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From Nangeli To Radhika Vemula: Celebrating Fiery Dalit Icons On Women’s Day

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When Mayawati entered office as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 1995, it was the first time ever that a Dalit woman held the post. Her entry into politics brought the focus on Dalit issues and identity in a big way.

Having influential figures from any marginalised community in the public eye often pushes us to return to our country’s history, to ask why they are the exception to a rule. And it’s true that many names have been left out of our ‘General Knowledge’, because they were Dalit, or women, or both.

For example, not many of us know Savitribai Phule, the 19th century reformer who fought hard for women’s right to education, and was the first female teacher in the first school for women. It was only recently that we began to celebrate her as an Indian feminist icon.

Phule and others may have been dropped from our most well circulated history texts, but this Women’s Day, let’s remember and celebrate these true icons:

1. Nangeli

Source: Orijit Sen/Facebook

Clothing has for long been a marker of identity. In 19th century Kerala, upper-caste Nairs and Namboodiris forced woman from the Ezhava community to pay a ‘breast tax’ for covering their upper bodies. It was a practice in humiliation and control, and one that Nangeli outright opposed.

Artist Orijit Sen captures her powerful protest in an illustration titled “A Travancore Tale”. It shows how she responded to upper-caste tax collectors by cutting off her breasts. Her death sparked a chain of events that led to the abolition of the ‘breast tax’, and Nangeli is till date revered as a hero by her community.

2. Jhalkaribai

Which Indian school kid hasn’t pored over a painting of the Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, riding into battle, sword in hand? That image could just as easily have been of Jhalkaribai, who bore resemblance to the warrior queen.

Jhalkaribai was a Dalit woman from a small village in Bundelkhand. She had fought off tigers and dacoits, and when Rani Laxmibai learnt of this, she was drafted into the women’s army. In fact, it was Jhalkaribai who disguised herself as Rani Laxmibai, and led the queen’s forces against the British.

3. Veerangana Uda Devi

At the same time that Laxmibai was fighting the British in Jhansi, another woman warrior emerged in Awadh – Uda Devi. She was part of Begum Hazrat Mahal’s army’s, and rode into war in 1857, where she took down 32 British soldiers before she was slain on the battlefield.

At the time, the leader of the British troops, one Colin Campbell, recorded his surprise at the extensive damage this woman warrior had done, and even today this fierce Dalit martyr is remembered by the Pasis of Pilibhit.

 4. P. K. Rosy

The first heroine of Malayalam cinema was a Dalit woman. Yup, that’s right. P. K. Rosy acted in J. C. Daniel’s 1928 silent film “Vigathakumaran”. Not only was she traversing the division of ‘public’ and ‘private’ by being one of the few women on screen, there was also a huge furore about her playing the role of “Sarojini”, an upper-caste woman. Rosamma, as she was once known, stands at the beginning of a rich regional cinematic tradition, and it’s not for nothing that the P. K. Rosy Memorial Lecture series was held at Jamia Milia Islamia in 2013.

5. Paani Panchayat Leaders

In 2011, Dalit women from Jalaun, Hamirpur and Lalitpur (Uttar Pradesh) came together to form ‘Paani Panchayats’ and address the issue of water shortage in the region. Dalit communities in the region have least access to clean water and must contend with water sources where solid and liquid waste is indiscriminately dumped. But now, there are over 3,000 women involved in reviving local water bodies.

6. Thenmozhi Soundararajan

A US-based activist and transmedia artist, Thenmozhi Soundararajan helped launch #DalitWomenFight, an independent collective against caste apartheid and caste-based sexual violence. Offline, it organises marches, and online, it curates artwork around these issues. Soundararajan has also worked with several other Dalit activists and scholars, to put together an extensive timeline of Dalit history.

7. Thulasi Helen

Source: Beathe Hofseth/Vimeo

Also known as ‘the Lady Mohammed Ali of India’, E. Thulasi Helen is a boxer from Chennai. In 2013, Norwegian directors Beathe Hofseth and Susann Ostigaard told her story in the documentary “Light Fly, Fly High“. It highlighted the various hurdles in her path as a Dalit woman boxer, including the sexual and emotional abuse she and others faced when pursuing sport. Today, Helen is a boxer in her own right, and has even defeated Olympian and world champion Mary Kom.

8. Gauri Kumari

In a brahminical-patriarchal order, Dalit women face both caste- and sex-based violence. And when many of our institutions are extensions of that brahminical-patriarchal order, getting justice is difficult. And that’s why Dalit women lawyers like Gauri Kumari are fighting back. According to a report by Swadhikar, she has helped set up a network of dalit women elected representatives in the Munger district of Bihar.

9. Women of ‘Chalo Una’

After ‘gau rakshaks’ publicly flogged Dalit men in Una, Gujarat, hundreds of flocked to the city to stage their protest, and take a historic pledge not to dispose of dead cattle – a task that has for centuries been foisted on Dalit people because of the caste-hierarchy. The Una march saw massive participation from Dalit women. It also drew powerful women figures like Manjula Pradeep of the Navsarjan Trust, and activist Manisha Mashaal.

Source: Radhika Vemula/Facebook

10. Radhika Vemula

When Hyderabad Central University (HCU) punished and rusticated student activist Rohith Vemula, forcing him to commit suicide in 2016, it was his mother, Radhika Vemula, who continued the fight against the oppressive brahminical institution. On the first anniversary of her son’s death, she was arrested for protesting at HCU.

Each of these women have battled incredible odds, but they rarely find a mention in our school books. It’s time we recognised their history and struggle too, because Women’s Day is about all women, and not just a few!

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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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