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Think Life’s Easy For A Journalist Or Panchayat Head? Nope. Not When You’re ‘Just A Woman’

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By Khabar Lahariya

KL Logo 2 (1)Editor’s Note: As part of Youth Ki Awaaz and Khabar Lahariya‘s collaboration, we bring to you this story from the hinterlands of the country’s largest state – Uttar Pradesh. Fighting the notion that they ‘belong in the kitchen’, women in Bundelkhand share the prejudice, discrimination and misogyny they have to face every time they step out of their homes to work.

“Are you married? Why don’t you make yourself up a little? You must be bathing, even putting on clothes everyday – so how much longer will it take to do a little make-up? I detest women who don’t dress up a little, take care of the way they look,” says the Station Officer in the Chilla police station, Tindwari block, Banda district, Uttar Pradesh. He’s talking to a reporter. She’s come into the station to investigate a rape in the area. The line of questioning obviously led him to inquire about her personal beautification habits. It’s a common detour.

The world outside the home isn’t right for women – we’ve all heard this line; especially those of us who are prowling around ‘outside’, in spaces and professions which are predominantly male. Here are some stories of women in rural Bundelkhand who negotiate this space, jostling men and the gendered reality of public life as they go about their work.

Women have a right to democratic spaces and positions – this has been the basis for positive discrimination and reservation in India. And women have come into public positions, for instance, in the lowest tiers of governance – the panchayat. But along with the constitutional reservation for those on the margins of the social order, and specifically that provision for women, came a new social position, with all the powers of the elected role: the ‘pradhan pati’ or husband of the elected panchayat leader. An elected leader of a panchayat in Ramnagar block of Chitrakoot district relates her own journey into ‘power’. “One night, all of sudden, I was told, ‘You need to come to ask for votes in the neighbouring village. You’re standing for election this year, for the post of Pradhan.’ The next day I was off, hands folded, to ask people for their vote. I won, and became the Pradhan. Well-wishers congratulated my husband on my victory. He did all the work in the panchayat that was expected of the Pradhan. Others in the village would tell me, you take care of the home, your children – this is the work of women. One day, I summoned up the courage to say that I would accompany him. After many altercations and taunts, I started attending the panchayat meetings. But the officials and other panchayat members only address my husband. Other pradhan patis make fun of me – ‘the home, not these positions of power, gives women their beauty.’ They say to my husband, ‘Why do you bring your woman here? It’s better for women to stay close to the ground, and not attempt to reach for the sky.’ I keep thinking, why don’t officials question the right of the pradhan pati to be present at panchayat meetings?”

The journeys of women who travel for work are never easy. One woman, from Gadhva village in Mau block of Chitrakoot, who travels 15 kilometres everyday for her computer class, speaks about her everyday experiences, “There are hardly any women in the buses I take. Some man’s hand on my waist, or another’s head falling on my shoulder is a regular occurrence. I don’t quite understand it though, because I’ve never found my hand resting on a fellow traveller’s waist, nor felt so tired that my head falls against his shoulder. One day, it crossed the limit. It was dark by the time I was returning home, and I got a ride back with a boy from my village, who had a motorcycle. The whole village erupted. People complained to my father that I would ruin the young girls and boys of the village. I often think, who gives the collective right to every person – from her family, to her neighbours, to any stranger she meets on the roads she travels – to watch over, or raise questions on a woman’s life?”

“You roam around all day, in the burning sun – it’s not right for women to be roaming around this way. I’ll give you a job right here, with a pay of 10,000 rupees a month!” the Inspector at the police post in Baberu block of Banda commented with concern, and an accompanying sneer. When the reporter he was addressing said that in fact, she had come to get some information on a story, the same Inspector asked her to return later in the evening, alone, and “all your questions will be answered…” When the reporter objected to this, the only effect it had was to replace the sneer with big-bellied hoots of laughter. The reporter got the information she needed from another official present in the station, and left.

For women who come to the courts, expecting justice, the experience is even harder to stomach. Recently, Vanangana, a group working on violence against women and human rights, took up the case of a 13 or 14-year old girl who was gang raped in Bijnor district of Uttar Pradesh. The girl would repeatedly return from the court without presenting her testimony, traumatised each time by the crowd of (male) lawyers who confronted her. One member of the team working on the case said, “The fourth time she made the trip to the court, we went with her, and the moment we entered we were faced by the four boys accused in the case, their 6 lawyers, as well as numerous other lawyers who apparently had nothing else to do. We presented the testimony, in whatever state we could. When we raised this issue with the Magistrate present, he had nothing to say. But this is the case with most cases of rape presented in court: when the survivor gives her testimony, all the lawyers and other officials present will assemble like it is a public performance.”

In the trains that run from the remote forested areas of Chitrakoot, towards Banda district, women with massive bundles of wood on their heads are a familiar sight. Long before dawn, these women collect wood from nearby forests and carry it to the markets of bustling Banda town to sell. A member of Vanangana, who has worked for decades with women in this area told us about travelling with these women a few years ago, “I boarded the train from Chitrakoot station. There were many women carrying bundles of wood on their heads; one caught my eye, she seemed like she was 14 or 15 years old. A man was harassing her, for some time. When he was getting off the train, he pressed tightly against the girl’s chest, and bit her cheek. This wasn’t some isolated, lonely place – it was in a packed compartment of a local train. The girl was traumatised, but when we said we should go to the police, she responded, ‘Madam, this is an everyday thing for me. The police will say that we entrap men on purpose; our clothes draw men to us.’ The girl was dressed, as were all the women carrying wood, in a dhoti folded high, and her sari pallu tied around her waist. In incidents like this, the police often say that women invite unwanted attention. I’ve witnessed this myself many times.”

It becomes clearer then, why, in states like Uttar Pradesh, the participation of women in the workforce is so low. A report published by the International Labour Organisation in 2013, found that despite the Indian economy growing at a rapid pace, the participation of women in the workforce was in fact declining. The report cites a survey carried out in rural Uttar Pradesh according to which 28.9% women working in the agricultural sector and 52.2% women in the construction sector in rural India reportedly experienced harassment from male coworkers at the workplace. Based on data for 2010-13 from the National Commission for Women, Uttar Pradesh is most notorious with respect to sexual harassment of women at the workplace. While UP topped the list (number of complaints of sexual harassment registered with the NCW) in 2010 and 2012, it was second only to Delhi, and by a tiny margin in 2011 and 2013. In 3 years, a total of 118 complaints from UP alone were registered with the NCW while Delhi came in second with 98 complaints being registered for the same time period.

Sexual violence, verbal taunts, and the atmosphere of fear and dread that this creates, pervades public spaces of work or travel across geographies and contexts. Our stories from rural India reveal that these may deter, but even more often become ‘just’ a part – reviled, definitely, even resisted – of the experience of working outside the home for millions of women.

Brought to you in collaboration with Khabar Lahariya.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
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