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The Women We Ignore In The Fight For Gender Justice At Work

ILO logoEditor’s Note:With #FutureOfWork, the International Labour Organization India and Youth Ki Awaaz are coming together to explore the spectrum of issues that affect young people's careers and work lives. Join the conversation! 

By Nitya Sriram:

“I have faced multiple [levels of] discrimination – being physically challenged, being a girl, being a Muslim, and being poor. Being a Muslim girl, I face gender discrimination within my community, and religious discrimination from other communities,” says Farheen, 23, of her experiences in life and work. Hailing from the Janta Mazdoor community in Delhi, Farheen has always struggled with access to the basics such as food, education and jobs.

“We didn’t have money for my higher studies,” she says. “So, I stopped my studies after Class 12, and started working in a private school, where I got a salary of 1000 INR per month.”

Farheen, 23
Farheen

When the school closed down, Farheen was turned away by several other institutions before she finally found a job with a call centre. “The call centre was far from home and despite my disability, I used to walk from my home to the metro to save money. If I was late by even five minutes they would cut a half-day salary,” she recalls. But that wasn’t all.

“I wouldn’t be informed about anything that was going on at work and my talent and capabilities were often ignored. At one point, I was even pestered to leave my job,” she says. Eventually her gruelling routine brought on an illness and Farheen was forced to quit and seek treatment. This went on for over three years following which she took up a course in nursing. “During the course they said I would get government job. But I didn’t.”

Farheen’s reality starkly contrasts with the rosy picture of the ‘Modern Indian Women’ who flock to Indian workplaces today. In a country that has legal mandates to protect women at work and encourage more participation at the workplace, Farheen found that her disability, caste, religion and background – all stood against her. What is disturbing is that her story is not an isolated one.

Manjula, 32, faced similar discrimination at the hands of her employers in Bengaluru. Born with a condition that requires her to use crutches to walk, Manjula had a difficult childhood. Having been abused by her brother, she left home at a very young age and joined a missionary institute for girls to complete her education.

Manjula, 32, Bengaluru
Manjula

During graduation, she took up work in a retail company to support herself. Despite possessing the necessary skills for the job, Manjula’s pay remained unchanged for six years. It was the same story in two other organisations, where neither her talent nor her skills were acknowledged and the pay remained stagnant.

Manjula’s life changed when she met members of V-Shesh, an organisation that equips individuals with disabilities with life skills and communications training. With their help, she was placed at ANZ in Bengaluru where she now works as an analyst and is happy.

Farheen, too, eventually pulled through with encouragement and support from the Centre for Social Equity and Inclusion, an organisation which advocates for inclusive policies and helped Farheen hone her leadership skills. She now works as a facilitator with the Nai Umang Nai Soch Society.

However, for both Farheen and Manjula, these negative experiences have left a lasting impact. The fight for gender equality has been further complicated by their narratives of marginalisation due to both social standing and specific needs. And due to circumstances, their voices of dissent were silenced.

This culture of silence is more common than we think, and Joyita Mondal, a trans woman from North Dinajpur district in West Bengal, is certainly no stranger to it. Shares Joyita, “My community comes from an area that is on the border. Transgender activists generally fight for rights in big cities like Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi. But in our area, we are triply stigmatised, being transgender, women and from a rural area that is not centrally located.”

Despite progressive laws and positive media reports about the rights of trans people and how they have broken barriers, individuals like Joyita continue to suffer. When she joined the call centre of a prominent national bank, she was forced to quit in two months. But in her case, neither the hiring process nor the pay-scale was an issue – her challenge was dealing with her fellow employees.

Joyita Mondal
Joyita Mondal

“I wasn’t attacked physically or sexually, but I was made the butt of many insensitive jokes. People would talk about me, stare at me and make fun of me. The situation was so bad that I was completely depressed working there. I decided to quit,” says Joyita, who now works as a Project Manager with Dinajpur Notun Aalo Society, a community-based organisation working with LGBT plus groups, senior citizens and youth.

In a society that has seen the fastest drop in the number of women in the workplace, the question is: what is the meaning of growth when it is not for everyone? Farheen, Manjula and Joyita’s stories point to the lacunae in the system. These shortcomings of India Inc. conflict greatly with the so-called spirit of ‘modernisation’ that everyone talks about ever since the liberalisation of the economy in 1991.

If we dig a little deeper, we will find that there are only certain kind of women who benefit from gender inclusive initiatives — privileged, hetero-normative, healthy, non-disabled. This is a problem. If policies continue to ignore the importance of the social inclusion of all women – women from minority communities, women with disabilities, women who identify as queer and those from underserved and oppressed communities – we will never truly be a modern, progressive and holistic workforce or society.

It is time to see women of all kinds – participate in our workforce. With collective will, sensitivity and awareness we can turn our work spaces into truly inclusive, positive hubs of economic activity and creativity. If you see an unjust work practice where someone you know is being judged as a Dalit woman, or because she hails from the North-East, or because she has cerebral palsy, or simply because she’s a woman employee, then speak up!

Dear working woman, we want to hear your story. Write to us. Tell us about YOUR career aspirations, the struggles, discriminatory practices you want changed, your expectations from your workplace, skills mismatch and wage gaps, and your unique experiences in starting your own business. Join the conversation and let us strive towards making decent work a reality for 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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