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Working In Rural India Made Me Realize Feminism Has A Long Way Ahead

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This article of mine is a sort of continuation to a previous article published last month.

I first heard the word ‘Feminism’ probably towards the end of my final year in college. I graduated from an engineering college of national repute where the sex ratio was somewhere around 5:1, i.e., 5 boys for 1 girl. The ratio changed depending on the branch you chose (or ended up in). I can write a Chetan Bhagat kind of book on that, but that’s not my purpose (nor do I wish to preach the Chetan Bhagat brand of feminism). When a friend of mine called me a ‘chauvinist’ I had to google the word up to understand what should I reply to her. Now we both discuss women’s issues across different time zones and in a way I’m glad she no longer calls me a ‘chauvinist’.

When I joined Ashoka University after graduation, the tables had turned. I was in a class where around 60% junta were women, and a large part of my fellowship experience was shaped primarily due to that. I remember, three terms into the fellowship I asked a classmate of mine the difference between sex and gender. I was judged, but she also patiently answered my question. A lot of my thoughts and opinions have been shaped largely due to the wonderful peer group I had at Young India Fellowship. Some wonderful women have shaped my thoughts, patiently answered my questions, and also pointed out my mistakes. I make a point to read more books authored by women now, but I’m still far off the halfway mark I should honour them.

girls_school
This is a photo from a Government School in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. We distributed a month of sanitary napkins for all girls in the school.

When #metoo movement happened last year, a lot of men were astounded to see the number of women coming out. The closest of friends posted #metoo on Facebook to give an indication of how normalised things are. I also know men who made fun of it privately, and I also know men who were quick to brandish it as ‘elitist’, calling it social media activism. I, on the other hand, felt it was a start in a good direction. A lot of men at least came to realise the issue at hand. There will also be men in positions of power who will want to do something about it, read about gender issues, tackle them head-on.

A lot of issues related to women, at least in India, were left unaddressed because the people in power were men, who necessarily didn’t think of them as an issue. Reading articles, research papers, etc. made me realise how every issue in public policy is also a gender issue from water scarcity to sanitation. Water Scarcity directly affects women first, then men; because it, sadly, is primarily a woman’s responsibility to fetch water. Swachh Bharat movement changed the game for rural women because they didn’t have to walk for miles in darkness. We still have miles to go, but thanks to more women in development and policy sector, gender issues are being addressed at a larger scale than before.

As I go to rural hinterlands of this country, away from the metros and the cities, I realise that problem is still so deep-rooted, and we are just scratching the surface and hailing it. Feminism hasn’t yet trickled down. It has entered the urban consciousness, but rural India is at least a generation away. In last three months or so, I have scratched my head around the gender issues plaguing the area I am in, only to realize it’s a long battle. In our country, a family is sacrosanct, which by default is patriarchal in nature. The Supreme Court refused to recognise marital rape as a law because it will disturb ‘the family, the very basis of India’s social structure’.  The women, over centuries, have internalised this and a woman’s honour has become family’s honour. The tragedy is that the very family which is so concerned about woman’s honour abuses that woman. The family has the ultimate control over a woman’s sexuality. Therefore, then, honour killings become normal, sati was normal (because what is a woman without her dead husband?).

A woman in the village has to first look after her family, feed her husband, her children, her in-laws, wash their clothes, do the dishes, fetch water, and then if time permits come to attend the meeting of local Self Help Group (which by the way is divided across caste, class and religious lines). A rural woman, also sometimes, becomes the Sarpanch of the village thanks to reservations, but she has no agency. A man (husband or son) roams around calling himself the Sarpanch of the village, and everyone gladly addresses him so. A lot of girls get married by the time they are 22-23 (and child marriage is pretty common, by the way, no one minds it). In such a scenario, I often end up confused as to where should I start, how do we really empower the women, make them realise that they have agency beyond their family. People who have tried to rake up revolutions in the village society are often thrown out because it disturbs the ‘family structure’.

Feminism, to those who have an issue with the word, is nothing but a gender equality movement. We can debate on the semantics later, that as of now, is not my point. I personally feel, coupled with class and caste, looking at development issues through a lens of gender can help solve a lot of our issues. The question is how. We need to sensitise more men, especially development professionals, to take up the baton. Coupled with more women working in the rural hinterlands of our country. Development with respect to gender in rural India is trapped in a vicious circle. We need more women volunteers to work in rural India, but the environment is not exactly conducive for a woman. But at the same time, unless a woman enters the chakravyuh, it can’t be broken. I, as a man, have my own limitations. A woman, on the other hand, if she decides can do wonders on a rural level with respect to gender issues. All the talk of feminism in cities and on social media, will remain trapped in the same space unless women visit rural India and help feminism trickle down. I see more and more women run NGOs in urban spaces, that sadly isn’t the case when it comes to rural India. Lot of NGOs are run by men with a focus on education, sanitation, agriculture, water, health, etc. but not necessarily gender. I have limited view as to how do we change this scenario. For a start, I think we need fellowships sponsoring women, in particular, to work in rural India, with focus on gender. It is also the collective responsibility of all those in development space to ensure that this becomes a good model, to ensure it succeeds.

Feminism, the talk of it, the movement needs to trickle down. It needs to break its predominantly urban and linguistic shackles and enter the realm of a common tongue. And we need to educate not only girls but also boys in this country about it. The question is how soon.

Ending with sharing a video of a TED talk by award-winning American writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, on why ‘we should all be feminists’.

 

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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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