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Women in contemporary Indian Politics by Alisha Mordhaya and Somali Chowdhuri

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”Men should be encouraged to study home science in college and hone their culinary skills, while women should be motivated to take up physical education, especially martial arts, as an effort to banish gender bias from society” – Sushma Swaraj, Former Minister of External Affairs of India ((2014–2019).

The term ‘political participation’ has a very wide meaning. It is not only related to ‘Right to Vote’, but simultaneously relates to participation in: decision-making process, political activism, political consciousness, etc.   Women in India believed to participate in voting, run for public offices and political parties at lower levels more than men.

In the age old history of India women like Razia Sultan, Begum Hazrat Mahal , Rani Durgamati, Rani Laxmibai and many such iconic and legendary women marked their position in the sands of time in political arena .
During the Indian national movement Sarla Devi, Muthulaxmi Reddy, Susheela Nair, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Sucheta Kripalani and Aruna Asaf Ali are some the women who participated in the non-violent movement. Kasturba Gandhi, the wife of Mahatma Gandhi, and the women of the Nehru family, Kamla Nehru, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and Swarup Rani, also participated in the National Movement.
Women like sarojini naidu left prominent shadows in the history of women participation in India.
In 1975, Indira Gandhi was the first female Prime minister of India. In 2007 Mrs. Pratibha patil became the first woman president to reside this office. Sucheta kripalani was the first Chief Minister of independent India in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Women till date are continuing to ace this space of politics with increasing number of political participation , with the slogan ‘personal is political ‘.
After so many years of Independence women in politics are still less in number than men. To combat gender inequality in politics, the Indian Government has instituted reservations for seats in local governments. The Government of India directed state and local governments to promote equality by class and gender including equal pay and free legal aid, humane working conditions and maternity relief, rights to work and education, and raising the standard of living. Women were substantially involved in the Indian independence movement in the early 20th century and advocated for independence from Britain. Independence brought gender equality in the form of constitutional rights, but historically women’s political participation has remained low.
Let us look at some powerful and aimbitious women leaders in Contemporary Indian Politics.
1. SONIA GANDHI –
“Mothers should teach their boys how to respect women in their family and in the neighbourhood. Women empowerment should start from home,” – Sonia Gandhi
From a shy Italian girl to one of India’s well known politicians Soniya Gandhi proved that nothing is impossible in life for a person who is always ready to take challenges. She was born in Italy in 1946. She was 18 when she moved to England for studies where she met Rajiv Gandhi, the eldest son of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She fell in love with him and got married in the presence of Indira Gandhi. After the death of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi was chosen as the Prime Minister and Mrs. Soniya Gandhi became the first lady of the country. When Rajiv Gandhi got assassinated in 1991, Congress party asked her to take the leadership but she refused and accepted it after seven long years when Congress faced defeat in 1998.
People expected her to be the pupet in the hands of senior Congress members but she surprised everyone with her zeal and passion in work. In 1999, she fought her first election contesting from Amethi in U.P and Bellary in Karnatakka and won both the seats. She worked harder and smarter to stand firmly in power politics.
Her foreign birth has always been subject to great criticism and hence when people expected her to stand for the post of Prime Minister in 2004, she denied and surprised everyone. Manmohan Singh then became the Prime Minister and Soniya Gandhi always backed him with best of her knowledege and efforts. At present, she is the president of the Indian National Congress. Over the course of her career, Gandhi presided over the advisory councils credited for the formation and subsequent implementation of such rights-based development and welfare schemes as the right to information, Food security bill, and MNREGA. Sonia Gandhi pitched for the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Lower House and described this as “significant step forward in the empowerment of women”.  Her foreign birth has also been a subject of much debate and controversy. Despite all the criticims, Gandhi has been widely described as one of the most powerful politicians in the country, and is often listed among the most powerful women in the world.
