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‘Getting Married Isn’t A Woman’s Greatest Achievement’

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Editor’s note: This story is in response to Youth Ki Awaaz’s topic for this week – #WomensDay to start conversations on how we can achieve a gender equal society. If you have faced gender-based violence, sexism or misogyny, would like to propose policy reforms or write about what families, friends, workspaces and partners can do to ensure gender parity around them, write to us here.

The house was all decked up for the wedding. Bright lights were showing in the verandah. Loud music and laughter could be heard. Children dressed in various shades ran around, in a well-lit garden. The aroma of delicious food and mithai (sweets) filled the air. Today was Roma’s big day. It was her wedding. As I entered her house, looking forward to being a part of the celebrations, I looked around for her younger sister Riya. She was nowhere to be found. Roma and Riya are sisters, two years apart.

Roma is the more fun loving type, who bunked college, enjoyed shopping and spending time with her friends. She was never really interested in making a career. Knowing well that she belonged to a well to do business family and would marry into an equally well to do family, she preferred enjoying her life. Riya, on the other hand, was studious and had set her goals on becoming a doctor. She went to the US for her higher studies and the last Facebook update I had seen on her profile was regarding her having completed her MD with a gold medal. She was flying back to India for her sister’s wedding.

I wondered where she was. Wasn’t this a big day for her too? Not just because it was her sister’s wedding but because she had achieved something really great for herself academically. I expected the family to be thrilled as they had two reasons to celebrate. I was expecting a poster and a congratulatory message for Riya put up on the walls or played on the PPT which they had displayed. Yet, all it had was, ‘Roma weds Abhishek’ and some pictures of Roma as a child, pictures with her family and her friends. There wasn’t a single mention of Riya and her degree. I found it weird.

I finally found her. Forlorn, she sat, wearing a beautiful lehenga, but her face had lost its charm. I congratulated her with all the enthusiasm and hugged her. I saw her face glow but it only lasted for a brief moment and she was back to her gloomy self. On further prodding, she revealed that her family did not really consider this as a big achievement. In fact, they were all the more worried now about finding a groom for such a highly educated lady. Her parents were furious when she told them that she did not want to get married for the next 3-4 years as she wanted to start her practice.

I patted her shoulder and told her to trust her instincts and make her decision about what she wanted in life, to stay strong and not bow down to pressure.

This incident got me thinking about why we obsess over marriage so much and why we consider a woman getting married as her biggest achievement. Without that, the highest degree with the best marks, a lucrative job at a top notch company, a sports medal – everything loses its lustre. Unless the woman in question ties the knot at the ‘right age’. Only then is she someone who has achieved something and this achievement calls for a big celebration. Why can’t we celebrate the successes of our girls just like we do for our boys? If it was a boy in place of Riya, wouldn’t the family celebrate? Then why is this not the case with our girls?

I recall a particularly brilliant young lady aged 28 who is pursuing her PhD. Her mom and my mom are good friends and aunty is always worried that her daughter would soon pass the marriageable age and finding a good groom after that would be difficult. Her daughter staunchly refuses to even think of marriage at this stage.

She says, “Mumma, I have worked a lot to reach this far and I am still studying to complete my PhD. As long as I live with you and daddy, I don’t need to care a damn about anything like cooking, cleaning, etc. I can focus on my studies. I can do that even if I live alone. However, if I get married at this point, there would be certain responsibilities and expectations from me, as a wife, as a daughter in-law. My in-laws may not live with me but I cannot really have a carefree attitude like I have now. I would be expected to take care of the house, at least manage the maid and other stuff and at this point, all I want to think of is my degree. I have toiled for all these years and reached this stage. If I get married and I can’t devote enough time to this, all my efforts and sacrifices of the past so many years would be futile. No, I will not do this to myself. I will marry when I am ready.”

Aunty knew she couldn’t coerce her daughter, so she decided to let the matter rest and wait for her daughter to turn around.

There’s another good friend of mine. A school friend who is 30 and not married. As we live in different cities, our talks are usually limited to phone calls on birthdays. I consciously choose to avoid the topic of marriage, as I do not want to cause her any discomfort and there’s so much to discuss other than news about one’s marriage. We usually end up talking about our jobs, our old school days and she once told me of a school mate’s wedding that she attended and how everyone met and they spoke about the good old school days. We end up on a pleasant note.

When I called her on her birthday a few days back, she told me that she was getting married and I was really happy for her. Happy that she took her time. However, when I usually converse with other friends and her name pops up, people ask many questions. Is she married? Why not? Any issues? She’s 3o, doesn’t she want to get married? I usually shrug and give a tepid response but it makes me wonder yet again about our mindset in general. Why don’t people ask about her job or praise her for being that dutiful daughter who supports her parents and takes care of her younger sister’s education? There is so much more to a woman than her marital status.

Our girls are no less than boys and have a zest and passion to conquer the world, chase their dreams and make them come true. All they need is encouragement and support from all of us. Yes, your dreams are valid my dear. You can be anything you wish to be. That prize you just won at the inter-college debate, the gold medal that you received in economics, a job at the top investment bank – is a great achievement and we are proud of you. Let’s celebrate this great moment.

Your marriage would be a day to rejoice, no doubt. You will step into a new chapter of life and we will welcome a new member to our family. However, your achievements are not limited to getting married. There’s so much more to life and when we start recognising these small and big achievements of our girls, being genuinely happy for them and celebrating them with as much vigour as we would celebrate their wedding, we would have truly opened our doors to being more inclusive and gender neutral.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)’.

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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

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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.

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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
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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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