Solidarity, Tour

For a Just Society – Visit to Jagrutha Mahila Sanghatan [photos]

Visit to Jagrutha Mahila Sanghatan
Dalit Women’s Collective

Jagrutha Mahila Sanghatan, a Dalit women’s collective, formed in 1999-2000. AID has supported the group through projects, fair-trade marketing as well as solidarity to the Sanghatan in various phases. Along with AID-Bangalore volunteers Chetana, Karthik, Disha & Tamia, Ravi, Khiyali and I recently visited the women to hear their own reflections on their experiences and successes over the years, fighting oppression based on caste, gender and class, as well as ongoing challenges on all these fronts. Here are some photos from our visit with these grassroots partners. Continue reading

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Poem

Aisa Kaha Unhone: “They Said …”

Aisa Kaha Unhone

Translated from English, “They Said” by Usha Narayan

Video: Performance by Andrea Pereira, Heidi Pereira and Katheeja Talha of Space Theatre Ensemble


They Said

You should not read thus sprawled on your stomach,

or in bed, or in dark recesses of the house, they said.

You will have to wear glasses, and then your poor parents

will have trouble finding you a husband, they said.

Continue reading

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Questions

“How would they know?” Dalit women talk about caste discrimination (part 1)

While having lunch with some of the Sanchalakis (coordinators) and karyakarthas (activists) of the Jagrutha Mahila Sanghatana, a Dalit women’s collective in Potnal.  We mentioned that while coming on the bus from Raichur station, we passed a number of elaborate temples.

Were these temples open to all?  We wondered aloud.

Yes, yes, they said.  Anyone can go there.  The temples don’t ban anyone.

“So you can enter any temple, if you wish?” we asked pointedly.  Mariamma replied that she was not very familiar with the rules of the temples.   Narsamma said, “other than in our own village, we can enter any temple.”

“And in your own village?”  we wanted to know.

“In our own village we can come to the steps of the temple but not inside the temple.”

“What will happen if you go inside?”

She laughed and said, “People will say, look at these people, they think they are so great they are brazenly going inside the temple.”

They said this so matter-of-factly that I felt I had to explain why we were asking particularly about this.   “When we talk about Dalits being denied entry into temples, many people don’t believe that it still happens today,” I said.

“How would they know?”  Narsamma asked me.  “We are stopped at the steps, so we know.  They are not, so they don’t see it.”


These Dalit women had begun organizing 15 years ago, a story they have told often and recently documented in a photo essay and video.  They united and gained the courage to speak up at panchayat meetings, to demand rations and anganwadi services, housing loans and access to other government services.  They were kind enough to share their stories again when we went to meet them.

[To be Continued]

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Conference

The Cup and The Conference

While some of us were chatting after the panel discussion on women’s empowerment, Kamayani asked me, “Why don’t we have a small group talk with women to tell them about the menstrual cup?  I wouldn’t have known if you had not told me about it.”

 

I remembered the day in 2005 when Kamayani Swami spoke in College Park about her plans to work in Bihar and the brief moment I caught to tell her about the cup.   I had since written, “Greeting Aunt Flo” but clearly it was time to bring the cup to the notice of a new set of AID women. Continue reading

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Letter to Editor

Not only toilets

Dear Editor,

While I agree that “access to sanitation and water are fundamental human rights”  the assertion that  “a lack of these services is putting hundreds of millions of children, girls and women at risk each and every day.” where the risks refer not to health and hygiene but rather risk to personal safety and freedom from violence, takes attention away from basic equality and humanity.   Continue reading

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Conference

Gender Work and Health – Part 1: Birth

Gender, Work, and Health

Women’s Health from a Women’s Rights Perspective

Following are notes from a presentation I gave at the National Institute of Labour as part of a training program on Gender, Work, and Health.  I presented on Women’s Health from a Women’s Rights Perspective, focussing on three themes, Birth, Breastfeeding and Food. 

Before I continue to the three themes I presented, let me share some of my own apprehensions about speaking to both of these audiences.

My brief was to talk to the Ph D students about research methods and to the health officials about policy. Continue reading

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Conference

Women’s Rights Perspective in Health – dangerous?

