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Breaking The Glass Ceiling: Five Female Environmentalists Of India

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By Riya Rana:

Environmentalists are those who work towards the betterment of our environment. These are the people who have lobbied for environment protection when the common man would rather sleep peacefully and care for his own benefit. These people have worked for a cause greater than them. By saving the environment they have saved and impacted us too. Yet how many of them can we actually name? How many female environmentalists do you know who have contributed to India? Though less in number, they are valuable.

Presented is a list of some female Indian environmentalists you shouldn’t forget-

gauradevi1) Gauri Devi– The Chipko (means- ‘to hug’) movement is a topic taught in almost all of the schools. Everyone remembers Sunderlal Bahuguna, its leader. But does anyone know about its female aspect? The Chipko movement also started in 1974 under the leadership of Gauri Devi who organized the women to hug the trees and prevent their cutting. She was the head of the Mahila Mangal Dal, at the Reni village. The day the lumbermen were to cut the trees, Gauri Devi led 27 women to confront them (as the men had been distracted towards Chamoli). She initially tried to talk them out of it, but soon the lumbermen resorted to abusing and threatening. The women thus decided to hug the trees to stop them from being felled. They guarded the trees all night until the lumbermen surrendered and left. News of the movement soon spread to neighbouring villages and people joined in. Same acts were repeated in other parts of Uttarakhand and thus women were seen as providing environmental solutions.

Medha-Patkar2) Medha Patkar– A popular environmentalist, she is known for her active role in the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) – a powerful mass movement against the construction of a large dam on the Narmada River. The proposed Sardar Sarovar Dam is a multi-crore project and would have displaced more than 320,000 people. It was alleged that foreign funds were being used to hamper rehabilitation. Medha Patkar was also concerned that the people living there had no idea about the project. She formed the NBA in 1989, and has been involved since. As a peaceful means to protest, she took up fasting several times. NBA has subsequently created high level awareness. She has also been involved in protesting against corruption along with Anna Hazare.

3) Sunita Narain– She is the Director General of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), and publisher of Down To Earth. She sunita narainbegan her work in the 1980s along with Anil Agarwal, another prominent environmentalist, and co-edited State of India’s environment report. After the loss of tigers in Sariska, Sunita chaired the Tiger Task Force for conservation in 2005. She is a member of the Prime Minister’s Council for Climate Change and National Ganga River Basin Authority (which employ practices to clean the river). In 2005, 2008 and 2009 she was featured on the world’s 100 public intellectuals list, by US journal Foreign Policy. Also, Sunita has been awarded the Padma Shri. Her research interests are global democracy (emphasizing on climate change) and local democracy (forest resource management and water related issues).

Maneka Gandhi4) Maneka Gandhi– She was wife of the famous (now deceased) Indian politician, Sanjay Gandhi. But Maneka Gandhi is known for reasons different from above. She is an animal rights leader as well as an environmentalist. In 1994, she founded People for Animals, the largest organisation for animals welfare in India. She believed in ahimsa and the fact that India was in need of a movement to stop the cruel treatment meted out to animals. So she anchored a TV program “Heads and Tails” and authored a book under the same title. She now chairs the Jury of International Energy Globe Foundation which annually awards the best environmental innovations of the year. For her revolutionary work among animals, she went on to receive some of the highest awards in the world.

5) Vandana Shiva– She is a Delhi based environmentalist and eco feminist. A Gandhi follower, she is well Vandana Shivaknown for her proletarian efforts to protect forests, organize women’s networks, and conserve local biodiversity. A physicist and philosopher of science, she has authored books such as Monocultures of the Mind, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development, Biopiracy and Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis. In 2003, she was identified as an environmental ‘hero’ by the Time Magazine. She has founded and advised various organizations. Vandana Shiva is the director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resource Policy in Dehra Dun. She was awarded the 1993 Right Livelihood Award, considered parallel to the Nobel Prize. Navdanya, a national movement to protect the diversity of living resources, was created in 1991. Since its 20 years of existence, more than 2000 varieties of rice have been conserved and 34 seed banks established in 13 states nationwide.

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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