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Why Was Kiruba Munusamy Penalised For Being A Menstruating Woman?

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On 28 September, 2018, The Supreme Court of India announced its groundbreaking verdict on an extremely controversial issue — the court finally struck down the ban on menstruating women to enter the Sabarimala temple in Kerala. This judgement was lauded for ushering in the hope of progressive and feminist judgement from the apex court. 

Kiruba Munusamy
Kiruba Munusamy.

Now, imagine being a lawyer in this same Supreme court and being fired for taking a one-day leave due to menstrual cramps. This is exactly the harrowing experience of Kiruba Munusamy, a young female Dalit lawyer of the Supreme Court, hailing from Salem in Tamil Nadu. How paradoxical.

Unfortunately, Kiruba was on the receiving end of two-pronged discrimination — her identity as a Dalit overlapping with her identity as a woman. Throughout her career, she has had to face immense discrimination based on caste, and her accounts reveal harrowing details of prima facie discrimination prevalent in the apex court. In an interview with The Print, Kiruba said:

“I, myself, in my 10 years of practising law, have faced discrimination as a first-generation Dalit woman lawyer who did not get to join a senior advocate’s office. Most of the time, as a young independent lawyer presenting my case, or when a senior advocate appears as the opponent, I have been literally asked to shut up. Many of my women colleagues have the same complaint. 

“On the other hand, the sons, daughters and juniors of the judges and advocates are treated specially, with comfortable jokes and witticisms, inside courtrooms. I have also witnessed judges greatly encouraging those clans by granting stays and positive orders even on occasions where they request adjournments.”

The senior advocate who fired her in 2015 for taking menstrual leave is reported to have said that this constant requirement of leaves for women is why he avoided hiring female juniors and thought male juniors were a better option since they could work all the time. This comment itself comes from a place of extreme privilege and insensitivity as it fails to recognise that menstruation and the associated pains are not luxurious choices made by menstruators. 

A 2017 study conducted by the British Medical Journal posits: “Menstruation-related symptoms cause a great deal of lost productivity, and presenteeism is a bigger contributor to this than absenteeism.”

This is natural. If a menstruator is left with no choice other than having to work through excruciating menstrual cramps, it will inevitably affect the quality of their work. As a society, we have commodified human beings to the extent that women are expected to function despite being sick, and when this sickness emerges from menstruation, they are bashed for it.

Dysmenorrhea (or menstrual cramps) is the most widespread menstrual disorder. According to Pubmed Central, almost 84% of menstruators experience menstrual cramps of some form through the course of their menstrual cycle. Symptoms of dysmenorrhea include pain in the abdomen, vomiting, migraine, diarrhoea, low back pain, pain radiating down to the legs, extreme fatigue, etc. 

Hence, it is natural that menstrual cramps would drastically affect the normal functioning of the body. In such a scenario, campaigns for menstrual health rightly promote the need for paid menstrual leave. According to non-menstruators, menstrual leave would be an unfair privilege — as if menstruating every month isn’t an unfair “privilege” already.

Protest By Dalit Outfit Bhim Army
Representative Image.

This could have been passed off as an issue of discrimination based on gender. However, the senior advocate told Kiruba that he had only hired her since she was a Dalit, that he “pitied her”, and that she did not deserve to be working for the top court. Most of us are quite familiar with this popular discourse of attacking Dalits by projecting them as undeserving, be it with regard to the issue of reservation in jobs or admission to educational institutions. 

The Constitution was forged with the vision of alleviating social disparities based on caste, but even after 71 years of its adoption, the caste question continues to be a weapon to belittle and harass Dalits in every sphere of their lives. This is precisely why caste cannot be overlooked while campaigning for the rights of menstruators and the sensitivity towards them. 

When one is a Dalit, they come under the axe of discrimination based on caste as an addendum to the already existent discrimination based on their gender identity and identity as a menstruator. Conscious and unconscious casteism remains embedded within the social fabric, despite a plethora of affirmative actions. 

Apart from actively campaigning for the equity of Dalit women in the workspace, Kiruba is also the founder of Legal Initiative For Equality, a training school for legal activism based in Chennai. Kiruba conducts workshops to educate budding lawyers about the need to re-evaluate their internalised casteism to make the legal space more intersectional and inclusive.

In an interview with Amnesty International, Kiruba spoke about how online spaces aren’t safe for women, sharing her experiences of being trolled for her dark skin and dressing choices. We can only work towards securing a safer space for Dalit women through an approach that celebrates their Dalit identity and does not denigrate it. 

In the words of Kiruba, “If a change is to be brought, democratically, structural reforms through proportional representation is the only possible way.

By Astyartha Das

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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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