At a training program in Delhi, organized by the VV Giri National Labour Institute, I spoke on birth, breastfeeding and health from a women’s rights perspective.  I gave the presentation to two groups – one comprised 36 PhD students from universities and institutes in various parts of India and the other comprised a similar number of health officials and physicians from developing countries outside India.

We sometimes talk about the inadequacies of the biomedical model of health and birth, insofar as it excludes social, psychological, environmental and spiritual factors.   What we notice less often is the possibility that the biomedical model may itself depend on metaphors that are influenced by cultural stereotypes.

In the first part of my talk, I discussed gender stereotypes in the medical descriptions of women’s bodies and of reproduction.  For this I relied on Emily Martin’s work The Woman in the Body and in particular “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles.”  (Signs, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Spring, 1991), pp. 485-501.

Drawing from several standard medical textbooks, Emily Martin shows that descriptions of women’s bodies reflect the values of industrial capitalism as well as gender bias and stereotype.  Take away these values and substitute gender equality and women’s rights, and you would describe these processes quite differently.

I presented some of her examples  and quoted from her article to explain each one. In summary these are:

Biological process

Standard Medical Textbooks

Why not

conception

journey of the sperm

interaction of egg and sperm

ovum

passive, fragile, dependent, waiting

connecting with sperm

sperm

active, strong, heroic, autonomous

connecting with egg

ovulation

overstock inventory

just-in-time maturation

spermatogenesis

amazing feat

excess

menstruation

failed production

indicator of fertility

menopause

factory shutdown

golden years

I continued to talk about how we had the choice to look at these processes in a way that grants women autonomy over their bodies and reproductive health, and this could help us to take a rights-based approach to women’s health.  Just as I was about to move along to a discussion of women’s rights in birth, several hands flew up.

“The processes are described this way because that is the function of the reproductive organs,” one doctor said.  I replied that we could look at the process differently if we did not assume that the objective of every woman and every menstrual cycle was to have children.

Why are you calling menopause “Golden years?”  several men asked.

I answered that it signals a transition in life and that each phase of life could be appreciated on its own terms rather than regarding the woman’s body only through its child-bearing function.  It is not to imply that earlier phases of life are less “golden” but simply to use a positive and respectful term.

“These ideas would be all right coming from a Western Perspective,” commented a physician from Sri Lanka.  “But you being from our culture, should not be spreading these ideas.  This kind of thought, if it spreads would be very dangerous,” he said.  “It would cause a disruption in our society.”   A physician from Afghanistan agreed with him and added,  “In our culture motherhood is not a burden, it is a privilege.”    One more health official from an African country added that menopause should not be called golden years and went on to explain that men could continue to reproduce for the whole of their lives.

I asked, “Can we hear from any of the women in the room?”

No one spoke up.  The physician from Sri Lanka said, “I am speaking on behalf of the women.”

I was stunned that no one objected to such a statement.   Nevertheless, I stayed on message and reiterated that a woman has the right to decide whether to have children and that having children was not the only, primary, or necessary purpose of a woman’s life and by extension, women’s health.  To address women’s health from a women’s rights perspective, one must recognize the value of the body without limiting it to its capacity for childbearing.   One must also respect women’s rights when addressing women’s reproductive and maternal health needs, including during pregnancy, labour, birth and beyond.

During the break several women approached me and said, “Your lecture is very interesting.  Some of our colleagues are from very patriarchal backgrounds.”  I said that they should speak up during the discussion.   Later in the evening, I thought of I should have replied to those who cautioned against the social disruption that feminist ideas may cause.  In order to make progress on women’s health issues, we must change our ideas and practices, and be prepared for the disruption that such change would cause.

In the remainder of the seminar, I presented on three themes:

Birth Models that Work.

Breastfeeding Models that Work.

Food Models that Work.

(to be continued …)

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Conference

Women’s Rights Perspective in Birth, Breastfeeding and Food

On 10 March 2014, I spoke about Women’s Rights Perspective in Birth, Breastfeeding and Food at a Training Program on Gender, Work and Health held at the National Labour Institute, Delhi.  In one session, graduate students from institutes in various parts of India attended.  In another session, Health Officials from various countries attended. Continue reading

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