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An Ode To The Fearless Women Who Weren’t Afraid To Take On The System

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This year, I wanted to celebrate women’s day differently. So, I began a women’s day series, where I illustrate and share the stories of one inspiring woman every day. The intention is to document and share stories of fearless and revolutionary women. Let’s admire some women, shall we? Here’s the list till now, read away:

1. Bhanwari Devi

I wanted to begin with Bhanwari Devi. Since I came across her story a while ago, I have wanted to write about her. Her story is full of struggles and hardships, but also of hope and inspiration. She is a social activist from Rajasthan. In 1992, she was working as a Saathin in Women’s Development Project. In her fight against orthodox practices, one particular day, she prevented the marriage of a one-year-old girl child.

Offended by her actions and triggered by the fact that she was a lower caste, the father of the child who belonged to upper-caste along with other Gurjar men gang-raped her. After days of struggle, she finally succeeded to file an FIR, but the court ruled in favor of the accused saying “upper-caste men won’t defile themselves by raping a lower caste”, among other absurd things.

Sadly, she never received justice, and yet, she continues to fight this battle for others and inspire other women to stand up for themselves. Her case was majorly responsible for the landmark judgment of 1997, that laid down the Vishakha Guidelines.

Vishakha Guidelines provided the definitions of sexual harassment at the workplace and established requirements for employers to deal with complaints of sexual assault. Later, in 2013 a proper act was passed, which is known as Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act or POSH act.

2. Urvashi Butalia

A publisher, writer, and feminist, she is the founder of Zubaan Books and co-founder of Kali for Women, the first feminist publishing house of India.

I was introduced to her writings in my college, as it was one of the recommended readings on partition history. I think one of the best things about studying is that sometimes you just stumble upon something you’ve never thought of, and when you read about it, it feels like you’re exposed to an entirely new worldview! Her writings did the same for me. I read an excerpt from her book, ‘The other side of silence’ and I was amazed because I’d never viewed partition through the lens of gender.

In this book, she used intersectionality to view history and establish something called as ‘people’s history’. She mostly relied on oral history to gather the information about partition, and how the events conspired, how they impacted the lives of the people on both sides of the border. It is considered as one of the critical academic texts on understanding the partition. Another interesting fact about the book is that she started working on it in the aftermath of the 1984 riots that brought back the horror of partition.

She has authored several other books as well. Also, she, along with Ritu Menon, who had set up Kali for Women, received Padma Shri for their work in Literature and Education.

3. Iqbal Bano

A fiery woman who openly defied and rejected the dictatorship of Zia Ul Haq and his radical Islamist ideas in Pakistan. He banned all the works by Faiz, and also imposed restrictions on women, including wearing Saree.

A fearless woman as she was, to mark her protest against the repressive regime, she wore a black saree and sang Faiz’s ‘Hum Dekhenge’ in front of 50,000 people! Moved by her passionate rendition of Hum Dekhenge, the stadium was filled with the chants of ‘Inquilab Zindabad’. Despite the ban on her public performances, she became one of the most powerful voices of resistance. I don’t think one can remember Faiz without mentioning Iqbal Bano.

Iqbal Bano was born in Delhi and later moved to Pakistan where she spent the rest of her life. Along with ghazals she also sang light classical for films. She educated the masses about social and economic inequality and injustices through ghazals and songs. Her rendition of Hum Dekhenge brings chills every time I listen to it. Her voice fills me up with emotions that I can’t even explain.

4. Sudha Bharadwaj

She is known to be ‘people’s lawyer’ and has dedicated her life to protect the rights of the most marginalised sections of people in the mineral-rich conflict-ridden Chhattisgarh. She’s been working continuously for the rights of the workers, farmers, and, tribals. I will not attempt to document her entire life’s work here because that would be endless. But, it breaks my heart to see the apathy of the government and the police. They’re so afraid of the people who fight for justice that they put so much effort into silencing the voices of dissent. They are afraid of strong women who fight for their rights, who challenge the state, and who are fearless.

All the activists who are arrested have been charged under IPC 125 for allegedly making hate speeches and inciting violence, planning the assassination of PM and having connections with Maoists. According to the reports, the charges are fabricated, and the activists are being framed. Recently, the case has been transferred to NIA and had its first hearing. The next hearing would be on March 13. The case is being overlooked because of the current situation. I know it’s tiresome to keep track of what all is going on. But, we have to keep this fight going, and we need to keep asking questions.

5. Parveena Ahangar

She is known as the ‘iron lady’ of Kashmir for fighting against the state violence and human rights violation in Kashmir and the problem of ‘enforced disappearance’. According to the UN, enforced disappearance is a crime against humanity where people are picked up by state officials or on the order of state officials, and they go missing without any knowledge of their whereabouts or existence. This is a term that haunts people of Kashmir and other militarized areas in India.

It is one thing to lose someone, but it is even worse not to know what happened to them. Like so many people in Kashmir, Parveena Ahangar is also a victim of this horrific crime. Her son Javaid was taken by the army in August 1990. After losing faith in the state system, she, along with other parents who suffered the same fate, established Kashmir’s first human rights association. It is called The Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP). Many international organizations have also recognized her constant efforts against state violence and her fight for the rights of Kashmiris. She was nominated for Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.

APDP is fighting a battle against the state’s whitewashing of the crimes committed over the years on Kashmiris. APDP has been holding peaceful protests to register their resistance against the continuous violence, and to remember the ones who were lost in the madness of power and politics.

Parveena Ahangar is an epitome of resilience, fearlessness, and strength. Her efforts have given hope to so many individuals. ‘Blood leaves its trail’ is a documentary on her journey that needs to be watched. Besides, there are several other books and films that should be on your list to understand the gravity of the situation.

6. Karuna Nundy

Another woman to join the list of fearless women is Karuna Nundy! A fierce feminist and Supreme Court lawyer who has been working to safeguard the rights of the people. She has made her way to ‘Corporate India’s Fastest Rising Women Leaders’ list. Her report on Anti Rape Laws was crucial for the Amendment in Criminal law 2 Act in 2013 after the infamous Nirbhaya case of Delhi.

Also, she has been fighting to get justice for the families that suffered in the Bhopal gas tragedy. Considered as one of the worst industrial disasters, it is shameful that the main accused, Warren Anderson, was never convicted in the case, while the families still wait for justice. Karuna Nundy is one of the most powerful voices in our country today who are fighting for the democratisation of speech women’s rights, internet freedom, etc. Recently she was named in the ‘Forbes’ Self Made Women 2020‘.

Isn’t it wonderful to have women who speak their minds, fight against inequality and give us reasons to believe in the world? Here’s to the unapologetic feminist who takes down misogyny and patriarchy one case at a time.

*This is not an exhaustive list, and I will keep making additions to it. You can follow me on instagram for the updated list.

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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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