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What Does #BlackHistoryMonth Mean For Black Women Fighting For Gender Justice?

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In July 2015, a black woman named Sandra Bland was found dead in a Texas county jail three days after being arrested for alleged assault. According to authorities, Bland killed herself in her cell using a plastic trash bag, but many questions are being raised regarding this issue. A dashcam video was released showing that the woman was brutally arrested, threatened and slammed around by highway patrol trooper Brian Encinia. Shockingly, Bland isn’t the only black woman who died in police custody. In July alone, six black women died in police custody. Although the deaths of these women vary from one another, the circumstances of each are suspicious, especially that they were supposed to be under police protection.

These actions of racial bias and brutality against women of color in the US aren’t new. In fact these women have a long history of struggle against oppression, racism and discrimination that extends to hundreds of years ago. History shows us how these women have been fighting on two different levels at the same time: a fight for their civil rights against racism, and another against gender inequality.

A History of Struggle and Bravery

It all started in the sixteenth century, when the first African slaves were brought to the Americas, to help in the production. Later through the 17th and 18th centuries, the number of slaves increased to millions of slaves. Black people generally, and black women specifically experienced brutal physical and psychological abuse under the system of slavery. “You never knew what it is like to be a slave; to be entirely unprotected by law or custom; to have the laws reduce you to the condition of a chattel, entirely subject to the will of another.” These words were said by Harriet Ann Jacobs, a writer and an activist, in her slave narrative providing the upcoming generations with a vivid picture of the system of slavery.

In 1865, The African-American people started to see a glimpse of hope when slavery was eliminated, according to the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But the situation started to intensify again when the 15th Amendment was released in 1870, giving the black men the right to vote, but not the women.

By the end of the nineteenth century, and as a response to the amendment, black and white women organized their lines and created clubs that called for their rights in suffrage, founding the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA). The efforts and the attempts never stopped until they won their right to suffrage by the declaration of the 19th Amendment in 1919.

Black History Month

Black History Month, also called African-American History Month, is an annual celebration of the role, and accomplishments of African Americans in the history of the United States. The event takes place in February every year, and is not only held in the US but also in the UK and Canada.

According to the Association of the Study of Negro Life and History (ASALH), the history of the month dates back to 1915, when a historian named Carter G. Woodson and others started the ASALH, which was devoted to research and increasing the awareness of the participation of African Americans in US civilization. Later on in 1926, they sponsored a National Negro History week in February, the second week specifically, to commemorate the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, who both played a great role in the black history.

In the years that followed, the event became widespread in schools and communities and history clubs; lectures and performances were established. In 1960, thanks to growing awareness about the black identity, Negro History Week had become Black History Month in many college campuses. In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford, officially announced Black History Month asking the public to “honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.

The Challenges That Remain

Although black women, who form 13% of the female population in the United States, have been trying to take huge steps in education – getting college degrees and going into business at rates higher than other women in the US – they are still facing health, social and economic problems. The report “Black Women in the United States, 2014, Progress and Challenges,” provides information about the conditions of black women over the last 60years. According to the report, black women are more likely to be victims of violence, murder, and rape than any other women in America.

As for the economic conditions, the rates of poverty among black women are very high, due to pay disadvantages and unemployment rates; black women over the age of 65 have the lowest household income in America. Furthermore, the rate of unemployment among black women is found to be 10.5% which is double the rate of unemployment among white women, of 5.8%. Black women are most likely to have retirement insecurities, and less likely to have Social Security Spousal Benefits or Widow Benefits. As a result of these socioeconomic problems, black women face a shortage in health insurance, which of course leads to health problems.

Black women have had long a history with political leadership. Mic reported that “In the 2012 presidential election, 74% of black women voted, a higher rate than any other group. In 2008, black women accounted for 60% of all black voters.” However, these rates aren’t translated in political representation. In Congress, the representation of black women is 16% of the 102 female members, while the representation of women in the legislature nowadays is 242 of black women out of 1,787.

The Struggle is Alive

African Americans fought for hundreds of years, but their battles towards equality never stopped. #BlackGirlsMagic is a hashtag that was launched on social media to honor the beauty and power of black women,, encouraging them to love themselves the way they are. A few weeks ago, Beyoncé released a new single video clip called ‘Formation’ as a love message to all blacks people, to say that no matter what happens nothing will ever take her identity out of her heart, and confirming that #BlackLivesMatter.

Similarly, #SayHerName, a growing movement, was established by activists and social media users, to spread the stories of innocent black women like Bland who were killed by the police, as a result of blind racism, asking everybody not to forget about them and to always remember their names. Say Her Name is a movement that is also providing documentation to the cases and the surrounding events, serving as a resource for researchers, and concerned organizations to better understand the facts.

In addition to the movements and campaigns, so many black women are playing an honorable role in helping and supporting women all over the country. Laverne Cox, actor, activist and LGBT+ supporter, is the first transgender woman of color to produce and star in her own television show and was nominated for an award. Besides her acting, Cox is exerting huge efforts in supporting women to move beyond the gender limits and live genuinely. In a Documentary of hers “Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word,” seven lives of transgender youth are presented and their decisions to take the lead over their lives is pretty inspiring to everybody out there. Cox is also producing another documentary to support CeCe Mcdonald, a transgender woman who is sentenced to 41 months for committing a crime while defending herself against a racist and a trans-phobic attack.

Monica Raye Simpson, a musical artist, is another honorable role model and a supporter of women of color. Monica, who is also the Executive Director of the National Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, established campaigns on a wide range against human rights violations, the prison industrial complex, and the physical and emotional cruelties against African American Women and the African American LGBT community. Monica was recently named a civil rights leader by Essence Magazine.

These women are the role models we need, having suffered and survived the toughest of circumstances. The celebration is a reminder of the struggle, the bravery, and the victory that we are proud of, it’s a shout for equality. The support isn’t only limited to activists and the public figures; we as women who are proud of the history of our fellow black sisters, and must exert all of our efforts in order to help them better their conditions and attain equality.

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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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