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While the US Has Its First Woman VP-Elect, Where Does India Stand In Women Representation?

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Kamala Harris, VP-Elect of the United States of America, has secured a special place in the history of her country. Her election has attained many firsts in the political spectrum of the USA. She comes from a family that justifies the concept of the American Dream. Her mother an Indian, father a Jamaican, Kamala is the first woman from an African-American descendant, the first Indo-American and the first Asian ever to attain such an important position in the United States.

America is a country with a harrowing past of atrocities against Blacks and people of colour, spanning many centuries. Kamala’s election comes at a crucial point when there is widespread tension between different communities and a multifold increase in the cases of police brutalities against the Afro-Americans, similar to that of George Floyd’s murder. Political pundits hope that her administration will work as a binding force against the sharp polarisation that has become a characteristic of the modern world today.

Kamala Harris is not the only woman who has been bestowed upon with a responsibility of such stature. In this piece, we will look into Kamala’s motherland, our own country, the land of goddesses, India, and read about some of the important women leaders who have played a decisive role in the history and politics of India.

The Freedom Struggle

Lakhs of freedom fighters struggled and gave their lives to liberate the nation from British oppression. Without the involvement of women, this struggle for freedom could not have achieved its goals. They walked side-by-side, faced the same horrors from the British police as their male counterparts, and were some of the best-known leaders in the face of the emerging Indian Freedom Movement.

Rani Lakshmi Bai

Rani Lakshmi Bai

Khoob ladi mardani vo to… Jhansi wali Rani thi…” is a line familiar to many a child and adult in this country. Manikarnika Tambe, popularly known as Jhansi ki Rani, was one of the earliest women leaders who fought against the British empire. She broke the gender roles defined by society at that time. She took over the reins of her kingdom, which was about to be annexed into the British empire. She led her army on the battlefield with her toddler son saddled across her back. She laid her life for her state, fighting for what was rightfully hers. “Main apni Jhansi nahi dungi…” was her call against British oppression. Rani Laxmi Bai became a symbol of resistance and valour for the generations to come.

Sarojini Naidu

Sarojini Chattopadhyay Naidu, often referred to as the Nightingale of India, was a popular freedom fighter. She was a close aide of Mahatma Gandhi and a flag bearer of women’s role in the Independence movement. She persuaded Mahatma Gandhi to include women in the Civil Disobedience Movement. In 1925, Sarojini Naidu became the first woman ever to head the Indian National Congress. Later, she became the first woman to hold the position of governor of the United Provinces, soon after Independence.

With higher education from London and Cambridge, she travelled across India advocating freedom of women, gender revolution and nationalism. She worked alongside Annie Besant in the Women’s Indian Association (WIA). Her brilliant poetry led Gandhiji to name her the Nightingale of India. She was given the title of Bharat Kokila by Rabindranath Tagore.

Post Independence

Indira Gandhi

In 1966, Indira Gandhi, daughter of Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, was elected as the Prime Minister of India. Indira was the first woman head of a democratic government, not only in India, but also in the whole world. She was the first lady to lead a modern country. She was a woman of strong stature and resolute will. Indira Gandhi fought her way to the top and maintained her government for more than 11 years. She faced multiple challenges such as the refugee crisis and threat of a US attack. She victoriously led the country into a war with Pakistan and played a crucial role in the formation of Bangladesh. Decisions like the initiation of the nuclear programme despite severe warnings by the US and green-flagging operations like Blue Star gave her the image of an iron lady.

Her social welfare policies, including the nationalisation of banks and moratorium on loans for the poor transformed her into a mass leader. Indira Gandhi was a bold lady who played a crucial role in the making of modern India.

Jayalalithaa ‘Amma’

Jayalalitha

 

Jayalalithaa was one of the most ambitious political leaders India has seen. From being known as the “Queen of Tamil cinema” to serving as a chief minister for six terms, she became one of the most revered women in south India. In 1991, she became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, becoming the youngest ever chief minister of the state. She had joined the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) in 1982, at the heights of her acting career.

She took control of her party in 1987, after the death of her mentor, founder of the party and the political heavyweight M.G.Ramchandran (MGR). She belonged to a humble background, who fought her way up in politics. Jayalalithaa was a gifted orator, with a mastery over multiple languages. She was applauded by Indira Gandhi for her speeches in Rajya Sabha.

After becoming the CM, she took concrete steps to control female child infanticide and foeticide. She started more than 50 police stations, completely run by women officers. Other forms of all-women programmes like libraries and banks were also established. She played a crucial role in the technological development of her state as well, by getting many motor vehicle companies to invest in Chennai. Whether it was prohibiting the selling of chewing tobacco or the compulsory integration of rainwater harvesting systems (RWAs), her modus operandi was resolute, and she got things done on time without any ifs or buts.

Jayalalithaa passed away in 2016 after battling with prolonged sickness.

Mamta Banerjee

Mamta Banerjee, or Didi, as she is popularly known, is a household name in today’s politics. A fierce politician and the Chief Minister of West Bengal for 10 years in a row, she broke the electoral hegemony of the Communist Party of India- Marxist (CPI-M) in 2011, which was ruling West Bengal for 35 years without a break.

Prior to her Chief Ministership, she had been an important part of multiple central Cabinets. She held the portfolio of the railway ministry for 10 years. In 1997, she broke away from the Congress Party and formed All India Trinamool Congress. Initially competing in the Municipal election, she fought her way up to the position of Chief Minister. Mamata Banerjee is a well-read woman with multiple Master’s degrees, ranging from law to Islamic studies. She started her political career in her college days by joining the student wing of the Congress party.

Mayawati

The political rise of Mayawati was termed as a miracle of democracy by P.V. Narasimha Rao. A Dalit woman, Mayawati undoubtedly rose from the bottom of the prevailing caste system in India to chief ministership. She has been elected as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh four times now. Mayawati is the National President of the Bahujan Samaj Party, the party that she joined in 1983. She is a law graduate from the University of Delhi and first got elected to the Parliament in 1989. Though her career has been criticised for being corrupt, she has progressively worked towards the upliftment of the most downtrodden communities of UP.

Representational Issues in the Indian Politics

These were some of the most well-known examples of women who have shown exemplary leadership qualities and assisted in the development of our country. But all in all, the representation of women in India is still quite low, even after 73 years of Independence.

Women’s representation in the Indian Parliament is well below the global average. In terms of women’s participation in governance and in the Parliament, India is ranked 148 globally. Only approximately 13% members of both the Houses of Parliament are women. The world average, however, is 20-25%.

Reservation for women in the Parliament is the need of the hour. There have been many talks of introducing the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Parliament for 33% seat reservation. Every major party promises these reforms during elections, but no concrete result has come out yet. It makes sense for male political leaders to not give up a third of the total seats to women legislators.

According to many critics, introducing reservation won’t lead to any actual upliftment of women, because these seats will mostly be contested by the wives and daughters of male political heavyweights. It will remain difficult for independent, worthy women candidates to win elections.

More important than reservation is providing adequate education and a safe childhood to every girl. This will empower them to fight their own battles.

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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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