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3 Personal Experiences That Changed The Way I Perceived Caste Discrimination

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By Anjana Radhakrishnan:

casteWith the shock of the rape and murder of a female Dalit law student reverberating through the fabric of Keralan society, the issue of caste in Kerala has resurfaced. The lethargic pace of the initial investigation coupled with the mishandling of evidence by police and lack of solid leads so far has starkly highlighted the status of Dalits in the state.

Kerala, well-known for its high performance and narrow gender gaps in socio-economic and health indicators, still struggles with issues of gender and caste. And that should come as little surprise considering that honest discussions about tough topics like these remain outside the purview of the general public.

What I can offer are personal experiences of caste, and while anecdotal, they can be powerful in building practical comprehension of problems that are often abstracted. I find they provide a small, helpful window into the intricacies of caste in everyday life. Within these, I have found the truth of greater systemic problems which beg to be addressed. I hope in sharing that those conversations can widen and deepen as a result – that you too will feel empowered to share your lived experiences.

Not Under One Roof

We’re all sitting at lunch, and my co-worker is talking about her mother-in-law. She’s telling us about a trip they’d taken and how they’d needed to stop at a household for some reason or other.

As she tells us what time they left to head home, the women at the table ask in surprise how they managed to drive down those windy, dark roads all the way back. Couldn’t they have stayed at that house for the night? My co-worker grimaces as she answers because she hates where this is going next – but it’s the truth and so she continues.

“Well, you know, my husband’s mother… well, she refuses to stay the night under the roof of a lower-caste household.”

She shrugs in a way that communicates the uselessness in trying to change the prejudices of an older generation and licks the curry off her fingers.

For The Sake Of My Parents

At the first Hindu wedding I attended during my research grant, I met a young man who was bursting at the seams with happiness – he was shortly to be engaged to a beautiful girl. He proudly showed me a photo of her and with a laugh said, “When I saw her, I knew I liked her. I asked her first ‘Are you a Nair?’ She said yes and I knew I would marry her.”

He says this so lightheartedly that it breaks my heart. He can see the disappointment flit across my face and he hurries to tell me, “Oh, I have no problem with caste. I asked for my parents. They would be devastated if I married outside of caste. I could never do that to them.” I pushed him, questioning this logic: must we follow our parents even if we know they are wrong? He smiles uneasily at me and repeats one more time that he owes everything to his parents and to concede to marry within his caste does not seem a bad compromise. Besides, wasn’t she beautiful?

Old Wounds Still Hurt

He’s clearly emotional. “No, I really want to say sorry. I know it happened years ago, but I want you to know it still bothers me and that I am sorry.”

He looks over at me and tells me how he had invited my father to meet his parents and to eat lunch at his house. He tells me how my father had brought his brother and his cousin, wishing to introduce his friend’s family to his own. He tells me how his family had laid out the food to eat and how his father had ‘offhandedly’ noted that in his day, people of my father’s caste would not even be allowed into the house, let alone eat together. He tells me how my father, hurt and humiliated, had immediately stood and left with his brother and cousin.

He reaches out for my father’s hand and says, “I’m sorry, da. Listen, my father was not even like that. He was a good man. I know he didn’t mean it in that way.”

My father is looking off into the distance, a little up and to the right to avoid eye contact, because he is uncomfortable and it’s very clear that this still bothers him and that he does not agree that the man was ‘not even like that’. But he loves his friend so he hugs him goodbye and we leave. We get into the elevator in silence as he soothes his old wounds and I wonder how small of a scratch at the surface of caste discrimination does this represent.

And So?

Ambedkar in his well-known and never-delivered speech likewise presents cases of caste discrimination ranging from small humiliations to inhumane violence. After very neatly presenting the ideological roots of caste, Ambedkar concludes with the not-so-popular opinion that there must be revolution – both within religion and within society as a whole.

From what I have experienced, Kerala is still waiting for that revolution. For every story I have told, there are hundreds and thousands that remain unwritten and unspoken. There is power in sharing these experiences, in knowing that we are not alone, that this is a problem of our society.

So, share your stories – with us, with your peers, with your neighbours. While caste discrimination continues to perpetuate itself in our daily lives, perhaps there is hope for the next generation to break free of the chains of caste.

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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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