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The Best 5-Minute Summary: Why We Celebrate International Women’s Day

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Think of the year 1909. Bulgaria became an independent country, and Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto appeared and was successfully circulating amidst the high-art circles of Europe, much to Hitler’s approval. It even saw its publication in France that very year, presaging the rise of Fascism in Italy and neighbouring parts of Western Europe.

Explorers from the United States (US) discovered the North Pole, Wassily Kandinsky formed Kunstlerverein in Munich and the Young Left was founded in Norway. Serbia was mobilising against the Austro-Hungarian geopolity, and Germany sent Russia a diplomatic note requesting recognition of the Austrian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and cessation of its support to Serbia in the controversy. Closer home to the Women’s Movement within the US, the National Conference on the Negro held its first meeting in the United Charities Building, New York (an earlier form of the NAACP).

That year was perhaps the busiest one in the first decade of the 20th century in terms of politics – a simmering fire, spreading well on its way to World War I. Despite all of this, what manages to stick so brilliantly and clearly for us today are the events that ensued on February 28 – the day the first National Women’s Day was observed in the US.

It was organised by the Socialist Party of America in honour of the 1908 garment workers’ strike in New York, where women protested against harsh, even fatal working conditions. This was accompanied later by the garment workers’ strike, also known as the New York shirtwaist strike, against companies such as the Triangle Shirtwaist company against unfair working conditions – unsanitary spaces, long hours away from children, miserable treatment from factory owners and abysmal pay. On some occasions, the women were locked behind steel doors so that they could be prevented from stepping outside and taking breaks, even if they were pregnant.

A significant rally that took place the next year was led by Clara Lemlich, and it garnered a following of 20,000 women, mostly of Jewish origin. It was the largest women’s demonstration anywhere in the world at that time, and was supported by The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the National Women’s Trade Union League of America (NWTUL). The strike began later that year, in November 1909. Even though their wages were improved, the factory caught fire in 1911, simply bolstering the point that these women were trying to make.

On February 28, 1909, however, all the women were acknowledged and celebrated for their achievements, both individual and collective – notwithstanding their nationality, ethnicity, caste, creed, gender, race and class – by the Socialist Party of America upon the suggestion of Theresa Malkiel, though several feminist scholars have sought to contest this popular story of origins.

A year later, Copenhagen decided to follow suit – and 1910 saw the Women’s Movement venerated, and the International Working Women’s Day gained global legitimacy. This demonstration drew huge favour for the cause towards the prime acquisition of universal suffrage. A 100 women from 17 different countries gave unanimous accord to this day. The conference included the three pioneering women to hold seats in the Finnish Parliament. So far, however, no date was decided upon for celebration as such.

Austria, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland followed suit and observed Women’s Day on March 19, and a co-ed group of over an estimated million people attended the gathering, clamouring for four key things:

1. The right to work.

2. The right to vocational training.

3. The right to vote and hold public office.

4. An end to job discrimination (in that, they would not simply be given jobs ‘meant for women’, but would join the labour force with full dignity).

Between the years 1913 and 1917, things got complicated, given the horrors of war. This day, then, became a key instrument of protest among the pacifists, who helped this movement acquire a new dimension in their anti-war effort against World War I, and earned it the status of a peace movement. In 1917, women in Russia held the first ever Women’s Day ‘on the last Sunday of February’. In Europe as well, it was held either about the same time or on March 8 annually. The demonstrations were held as a show of solidarity with the global movement. Each leg made up a powerful beast.

Towards the end of the war, exactly four days after the commemoration in Russia, the Tsar abjured the throne, and the erstwhile government granted women the right to vote. Women then began a protest for and towards ‘Bread and Peace’, yet again, on the ‘last Sunday of February’, which actually fell on March 8, if we go by the Gregorian calendar,

Denmark had granted universal suffrage a little earlier – in 1915. British women who had property, and over 30, won the right to vote in 1918. Netherlands gave women the right to vote in 1919, and the US passed the 19th Amendment which allowed their women to vote, later than everybody else, in 1920.

Want to know one awesome thing about Indian women? Women here have had the right to vote in our country since its inception in 1948.

The United Nations in the year 1975 (also known as the International Women’s Year) officially declared March 8 to be the International Women’s Day, with a theme and governing agenda consisting of goals for women to achieve each year. This year’s theme for the International Women’s Day, is “Time is Now: Rural and urban activists transforming women’s lives”.

In Context

What this means for Indian girls and women is that the movement acquires an awesome new dimension and brings to light (given its working class roots) the conditions and struggles of English-speaking, middle and upper middle class, and elite women and the working class women here. These include your housemaids, beauticians, paanwaalis who sell you cigarettes, lady janitors, vegetable sellers (and farmers!) – and yes, even bar dancers and sex workers, whose labour is recognised (for it is exploited by the hetero-capitalist-patriarchy as is the fate of most forms of women’s labour).

We’re all acknowledged on this day, as our entire economy rests on the backbone of our labour and the care offered by us. Our first responsibility is to give thanks, and join hands in solidarity with those less fortunate than us, in the hope for a better future. A new world is created, at first, by having the courage to imagine it!

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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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