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This Women’s Day Let’s Make The Struggle About All Women, And Not Just The Privileged

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The celebration of International Women’s Day – an effort at recognising women’s contributions to society that often go unnoticed – is not without its share of trouble even after over a century of its inception and despite the United Nations having given a formal recognition to it since 1975 – the International Women’s Year. Perhaps, this is because within its origins is embedded a voice of protest, of dissidence that doesn’t sit well with formal celebrations that only address the privileged few.

How Did March 8 Come To Be International Women’s Day?

The significance of March 8 is argued to have been drawn retroactively from an 1857 strike of female textile workers in New York, which was met with repression. This is said to have been commemorated in a March 8 rally in 1907 on its fiftieth anniversary.

British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, being jeered by a crowd in New York. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

An International Woman’s Day (singular) was, however, first observed on February 23, 1909 in the United States. The Women’s National Committee to Campaign for Suffrage had been appointed by the Socialist Party of the United States in 1908. A mass meeting on woman suffrage was then organised on March 8, 1908. The following year the socialists in the United States started celebrating the last Sunday of February as both a National Women’s Day and an International Women’s Day.

The Communist Countries Were Slow To Catch Up

Meanwhile, Clara Zetkin, beginning from 1889 Bastille Day Paris meeting and through the women’s newspaper of the German Social Democratic Party had been promoting the rights of working women. It was, however, only perhaps with the February revolution against rising prices and poor living conditions in Russia in 1917, after which the Czar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate and women got the right to vote, that International Women’s Day came to be a state-recognised holiday in many European communist countries beginning with Russia in 1922. But the socialist men were loathe to include suffrage and women’s rights in their movements for the rights of the male working class early on.

Image Source: K. Kendall/Flickr

And in the same manner the fight for suffrage – which was an important aspect of celebration of International Women’s Day – seemed to have excluded black women. While white women fighting for rights equal to men secured voting rights in the United States in 1920, the Jim Crow laws continued to discriminate against black women. The National American Women Suffrage Association was often discriminatory of black women despite them being active in the work for suffrage for women. The sentiment is perhaps best expressed through an earlier speech made in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights convention by Sojourner Truth, now well known by its title: “Ain’t I A Woman?” It took several more decades after 1920 and it was not until the Civil Rights Movement that black women were effectively enfranchised.

#YesAllWomen?

It is, therefore, pertinent to ask today too whether we are fighting for all women, whether we include all women when we ‘Step It Up for Gender Equality’. Hillary Clinton, who spoke for gender equality on International Women’s Day at the UN last year, seeks support, for instance, from women and feminists in general for her nomination as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate. Yet she has had a history of not only working against the interests of working-class women – who started the International Women’s Day in the first place- but also been ambiguous on abortion rights and has supported the war on Iraq and Afghanistan.

Young girl from Kashmir. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

There is a definite discordant note then in even her being part of the International Women’s Day Celebrations at the UN, because the UN’s own introductory history of the Day does point out the anti-war stance taken by Russian women celebrating International Women’s Day through World War I. Her tiffs with the Black Lives Matter during her nomination campaign further raise doubts on what kind of gender equality she vouches for.

In countries like India, where brutality and discrimination against trans women is regular, there is hardly ever a massive uprising or support for them during IWD celebrations. Dalit and tribal women, women raped by armed forces in “disturbed areas” are commemorated and fought for separately (often with lesser zeal) but do not seem to become the rallying point for an urgent social transformation – as in the origins of the Day – on IWD. They are relegated or deferred to the fight for rights of the scheduled caste / scheduled tribe people and the fight against oppressive legislations (like the AFSPA), acknowledged by feminist groups but rarely fought for at the scale at which demonstrations take place for relatively privileged women.

Can The Women’s Movement Carry The Struggles of All Women?

An International Women’s Day then cannot be “international” truly until it is also intersectional and addresses the specific concerns of those marginalised within the larger community of women. While gender-parity has been a dominant theme in UN celebrations, we hardly hear about trans-women from this international organisation on this day, despite their demand for their struggles to be recognised.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Speeches, conferences, and celebrations on Women’s Day mark a long struggle- one that has had roadblocks, one that has needed sacrifices. A patriarchal world that thrives on not recognising the work done by women can only benefit from women occupying public space on such occasions and reminding us of the battle that has been and the battle that remains. But the origins of the International Women’s Day also remind us of a more militant struggle for radical social transformation. The potential for such transformation still rests with it if we do not let it be hijacked by corporations making small incremental promises and instead demand what is accepted as a far-flung dream.

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  1. Katy Poenaru

    I want to ad a comment about the communist countries, as I was born and raised in one of them, in Romania. Despite all the failures of the system, I grew up in a country where the equality of women and men was constitutionally set and no discrimination allowed. From education to voting rights, we never had to fight for any of them. Yes, there was one hard downfall concerning family planning as our leader wanted a bigger nation so if there was one huge problem for women in Romania, that was contraception and abortion, both banned. That resulted in unwanted baby-boom and the untimely death of many women because of illegal abortions.
    As we joined democracy in 1989, you would’ve expected more openness…Alas, right now we have the churches and religious groups pushing for so called “pro-life” policy, including the limitation of abortions. So….the fight goes on. We have to push for the recognition of our freedom of choice, we have to speak up and push for the rights and recognition of our trans sisters, for our intersex daughters and for our Roma sisters, daughters , for our girls and women living in deep poverty. A lot to do!
    My respect to you all!

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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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