By Romita Roy
Looking back over the past year, it’s a bit hard to figure out how to celebrate International Women’s Day. As much of the world re-enters severe lockdowns due to newer, deadlier Covid variants, and we realize much to our own horror that we don’t find ourselves as shocked; as the globe looks to its leaders for a bit of hope, and finds them all exuding a certain and distinctive “meh”; as women around the world have slid farther away from equality in the workforce, and domestic abuse rates skyrocket, we can’t help but wonder – where have all the heroes gone? Where is our Captain Marvel?
But over the past year, we’ve gotten to know a lot of you better too. And we’ve learned that from single-moms to Dalit warriors, the heroes that are really carrying the mantle aren’t found in the places we’ve been conditioned to look for them. They’re usually right there, every day, getting the work done. So on this, International Women’s Day 2021, we salute you – the everyday woman, the everyday woman, the one who’s out there fighting for the betterment of the lives of around the world, in whatever way you are best able to.
And in case you needed any inspiration, here are a few of ours:
Grace Banu: Dalit Engineer to Trans warrior
“It was in the eighth standard that I began to feel something about me was different. I wasn’t like the other boys in my class,” she says. For Grace’s devotion to her native Thootukudi, Tamil Nadu, the odds haven’t been kind to her. Born as a Dalit in her hometown, she has felt discriminated against in school for her caste and later for her gender orientation. Post the lockdown announcement, Grace rallied for government intervention to help the plight of trans folx. She explains the urgency for government intervention. “The government needs to provide special service for the trans community because there are many of us in desperate need of help—not only those who are finding it hard to earn a livelihood but also those who struggle with their health, such as diabetics and those living with HIV,” she says. Milaap is the organisation she partnered with, to launch two fundraising campaigns to provide the trans community with basic amenities, like salt, sugar, soap, oil and rice. The first campaign surpassed its Rs 2,50,000 target and the second also crossed its 7.5 lakh target, in turn helping more than 300 people just in the early days of the lockdown.
A heart-wrenching comic strip by The Life of Science shows Grace Banu’s contribution to STEM while facing insurmountable challenges during her childhood education. She tells DalitCamera, “I was not allowed to enter the school at normal hours. The school started at 9 am but I could come in only at 10 am. The school finished at 4.30 pm, but I had to leave at 4 pm itself. I was not allowed in the classroom. I was made to sit in a separate room where the HM (principal) kept discarded slippers and there was a tree under which alone I could sit and study.” Ostracised by the education system, she left home and started living with other trans womxn in a trans commune. She struggled to complete her studies by herself, cracked her entrances in engineering, but no government college was ready to give her admission. Anna University, a private college, was the only one ready to let her in, 2.5 hours (one way) away from her home. All her money was being spent in travel, rent and college fees, till one day she didn’t have any money to pay her examination fees. “From 2012 I have begun voicing my opinion regarding Transgender reservation in education along with many transgender communities who have come forward to support it. In many government forums, we have expressed our opinions. We have legally filed a reservation case. We could not take the Tamil Nadu Public service examinations. We did receive a favourable judgement in that case. The reservation case is still pending in the court and there has been no response so far.”
Mahita Nagaraj: Beating scaremongers to start Caremongers
For 38-year old single mom Mahita, a freelance digital marketing professional with a degree in Mass Communication, Psychology and English literature, it was not her first time she had mobilised volunteers to help the needy. In 2015 Dussehra, she organised a ‘Feed Your Neighbour’ initiative on Facebook which managed to feed 1,22,937 meals to the hungry at the time. When social distancing measures were announced in the country, her attention turned towards another ignored community, the elderly. Caremongers India mostly caters to senior citizens, who are uncomfortable seeking assistance publicly. But the helpline gave them anonymity and assurance that whatever they required would reach them.
She told Makers India, “As soon as the lockdown was announced, we were averaging close to 900 calls and about 2000 messages daily. They were requesting for assistance, enquiring what kind of services we had to offer, and seeking information about services in and around their locality.” Soon she was getting calls from not just every state of the country, but from as far as the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Dubai and Hong Kong. The requests were everything from logistical assistance for chemo, dialysis etc. to tech support for laptop problems. “There are also volunteers who are counsellors, and talk with people who are feeling lonely,” she says. “We have had children calling from overseas saying they can’t reach their parents’ phones, so our volunteers have gone for home visits with smartphones to put them in touch via video call.”
Tying up with Dunzo is the way that Caremongers has really scaled up in the metros of Bengaluru, Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad and Chennai. “The only cases where we are unable to help is interstate travel when people who have lost a family member in another state need to travel,” she adds. Procurement of hydroxychloroquine once touted to be a possible cure to the virus, is another challenge. “There’s now a shortage of this scheduled drug, which is used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. By law, only the prescription holders can now source it, and though we cannot help those with mobility issues, we try and help others by directing them to pharmacies close by.” The name Caremongers is a fun twist on the word scaremongering, something that was widespread in the early days of the pandemic.
Being a single mom with an elderly mother herself is probably the most difficult part of her job. “I step out every day and I don’t want to be a carrier to my son or mother, who are both high risk,” she says.
We are more than a Hallmark Industry
The trouble with International Women’s Day is that it’s only 43 years old, and it’s already jaded. (There’s a joke in here somewhere about how women mature more quickly, but we’re having trouble landing it.) Already, the tropes are expected, already the contradictions are self-evident, already the chorus of “but what about the men!” is busy passing out their hymnals for the annual refrain. There is already such a circus of expectation associated with International Women’s Day, and so little of it has to do with the actual upbringing of women and the circumstances and structural inequalities that dictate their lives.
So for us here at TLP, on this random day when the world decides to pay an ounce more of attention to the incredible work being moved forward by women, and the struggles they face, let us just say: Today, tomorrow, and all of the yesterdays - You Inspire Us. You Complete Us. Keep Fighting the Good Fight. (Okay fine, we borrowed that one from Hallmark.)
About the author
Romita Roy is a freelance writer & illustrator. She has a fashion background from NIFT and has written for Bombay Times, Quint and BW Businessworld. She is an advocate for sustainable fashion and slow living. She navigates the dilemmas of being a conscious millennial through her writing. Follow her blog on @agirlnamedromita on Instagram for more!