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How Community Organizing In Delhi Is Empowering Women In Male Dominated Electoral Processes

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By Aprajita Pandey and Maya Bhardwaj:

At Haiyya, we see democracy, representation, participation and leadership as inextricably interconnected. While women in India gained the right to vote in the 1930s, marking them as equal citizens of an Independent Democratic Republic, representation of India’s women has historically excluded their right as active citizens. Women have often been marginalized to the periphery of politics, taking space within the “private” sphere, whereas male dominate the state-driven “public.” We have seen this phenomenon in the small and disconnected legislative response to the Nirbhaya rape case, to disparate laws on acid attacks, to varying laws about gender discrimination in the workplace.

women empowerement

Many challenges to this order have focused on quantitative representation, in terms of number of women in Parliament or other elected offices. Outside formal political institutions, women’s political learning and apprenticeship happen at social and cultural sites like family and community bodies, or in new democratic spaces like women’s networks, associations, self-help groups, and grassroots groups, which often espouse empowerment and leadership development practices. But without organizing women as informed, active, and demanding electoral constituents, these alternate groups risk perpetuating a system that is unresponsive to women. In order to qualitatively “engender” women’s voice in democracy, we have to increase governmental responsiveness to the varied issues of women, and transform this into decision-making power that challenges a masculinist and heteronormative political culture.

Through this lens, Haiyya organizers used the precepts of community organizing to bring women together in Delhi leading up to the State Assembly Elections on our Rise Up Campaign. Our organizers established voting blocs as a way of wielding alternate power, by aggregating women’s voices together and making their votes conditional as a group upon the candidates’ recognition and action on their issues. Thus, our organizers assisted in empowering these women to vote during the elections by using their shared voice in traditionally male-dominated spaces.

As a part of Rise Up, organizers brought women together in these neighborhood-based alternate spaces where women could discuss their shared needs, increase their political awareness, and demand change by their representatives. In these spaces, women discussed issues from access to services to inflation to safety. Recognizing how these views varied across neighbourhoods and socio-economic strata, our organizers wondered: How can we as organizers strike the balance between creating shared identity to challenge power, and artificially creating a narrative that trivializes or polarizes women’s multiple concerns? How can we organize and activate such a vast group?

A feminist position on policies will be established and sustained only when women band together and demand change. Unless we build solidarity on gender inequity in our communities, bringing women’s issues into public spaces is impossible. In our daily work, we must interrogate the assumption that women in power de facto represent women’s interests or defend feminist positions. Do we see our elected women challenging established norms? Do they feel the responsibility to represent the multiple viewpoints of India’s women? With women leaders in contesting positions, we cannot devolve into an essentialist equation between sex and interests that absolves men from acting as allies for women or assume women are one homogenous group.

We must first build a culture of solidarity and awareness, and then translate that culture into demanding responsive leadership and policy-making. In our political context, the “Us” that we are forming must be far-reaching — not only of our social classes, or neighbourhoods and geographies, but of nuanced gendered understanding. In our upcoming campaign on Women’s Safety in Delhi, our organizers will be doing just that — bringing women from a cross-section of Delhi together, imbuing them with leadership skills and access, and working with them to make the apparatuses of the State as well as our peers in society accountable to gender-based injustice. The work will be long, and the challenge will be multi-headed: but only through a two-pronged approach of power with and power to, can we truly democratize politics for women.

Think you can be a part of this multifaceted approach? Can you organize to demand better governance and a safer society for women? Visit here to get involved.

About the author: Aprajita works as a Women’s Safety Campaign Manager with Haiyya in Delhi. Her work and understanding has always been focused towards fighting those power structures with a strong belief that everyone has the strength and potential to liberate themselves. Haiyya inspired her to work with people and locate those sites of silences as well as subversion around every social issue. Her previous work has been on gender based violence, reproductive and sexual rights and women’s political rights and governance. She loves traveling, photography, food and writing. The writer can be contacted at aprajita@haiyya.in

You must be to comment.
  1. Rahul

    If women do not want to and do not have the capability of surviving all the harships of the grassroot politics. and if they do not have the strenght to WORK THEIR WAY UP like every politician then it is NOT the mistake of some mythical “Patriarchy”.

    No one is stopping women. Go and join any political party and become a “Karyakarta”.

    You can not just turn up and demand “reservations” in the Parliment House If you are NOT qualified for it and if you have NOT EARNED YOUR RIGHT to be sitting there.

    1. Ruchi Bindal

      Becoming a “Karyakarta” is not a solution for women who live deep inside India (Villages),which is an integral and also a neglected part of our country.They cannot come up to this level or platform because “Patriarchy” which is so prevalent in our country did not allow them to come out of their houses.So its the high time for them to step up and kick this “Patriarchy” off.
      “EVERY SINGLE PERSON HAS THE RIGHT TO HAVE HEROIC ASSUMPTIONS.”

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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.

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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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