2. MAYAWATI –
“I got a haircut as I used to tie my hair back and it took a lot of time…so to not waste ‘samay’ I did a haircut…”
Mayawati the strong dalit leader was born on 15th january 1956. Her father was a post office employee in Uttar Pradesh . The “dalit queen” also called ‘behenji’ by her friends and foes was the first CM to complete a full term of governance in the state of Uttar Pradesh . Been elected and sworned in as the Chief minister 4 times Mayawati had a road to travel in her political life filled with hardships. Her mentor and her ‘guru’ Kanshi Ram was a big influence in her life , completing her graduation in economics and her B.Ed she joined in as a school teacher and aspired to become an IAS officer, however in 1984 she joined the party formed by her ideal Kanshi Ram ‘Bahujan Samaj Party’.
Sworn in as the Chief minister for the fourth time in Uttar Pradesh , Mayawati worked for the cause of the disadvantaged dalit castes. 30% seat reservations in jobs were introduced while she was in office in the private sectors . She is lauded for her works in Yamuna expressway , the noida-greater noida expressway and also the ganga expressway . She made a great change in the political environment of the state , during her tenure , the state saw a significant fall im crimes and dalit based oppressions . Often accused to have lavishly spent money on her personal agendas , she spent crores of money in the building of statues of herself along with the other dalit icons and Dr.Br ambedkar .
“I cannot forget the date of 2nd june 1995 where I was staying … they attacked me in an attempt to kill me”
Mayawati a dalit representative had to face a lot of criticism , sexist comments and backlash and also an incident of disgrace in 1995 when the Mulayam singh Party attacked her when she decided to seperate her party from The upper caste dominated Samajwadi party . “I cannot forget … never … We will never forgive …”.
When she was termed as a prostitute by the opponents , she hurled out of the house in protest ” these comments not only speak about their sunken mentality but also speaks about their anti-caste thoughts”. She has always supported the cause of the lower castes and has worked for their development . A dalit woman who brought an unignorable upsurge in the dalit politics in the Upper caste majoritarian rule in the state of Uttar Pradesh once said ” When I decide to enter politics I did not get that through inheritance “. Strong and vigilant Mayawati still continues to actively work as an opposition in her state of Uttar Pradesh against the ruling Bjp party.
3. JAYALALITHAA –
Born on 24th february 1948 , Jayaram Jayalalithaa was a prominent leader of the states of TAMIL NADU. Also known as “Amma” and “thalaivi” this strong persona had served the post of Chief minister for 6 terms since 1991 to 2016 . A former actress, born in melukote in karnataka , jayalalithaa had to cross a lot of hardships and obstacles in the journey of her political and personal life .
” Many people cant bear to see a woman being powerful and successful … considered intelligent , strong and dynamic , many people simply dont like to taking orders from a woman.”
Jayalalithaa though compelled by her mother to join the film industry , she was a bright student in her schooldays and a brilliant learner . Inspired and aplauded by the famous M.G Ramachandran a famous tamil cultural icon the “Queen of tamil cinema” joined politics . Amma following the footsteps of her co-star and colleague MGR joined the party formed by him , AIADMK when he was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.
Later , she became a member of the parliament from the upper house and rose to heights of popularity through her political activism . She led the opposition front against the ruling party led by Karunanidhi DMK , post her combats with the widow of MGR and proclaiming herself as the sole heir to the party .
In 1991 finally she won the elections and took an oath as the most junior Chief minister of the state .
Her successful cradle-baby scheme, provided many young mothers with the opportunity to offer their babies for adoption . After her 2011 poll wins she regained popularity inspite of the controversies hurling around her political and personal arena , by her “amma branded” goods for eg: canteens, packaged water bottles, salt and cement . Disqualified from holding office due to an assets case controversy , she was the first CM to be back in office with an election win after being acquitted in 2015. Born in the tamil brahmin family of tamil nadu , this revolutionary and legendary female political icon died on 5th december 2016 to a cardiac arrest. Till date she is reffered to as the “Amma” of Tamil Nadu .
