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How Women Took Charge Of Their Own Rights In Post-Independent India

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By Shambhavi Saxena for Cake:

By the time we’re in our teens, all of us Indian school kids have memorized by rote the names of our country’s freedom fighters. Today, these names line the streets of the national capital. But by some cruel trick of modern urban town planning, these names are usually men’s. And pleasant though it may be, a drive through Central Delhi doesn’t quite do justice our country’s female figureheads.

In spite of this, we know, countless Indian women did their part in pushing the fight for freedom forward. And as the country drew closer to achieving its sovereignty in 1947, women too looked forward to their own Independence. But when the world’s longest Constitution was finally put into effect, Indian women found that they had only been granted equal status on paper. Colonialism was replaced by Indian patriarchies as the main obstacle to women’s rights. And with far too many promises left unfulfilled by the state and by society at large, Indian women began to fight for what was owed to them.

For Education For All


Whether at an English grammar school, a madrasa, or Sanskrit schools, learning was always reserved for British loyalists or well-to-do Indians. And women and ‘lower castes’ were actively prohibited from these spaces. But many recognized the value of women’s education. So in 1848, Savitribai Phule set up the first school for women in Pune, with the help of her husband and fellow reformer Jyotirao Phule. And many followed suit, like Dalit reformer Jaibai Chaudhuri who set up a girl’s school in Nagpur in 1924.

Against Violence

All political activity was run underground when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared Emergency in 1975, but when it was finally lifted, women’s organizations burst forth, marking the official beginning of an organized and national women’s movement. The period saw the birth of autonomous feminist groups like the Progressive Organization of Women, which began to take up issues like domestic violence, ‘dowry deaths,’ and rape, in a focused manner.

The Personal Is Political

As a result of women’s groups campaigning, attention was now being paid to issues that impacted women’s private lives. The anti-arrack movement in Andhra Pradesh, and similar movements in Himachal Pradesh highlighted the issue of domestic abuse that women faced from alcoholic husbands. Women participated in large numbers in anti-price rise movements in Bihar, because economic changes would seriously impact the quality of their lives at home. These movements simultaneously tied women to the home, and to public spaces where they would protest.

The Means Of Production!


While the transition from private to public had happened much earlier for women who did skilled or unskilled labour outside the home, the issue of women’s labour was taken up in an organized way in ’70s. SEWA, or the Self-Employed Women’s Association, and other trade unions, began to raise the concerns of working women, with regard to wages, working conditions, safety, and more.

Feminist Scholarship

By 1990, a considerable body of work was being developed by and about the women’s movement. It was the heyday of liberalization in India, permitting a freer flow of both ideas and solidarity between women’s groups and feminist organizations internationally. The decade saw a higher frequency of women’s conferences, and much academic interest in the issue of gender in South Asia. But the women’s movement also began to assess its own shortcomings where caste, class, sexuality, and other issues were concerned.

Fighting For Autonomy

The Nationalist project had involved an over-emphasis on ‘Indian’ traditions and customs founded on the social subordination of women. The figure of the ‘mother,’ or ‘Bharat Mata’ as the damsel-in-distress had fuelled the nationalist passions of many Indian men. And the self-effacing, all-sacrificing Indian woman was the new standard to aspire to. But the Indian women’s movement demanded that individual women be seen as agents in their own right, not as extensions of their male relations.

Then And Now

Between scholars of Indian history and those old enough to remember, the decades immediately after Independence are described as a time of great anxiety and restlessness about war, hunger, and poverty. And women’s feelings of disappointment, even anger, weren’t very different from the general sentiment of the time. Gender-based violence is as “deeply entrenched” in Indian society today as it was 70 years ago, but what separates us from everyone in 1947 is that back then they were uniquely positioned to author an India which was truly equal and free.

However, much of that spark still exists today. The December 16 protests were a watershed moment in the Indian women’s movement, as issues over and above those mentioned here came to be discussed on a massive scale. The women’s movement pushes forward in figures like Soni Sori and Irom Sharmila, who continue to fight against state sponsored sexual violence. It pushes forward in the young women of Pinjra Tod who challenge patriarchal control in university spaces. And it pushes forward in every one of us who believes in freedom, justice and equality for all.

This article was originally published here on Cake


Banner image source: Pinjra Tod/Facebook

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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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