivraj Chauhan (Madhya PradeshChief Minister), Jairam Ramesh (Minister of Rural Development) and the community members flagged off the “Maila Mukti Yatra” from Bhopal
By the year 2006, Ashif and his team had gained enough experience on the issue of manual scavenging and thus Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan was formed, which was a membership-based organisation of women who had liberated themselves from manual scavenging. These women became role models for other Dalit women to break the silence and burn the excreta collection baskets they were traditionally supposed to carry on their heads or waists. Ashif and his team supported the women to overcome and fight the backlash that the women faced from upper caste communities. They came out in public to demand from the government a stringent policy for the elimination of the practice and for a dignified process of rehabilitation.
Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan used a positive transformation approach to empower manual scavengers, village by village, to take collective action, burn their cane baskets, demolish dry latrines and stand united in opposition to caste-based exploitation. On 30 November 2012, a Nationwide March for Total Eradication of Inhuman Slavery of Manual Scavenging “Maila Mukti Yatra” was organised from Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh). After marching for two months and 10,000 kilometres, across 18 states and 200 districts, involving 10,000 liberated women and 50,000 manual scavengers, the National People’s March for Eradication of Manual Scavenging reached Delhi on 21 January 2013. Releasing the “Delhi Declaration for Eradication of Manual Scavenging,” they demanded that India enforce laws prohibiting the practice nationwide. Ashif was also part of a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) filed in the Supreme Court for abolition and rehabilitation of all manual scavengers across India. In 2013 the government of India finally announced a new law – The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation, 2013.
Ashif and his team has been working to end sexual violence against women and children (SVWC) for many years using strategies that have evolved on the basis of the understanding of ground realities in various regions. At first, he along with support from Jan Sahas, offered survivors legal support in their struggle for justice. But soon they realised that the nature of challenges that survivors faced due to SVWC cannot be slotted into a singular event. These may not necessarily occur within a discrete time frame. He understood that they need to diversify support to survivors to help them to deal with the long-term trauma, stigma, ostracism, and loss of dignity, shelter, livelihoods and, perhaps, even education that may occur in the aftermath of SVWC.
As a result, Ashif organised, the first national forum of survivors of rape, sexual violence and trafficking in August 2017 at Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh) under the banner of Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan. The objective of this forum was to provide survivors and their family members a platform to voice their challenges and experiences. This marked the beginning of the creation of a sustainable national-level network of survivors.
Motivated by the commitment of the survivors and armed with the slogan of “Shame to Support” a mass movement was initiated. As a result, on 20 December 2018 in Mumbai, under the leadership of Ashif and support from several NGOs including Jan Sahas, ‘Dignity March to end sexual violence against women and children’ was organised. A 10,000 kilometer national march was led by 25,000 survivors of rape and their family members across 200 districts of 24 States/UTs in India. Through their powerful speeches, street theatre, songs and slogans, public rallies and press conferences, Ashif and the survivors stood side-by-side demanding that victim shaming ends and society moves forward to support the survivors and discourage the perpetrators. After two months the march culminated in Delhi on 22 February 2019. Dignity March mobilised 10 million citizens to speak up, condemn the act of sexual violence and shift the blame to perpetrators, collectively holding the state actors accountable for ensuring justice to survivors.
Lawyers Initiative Forum(LIF)
Ashif was a key member in the formation of the Lawyers Initiative Forum, which is a unique platform established by practicing lawyers who come from socially excluded communities including Dalit, Tribal, Minority and women lawyers in north and central Indian states. These lawyers are majorly practicing in lower courts. The forum evolved from the Centre for Social Justice and Empowerment, a program run by a network of six organisations working on strengthening the criminal justice system in India. The forum has 1,522 practicing lawyers as members across seven states and they are supporting survivors for accessing justice and towards strengthening the criminal justice system. Ashif is working towards strengthening national and international (United Nations) policies and laws through advocacy.