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What We Can Learn About Gender Justice From These 5 Award-Winning NGOs!

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Feminism in Everyday Life means different things to different people. To Dr Martha Farrell it was about identifying the gender stereotypes around us, and chipping away at them. Small actions become big actions which become big changes in our societies. And that was her goal. 

Her work in women’s empowerment and gender justice began in 1981. Newly graduated from Delhi University and entering the development sector, Dr Farrell set off on a 34-year-long journey towards equality and equity. But it was cut short in 2015, while Dr Farrell was visiting Kabul. Armed terrorists attacked the guest house she was staying in, killing her and 13 other people. 

The loss was deeply felt. But what took centre-stage was the effort to make sure the feminist leader’s values and principles lived on. And that came with the Martha Farrell Award for Excellence in Women’s Empowerment. There are many Indians like Martha who hold those principles close. And it was time to recognise their efforts.

Dr Martha Farrell. Image courtesy of Martha Farrell Foundation.

Feminism in Everyday Life means different things to different people. And it leads to different actions for social change. Over the last five years, we’ve discovered five organisations from across India that truly demonstrate Martha’s ideas. And here are their stories:

Rural And Environmental Development Society

When Cheruvu Bhanuja first met Lakshmi Devi in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh, the latter was struggling with an unforgiving situation. At 15, Lakshmi had been married to an alcoholic who eventually left her to fend for herself. 

For Lakshmi and other women like her, Bhanuja arranged for a plot of land that would provide the economic independence they needed. They weren’t just cultivating groundnuts, tomatoes, and other produce. They were learning about share purchasing processes, share capital, and the entire process of food production.

Bhanuja founded Rural and Environmental Development Society (REDS) in 1996. And for the last 25 years, the grassroots organisation has remained committed to gender equality in its work with communities. But it does something else that’s equally vital – it also walks the talk. What could be better than leading by example? And internally, REDS has indeed set a good one.

To create a gender-fair workplace and ensure gender equity, REDS follows a non-negotiable policy. 50% of our registered executive body women,” says Bhanuja, adding that “more than 50% of staff members are women as well.” REDS has made it compulsory for its women members to be part of all its decision-making processes.

And that’s what won REDS the Martha Farrell Award in 2020.

Cheruvu Bhanuja at the 4th Martha Farrell Award Ceremony, accepting the award for Best Organization for Gender Equality. Source: Martha Farrell Foundation.

Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti

Why should parents stop girls from playing football? And if they permit it, why should they wear ‘modest’ and sport-unfriendly salwar kurtas while playing? Why don’t daughters get the same treatment and opportunities as sons? What kind of a life has society forced upon them? These were the burning questions that the girls in Tonk, Ajmer, and Bhilwara always wanted to ask, but couldn’t. Until Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti (MJAS) created a safe space for them to speak their minds and raise their voices for gender equality. 

Registered as an organisation in 2000, its founding members are all too aware of the oppressive patriarchal world young girls grow up in. “We are Dalit women who have faced untouchability and discrimination. We are survivors of domestic violence and sexual harassment,” says Co-Founder Bhavri Bai.

Even as they looked at these realities in the eye, the women of MJAS refused to back down. Who better to empower the next generation? At its core, the organisation pursues feminist leadership. 

And in 2019, they won the Martha Farrell Award for Excellence in Women’s Empowerment.

Members of the Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti, with Indira Pancholi on the extreme right. Source: MJAS/Facebook.

Majlis Legal Centre

It’s no secret that the judicial system, at nearly every level, is hard on women. Double victimization of women survivors of violence is routine in Indian courts. There is fear about taking action, be it filing a police complaint against a molester (often being turned away!), or repeated appearances in court under the gaze of insensitive lawyers and magistrates. What’s needed is a feminist approach to law. And that’s exactly what our 2017 winner Majlis Legal Centre is doing. 

The Mumbai-based organisation has an all-women team, and fully feminist policies to support each member. Apart from its work in the outside world, Majlis looks within to create a fair and equal environment. The Centre provides different modes of working for employees who have small children or have recently given birth. Having options like part-time, flexi-time, or work-from-home is proven to help women not only remain in the workforce and gain an income but also encourages the entry of more women. 

All law organisations have policies like these. And why stop there? Majlis Legal Centre has set a great example for organisations of all kinds.

Members of Majlis Legal Centre, with Founder Flavia Agnes at the centre. Source: Majlis Law Newsletter.

Resource And Support Centre For Development

The Martha Farrell Award brought onto our radar an organisation with very impressive leadership. The Resource and Support Centre for Development (RSCD) has been working on women’s representation in Panchayats since 1994. They run a campaign called Mahila Rajsatta Andolan all across the state of Maharashtra to make women’s wholehearted participation in governance a reality. And if change starts at home, RSCD has made sure its goal of gender equality and equity is reflected in its organizational structure. 

Both senior leadership and district teams are made up entirely of women. And when the teams are in the field, they train all-male sarpanches and panches on gender and governance. These interventions are crucial to change the male-dominated landscape of local-level administration.

No doubt about it; the famous feminist slogan “the personal is the political” is infused in RSCD’s work.

Women of the Mahila Rajsatta Andolan in Wardha. Source: RSCDINDIA/Facebook.

Association For Social And Human Awareness (ASHA)

In 2020, the Martha Farrell Foundation introduced for the first time the ‘Special Jury Award’, which went to this very-deserving Ranchi-based organisation. Fondly called ASHA, the Association for Social and Human Awareness has led the fight against witch-hunting in rural Jharkhand. There are innumerable cases of individuals accusing a ‘wayward’ woman of witchcraft.

The charges are mostly levelled against Adivasi women. A manifestation of our society’s misogynistic and undeniably casteist attitudes, it doesn’t take long for entire communities to violently attack the woman. The crime is, more often than not, fatal. In a state with frequent witch-hunting, ASHA’s work is critical. 

ASHA Founder Ajay Jaiswal and Chhutni Devi pose for a photograph smiling
Ajay Jaiswal, the founder of ASHA, poses for a photographer with activist and anti-witch hunting crusader Chhutni Devi, who also recently won the Padma Bhushan (January 2021). Source: Association of Social and Human Awareness/Facebook.

Who Next?

The year is now 2021, and the 5th Martha Farrell Award is on the horizon. Do you know of individuals and organisations like these that has dedicated the past five years or more to make the world a more feminist and gender-just place? Is there a gender champion in your city who deserves more attention? We want to know all about them. Help us identify this year’s Award winners and participate in the nomination process!

Faces and logos of the 10 individuals and organisations that won the Martha Farrell Award, between 2017 and 2020.

Write to mfa@marthafarrellfoundation.org to receive the nomination forms. 

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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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