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Dear Indian Feminists, It’s Time To Stop Pretending That Caste Isn’t Part Of The Fight

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I recently happened to attend what seemed to be a mental health awareness event for women to empower women dealing with depression and other mental illnesses, within the Indian diaspora in London. Organized by, for and about high society, privileged women where clichés like ‘women are emotional’ were the highlight.

It was all about vain pictures and videos and endless selfies. There was absolutely no diversity despite it being an ‘Indian’ women event. I, one of the speakers at the event, sat there and watched as the charade of wealthy privileged women, flaunted their expensive latest couture and jewellery. The women who organised the event refused to pay a single penny for my 8-hour travel and hotel stay in London as they ‘couldn’t afford it’. The meeting felt more like a bored, wealthy housewives club’s effort of making themselves feel good about doing something useful for the world, to be honest.

You may wonder, what do diversity and unpaid labour have to do with feminism or the larger picture of our society?

The UN report on women’s mortality in India that was published recently, made a direct link between the duration of a woman’s life and her caste. According to the report, an average Dalit woman would die 14.6 years earlier than the average upper-caste woman. Shocking? Hardly. Haven’t we all witnessed our sewers scavenged by people of that caste, at some point in our lives?

But here’s the thing. We’ve identified the problem, but do we have a solution to help change this? I am sure the solution doesn’t lie in theoretical policies or cheap subsidies. The answer lies in changing people’s attitudes, and in this case, the attitudes of women.

When the suffragette movement began in the West in the early 1900s, it was not inclusive of black women. In fact, to this day, white feminism is a separate area where women of colour, minorities, women of other faiths, transwomen, women from the LGBTQ community, women with disability, and immigrants are not welcome. Thankfully the concept of intersectionality coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 came into play and people began to recognize that feminism needs to be inclusive.

I try to look at my Indian counterparts with the same lens of intersectionality and ask if we have become inclusive at all within the community. It is important to question whether the privileged women in our society are making enough efforts to lift underprivileged women because at the end of the day, let’s not forget, it’s the individuals that become the masses.

In my analysis, privileged women in India are clearly not doing enough. I am not saying there aren’t exceptions, but the larger picture is depressing as the UN report clearly shows. Hence the banned jewellery ad featuring Aishwarya Rai posing next to a dark-skinned child servant that neither the ad makers nor the model gave an ounce of thought about in terms of what it represents. Or the hundreds of Dalit sanitation workers who die annually, cleaning 20-feet sewers by hand.

In high societies, it seems that charity and empowerment have become mere status symbols and there is no real effort in these circles to make a change. Exactly like the #mychoice advert by Vogue starring Deepika Padukone that was criticised for being too ‘elitist, urban and upper class’. Yes, the ad talked about empowering women but those choices are only available to the privileged women.

For a rural girl and woman, the choices are sparse. And when it comes to choice, the best things Vogue could think of was clothing choices and sleeping outside of marriage along with other things that neatly fit into the demographics of the women that can afford to buy Vogue. Feminism and empowerment are used as a packaging material to a nation where young women are finding a voice against patriarchy. When a privileged woman holding a high position in the women’s movement gives empowering speeches in public only to come home and ill-treat her underprivileged maid, we are far from equality. This is exactly what drove Rohith Vemula, the prolific writer and PhD scholar to suicide in 2016. The superficiality of it all.

We have become the nation where the rich favour the rich, men favour men and privileged women favour other privileged women. When they sing ‘saarey jahan se acha, Hindustan hamara’, I see a tiny disclaimer there which says ‘as long as the lower caste and minorities remain complacent in their oppression’.

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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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