Empowering Voices: Five Women Leaders Spearheading Change in Rural India
Shanthi Muniswamy, Annu Kumari, Pooja Singh, Sohani Bhatnagar, and Roshni Perween are initiating dialogue around issues such as menstruation, child marriage, gender violence, and more
The 2023 Gender Social Norms Index (GSNI) report, released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on June 12 throws up some unsettling facts about the state of gender rights in India. Even 76 years after independence, over 99.22 percent of people in India hold at least one bias against women, while over 86.26 percent hold at least two biases. The report also reveals an overwhelming collective bias against a woman’s physical integrity in matters like intimate partner violence and reproductive rights.
Today, we profile five women who are trying to change this narrative by amplifying conversations around menstruation health, child marriage, gender violence, and discrimination.
Shanthi Muniswamy is a transgender activist and an artist with the Aravani Art Project. Hailing from the city of Bengaluru, she is a member of Alli Serona (“Let’s meet there” in Kannada) a collective of civil society organisations, creators, and think tanks that are working together to bring the voices of the informal sector of Bengaluru to the center of the city’s shift to a more sustainable, low-carbon city. The Aravani Art Project encompasses cis women and trans artists and aims to reclaim public spaces through the medium of mural art. Before her artistic journey, Shanthi’s voice was heard as a dynamic radio jockey for 90.7 Radioactive, a community-based station in Bangalore. Through her advocacy, she initiates conversations for change and inclusivity. Additionally, her passion for solo traveling and poetry shows the importance of exploring one’s identity and dreams through creative pursuits.
Hailing from Amawan in Bihar, Annu bravely resisted early marriage to pursue the dream of becoming a police constable. Her transformative journey began when she joined the Kishori Samooh, a program that empowers underserved girls with knowledge about period management, nutrition, and overall health. She became aware of the detrimental consequences of early marriage and took steps to prevent them in her village. Guided by her mentor and Population Foundation of India’s Block co-ordinator, Sheela Devi, she also prioritized education over marriage. Presently, she has joined the Bihar Police Training Academy and is inspiring young women to chase their dreams against all odds.
In the village of Marmo, Rajouli, lives Pooja, a 25-year-old woman who was forced to marry early and put her dreams on hold. However, despite the challenges she faced, she never lost hope and found a lifeline in the Population Foundation of India. Backed by the organization, she pursued her education up to the 11th grade and is now determined to change her communities mindset about women’s rights. Her journey has proved an inspiration for many other women in her community.
Bihar’s Nguvu Change Leader Roshni Perween has risen above the trauma of child marriage and gender-based violence to become a Change Leader and has launched a digital campaign backed by the Nguvu Collective. Over 58% of girls in the Seemanchal region are married off between the ages of 12 and 16 years and Roshni hopes to achieve the eradication of child marriage in the area by the end of 2024. Her petition states, “An innocent 14-year-old girl spends her day in fear that it would be night again and her middle-aged husband would have authority over her body. Through my petition, I want to start a movement that changes the fate of young girls. I am starting this movement from where I live – Seemanchal in Bihar.” She is also spearheading awareness programs in middle and high schools and also ensuring that the helpline number 181 of the Women and Child Development Corporation is accessible to all.
Nguvu Change Leader Sohani Bhatnagar, a 19-year-old law student from Bhopal, has come a long way from a schoolgirl trying to decode the challenges of puberty to a menstrual educator. Having faced the taboos around menstruation, she now actively uses social media to advocate for menstrual issues and asks why in a country that worships the goddess, Kamakhya Shun, women and girls are shamed for having periods. Her mission is to also dispel the myths around menstruation and she still remembers a 15-year-old boy’s query if she bled once a year and if period blood was blue in color! ‘As part of the ‘Girl Up’, a leadership initiative by the United Nations Foundation, she is working to empower underprivileged adolescent girls and also founded the ‘Girl Up’ club in Gurugram, to fight colorism, promote menstrual health, women’s safety, and equal access to quality education. She recently launched an online petition with the support of the Nguvu Collective urging CBSE to incorporate mandatory lessons on menstrual hygiene in schools.