4. MAMATA BANERJEE –
“What does ‘panga’ mean ? It means to try to mess with someone, but that makes me ‘changa’ even more stronger”
Mamata Banerjee also known as the ‘INDOMITABLE DIDI OF BENGAL’ was born on 5th of january 1955 . A charismatic personality powered with an amazing and spectacular talent of a great political orator and a revolutionary leader is the 8th Chief minister of west bengal and the 1st Female chief minister of the state .
She formed the party ALL INDIA TRINAMOOL CONGRESS in the year 1998 after seperation from the Indian national congress party . She joined the congress student wing during graduation in 1970 and since that early age she has been catching eyes of the pro communist bengal population as a strong political activist. Her emotional public protest and her iconic fall on the road during the J.P narayan movement to block the anti Indira Gandhi protest are unforgettable and historic. At the age of just 29 she became the youngest MPs defeating the then CPI(M) leader Somenath Chatterjee and winning the ‘marxist birthplace’ jadavpur constituency .
Her slogan “MAA MATI MANUSH” gained wide and myriad impetus among the people of bengal .Her Gandhian policy of simple lifestyle and basic living provided her fame and love from the bengal masses . She became a distinctive fashion icon with her plain white saree with blue or green border and her ‘chappals’. She made a memorable general legislative assembly win in the 2011 ending the 34 year long Communist rule in the state of west bengal with her impeccable demeanour and stature .
She is credited for her work in Gorkhaland. She is also praised for being able to end the naxal agitation movement immideately after her signing in as the Chief minister of India . The goverment of West Bengal has been awarded by the UNITED NATIONS HONOUR in 2017 for its achievements in the policy of ‘KANYASHREE’ . Today due to the efficient Public distribution of food resources West bengal stands at a position much higher in human development index to its western counterpart state gujrat whose economy is about 30% larger than DIDI’s state .
An artist , a poet , a songwriter and with many other talents DIDI continues to win the hearts of the people of Bengal and Is the longest serving female Chief minister of Bengal till date . She says ” continue your movement according to your democratic rights , dont be scared and dont care anybody except your conviction”. Born in the slums of kalighat in kolkata is now the “IRON LADY OF BENGAL”.
5. SUSHMA SWARAJ –
Sushma swaraj, senior leader of Bharatiya Janata Party, served as the Minister of External Affairs of India in the first tenure of the Narendra Modi government of 2014–2019. Swaraj was the second woman to hold the office, after the former P.M Mrs.Indira Gandhi. This bold and vigilant lady was born on 14th february 1952 in Ambala Cantt .
Swaraj was elected seven times as an MP and thrice as an MLA .Sushma Swaraj at just the age of 25 set history when she bacame the youngest member of the cabinet from the state of Haryana dating back in 1977 . Serving as the 5th Chief Minister of Delhi she was the first female to do so , though it was for a short duration.
While in the office of External Affairs Minister, she played an important role in bringing back the then 23-year-old hearing and speech-impaired Indian girl Gita who was in Pakistan for 15 years.
She won the 2009 election for the 15th Lok Sabha from the Vidisha Lok Sabha constituency in Madhya Pradesh. During the times of the Emergency, on 13 July 1975, Sushma Swaraj married Swaraj Kaushal, a peer and fellow advocate at the Supreme Court of India. The Emergency movement brought together the couple, who then teamed up for the defence of the socialist leader George Fernandes. Swaraj Kaushal, a senior advocate of Supreme Court of India and a criminal lawyer, also served as Governor of Mizoram from 1990 to 1993. He was a member of parliament from 1998 to 2004.
On 19 February 2019, Swaraj accepted the prestigious Grand Cross of Order of Civil Merit, which was conferred by the Spanish government in recognition of India’s support in evacuating its citizens from Nepal during the earthquake in 2015.
On 6 August 2019, Sushma Swaraj reportedly suffered a heart attack in the evening after which she was rushed to AIIMS New Delhi, where she later died of a coronary infarction.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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