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Why Empowerment Is Just An Illusion For Some Women In India

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By Priya Ahluwalia

We live in a patriarchal society. While this system has been there for centuries, it adapts itself to its time to ensure its continuity. These changes often occur as a response to any resistance from the oppressed (who in this case can be women, trans people, and nonbinary people). While the change allows for a slight concession to the needs of the oppressed, the overall system ensures that the disparity between men and women continues.

One of the most common ways in which this system adapts is by providing an illusion of choice and progression in specific situations. In recent interactions with some of the people with whom Prerana works, it has been observed that this illusion is a common thread among their narratives.

The acceptable work options as defined by the family are limited to working as a house-help, or a cook or taking up a part-time job that does not interfere with her existing household responsibilities. Representational image.

Gayatri (name changed) is the primary caregiver for a victim of commercial sexual exploitation. She comes from a family that believes that the women of their family should not interact with men, outside of their family. This belief has held Gayatri back from pursuing her dream of working and being financially independent.

However, she has negotiated her way to work towards her dream by doing work, like tailoring and sewing, that could be done from within her house but would also let her earn. Through this, Gayatri has been able to save some money, and this money was helpful in assisting her family during the financial difficulties they experienced during the COVID-19 imposed lockdown.

Seeing the utility of her earnings, Gayatri’s family has now modified their stance and believes that Gayatri should work. However, the acceptable work options as defined by the family are limited to working as a house-help, or a cook or taking up a part-time job that does not interfere with her existing household responsibilities. Thus, Gayatri can work, however, her work should be within the approved choices as decided by the men in the family.

Moreover, the money thus earned would no longer be for Gayatri’s financial independence but rather the property of her husband. So, while the system may have slightly progressed for Gayatri, it continues to let men control the resources and decisions of the women.

Parineeti (name changed) is a victim of commercial sexual exploitation. She was restored to her family in July 2020. Like Gayatri, Parineeti comes from a conservative family that believes men are the head of the household, responsible for carrying the legacy forward and ensuring the wellbeing of their parents in old age.

Men in Parineeti’s family are the decision-makers. They are also given more freedom to choose their life partners. Whereas, women in her family are rarely given the opportunity to voice their opinions and have to accept the decisions made for them by the men in the family. When Parineeti expressed her desire to get married to someone of her choosing, her family did not approve of the same. Thus, it became a constant source of conflict within their family.

For several months, the family remained resolute in their decision to marry Parineeti to a man of their choice. However, this suddenly changed in July 2020, when Parineeti’s only brother passed away. Parineeti’s brother was also the primary earner in the family and responsible for taking care of their father who is suffering from a serious heart condition.

With her brother’s death, Parineeti had to shoulder these responsibilities. However, Parineeti’s father did not believe that a woman could take care of the family. Thus, they began to coerce her to immediately get married to her boyfriend. One of the conditions for the marriage was that the son in law will take Parineeti’s brother’s position and take care of the family’s finances as well as the father’s health.

However, Parineeti opposed this condition. She was given the ultimatum of either getting married now or not getting married at all. Thus, while it may seem that her family progressed by accepting her decision of getting married to a person she loved, there was no freedom of choice present for Parineeti in terms of when and how she wanted to get married. Moreover, the family changed not for Parineeti’s benefit but because it helped them to continue to uphold their orthodox beliefs.

As stakeholders working with young women, it is important that we understand the system in which these young women are existing. Furthermore, if we do see smaller adjustments in the system, it is important to regularly assess them to see whether they really benefit the communities or are only operating under the guise of progression.

Nevertheless, these adjustments may serve as openings for a larger resistance. Stakeholders working with young women must tread a thin line where they acknowledge these modifications, and use them to further stoke the fires of dissent. Women should be encouraged to raise questions and continue to resist the system of oppression in any way possible.

Disclaimer: All names of women and children have been changed in this article.

This post was first published in Prerana’s online resource center. To know more about human trafficking and issues of child protection in India, read here

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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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