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Caste And Privilege: What Two Encounters With College Staff Taught Me About Making Choices

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“I got married when I was sixteen. My husband cleaned the toilets back in our village, so did my father and his father and his father too. This is our caste’s work. I hadn’t been to school, but I taught myself how to read a little. Some years after marriage, my husband and I moved to Delhi with our children.

He wanted to find better work here, and he didn’t want me to do the work our families have done. He was lucky because he had friends in the city. He was a peon in an office for almost ten years. He died of cancer when my eldest son was still in high school. I don’t know if it’s funny or sad, but life is strange. Here I am cleaning toilets.”

Representational Image.

This is the story of Sakuntala, a fifty-year-old woman who cleans the washrooms at a Delhi University college. When asked about her working conditions, she ambivalently says, “It’s against the wishes of my late husband and my children don’t like it (her job) either, but at least I get paid more than our fathers. I have a roof over my head, food on my plate, and an assurance that I will have work tomorrow. That too in a city like Delhi, this is enough for me.”

However, she has a lot more to say about her relationship with the student body of the college. “You would expect educated girls to know how to use a toilet and be cleaner, but the work is endless. I am cleaning almost constantly during my shift. It never ends and by the end of an hour or two, it looks like I have done no work at all. To the in-charge, I am at fault. The girls call me aunty or didi, they are sweet when they ask me to do something for them, but most of the time they don’t notice me. Nobody is rude or disrespectful, I just get tired now that I’m old.”

The concept of caste purity is central to the caste system in India. It is believed that cleaning up after other people is dirty work and therefore unsuitable for people belonging to higher castes, who are inherently purer. It is astounding how, even today, decades after the abolishment of caste discrimination, the belief that maintaining hygiene and basic cleanliness is too degrading a job to burden ourselves with is as strong as ever in our minds.

Ghanshyam, a sixty-something old man who maintains the lawns, gardens and the fields, however, has next to no relationship with the students of which he could speak. “Entire weeks go by where we don’t talk to any students. They move when we ask them to (from the lawns during work hours) and sometimes we have to ask twice. Most of our communication is with the college. We are friends with the guards at the college gate, a lot of girls wish them a good morning and they usually don’t have any problems. We don’t mind, we are just here to work. It is a good job, my children are all working in better places, and my wife and I earn enough to run our home.”

caste based discrimination
Representational image.

“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears,” is a famous quote by Nelson Mandela. To the young, the educated, and the privileged, this quote perhaps suggests a choice – a choice to take steps towards goals and not just away from worries. But aren’t our goals and these very worries too constantly being shaped by our socio-political realities? An aim to make ends meet, as well as an aspiration, to obtain a degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the country – both have history attached to them.

We all have fundamental, constitutional rights to livelihood and education. However, we all differ in our ability to actualise these rights. Some factors influencing this ability are more widely acknowledged in today’s society, such as physical health and class. Other factors like caste and gender continue to intersect in complex ways, and we continue to turn a blind eye to them in our daily lives.

Hope seems like a basic instinct when there is much to hope for. Capital, both economic and social, buys us opportunities, respect, dignity, and perhaps most significantly – a voice. However, at a point in time where we have the opportunity to study about revolutions of the past and the injustices of the present, it seems grossly inadequate for our engagement with those less fortunate than us to be limited to simple niceties. Our understanding of oppression is as good and as bad as our understanding of the people around us, especially in places we consider equitable (because “at least we have reservation, no?”).

In our attempt to reconcile the archaic baggage of inequality with modern and liberal ideals, we sometimes overestimate how far we have actually come. We like to believe we owe those less fortunate than us seats for a few years, but we do not owe them our ears and every effort to rid our own minds of prejudice. All this, while at the same time dictating what reform needs to look like and what progress actually means. The tragedy of academia is that it is this absence of other, less privileged voices in our lives and subsequently our scholarly bubbles too, that perpetuates our woke hypocrisy.

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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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