Women are treated like second class citizens: MNS's Shalini Thackeray

Picture this: it’s year 2015 and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena’s Shalini Thackrey is visiting one of the biggest slums in Dindoshi, Mumbai, to attend a funeral, when a group of 30-40 slum-dwelling women muster up the courage to approach her and reveal the most shocking piece of information: that they have never seen or used an actual ‘toilet’ in 25 or more years of their lives!

The women shared their agony and said that in this age of camera phones, they and their daughters were afraid to step out of the house to relieve themselves as eve-teasers in the area would click their pictures. Stepping further into the interiors meant having to face molestation and even rape in some cases. Their worst fear is that their daughters will also end up living in the misery that they were forced to live in.

This disturbing and unsettling reality being faced by women in urban India, and that too in a developed city like Mumbai, left Shalini Thackeray distraught but also very determined to undertake the cause of women’s health and sanitary needs. From thereon began the journey of her NGO, Kalki. Shalini Thackeray is the president of Kalki Foundation and the general secretary of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.

In conversation with Chaitra Anand, the first daughter-in-law from the politically powerful Thackrey family to enter electoral politics, gives us an insight into the initiatives and undertakings being implemented by her ambitious foundation Kalki, which seeks to effect positive change in the Indian society by ensuring that the women in society are healthy and taken care of.

What are the initiatives undertaken by ‘Kalki’ for the welfare of women?

Kalki was started in 2016 and in three years we’ve managed to take up issues which affect different aspects of women. But our focus is on the health and hygiene aspects, which affect every woman and household. We believe that if a woman of the house is healthy, she can keep her house healthy, too.

Our first and most critical project was building toilets. It is common knowledge that there is a dearth of toilets in the Indian society on account of lack of space and poverty that exists within. At Kalki, we predominantly work in the region of Maharashtra at this moment as there is a lot to be done within the state. We intend to start at home first and then go outside.

Being the financial capital, the general perception about Mumbai is that it is a highly developed city. While this is true to a great extent, it is also true that the city lacks toilets. There are approximately 4,500 public toilets in Mumbai out of which only 30 percent are for women. Based on this statistic, we launched our first project of setting up of bio toilets in Mumbai with special concentration on forest areas and non-developed zones; basically, every such area where were allowed to live, but had no facilities on account of judicial issues, etc.

We decided that we will go into those areas. In Aarey Colony, which falls under forest department’s jurisdiction, we’ve set up over 200 bio toilets because construction is not allowed in these areas.

Bio toilets are a very effective alternative for areas with a large population of women and no toilets. We’ve set it up in Aarey Colony and endeavour to extend this service to areas lacking in toilets.

The second crucial issue we addressed was that of setting up sanitary napkin vending machines in these areas. We discovered that it was the responsibility of the government to ensure provision of sanitary napkins, but it was not being implemented. Since the government was not delivering in this area, Kalki aggressively set up vending machines especially in secondary schools and colleges and higher education centers. We started with schools as that’s where emphasis needs to be laid on health and hygiene related issues.

Our current task at hand is production of low-cost, hygenic sanitary napkins. We are setting up small units, which will provide low cost sanitary napkins for women who cannot afford them in certain areas. The main reason women are not using sanitary napkins is because of unaffordability. There is a desperate need to create awareness and affordability and Kalki is focusing on precisely that all across Maharashtra with special emphasis on drought-affected areas which has a concentration of farmers wives and farmers widows.

We are not tied up with any brand as brands have their own tie-ups and CSR activities, but we are providing environment friendly sanitary napkins from vending machines located in Dharavi. We will launch our own brand very soon.

What are the challenges and how many volunteers are willing to work for women?

We’ve got women workers from all over Maharashtra. With their help we’re able to do all this great work. We have roughly 200-plus women working under Kalki. With the setting up of the units, we will be involving a lot more self-help groups to initiate our projects. More women will be joining us through the self-help groups. A lot of times we find that the self-help groups do not have direction and they don’t get projects. So we believe that by giving them direction we will be able to make a difference towards the right cause and achieve faster results.

Kalki foundation is based on CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) activity. Where women’s issues and projects are concerned, organisations recognise that we are actually getting the work done and hence choose to tie up with us.

What is the level of awareness women in rural sectors or below poverty line have about gender equality?

Frankly speaking, for them, the concept of women’s liberation or empowerment does not exist. Where gender equality is concerned, let’s not even think we have reached anywhere near that. It’s all very nice to say that we worship women and their strength and resilience, but at the grass roots level, notwithstanding their strength, women in certain areas do not have any status in society.

It’s heartbreaking that none of the governments is really going all out to do something for women. Every election, a lot is said about women’s empowerment, but they’re merely words. They are not actually empowering women. Today, we are not even providing the basic necessities that a woman in our country really needs where her health is concerned, where her education is concerned, her everyday living is concerned. So let’s not say that we have achieved anything for women, we’re very far from it.

As a woman, I feel dismal about the fact that I even have to say ‘work for upliftment of women’. Why can’t it be working in general for upliftment of society? Why this special sensitive area still exists?

So what if I am a woman? I can do as much as any man does. But my commitment in working for women is because nobody wants to work for women. There are very few people who actually think that women issues are important. Bluntly speaking, I have heard from those in power that the last thing any government looks into is women issues.

The theme this year for Women’s Day was ‘Balance for better.’ How can equality be effected in a country like India?

We need a lot more proactive work from the governance. I am not talking about any specific party , I’m talking about the governance, in general. Be it IAS officers, bureaucrats or political parties and corporates: the public-private partnerships need to be very focused on working towards the upliftment of women. Only a collective effort can help us deliver results. But right now, I don’t see that happening.

What’s your opinion of education in the rural sectors. A lot of students drop off because lack of sanitation and toilets. How can that be addressed?

We do hear about education becoming free for girls or we hear about certain ‘yojanas’ for girls and women. But not only are those ‘yojanas’ not being implemented, but nobody is there to monitor whether it is being implemented or not. So it does not reach the girls or the women that it is meant for. Also the quality of education that you provide, even though it is free, if there are no teachers in the classrooms, then what is the education they are getting?

We expect a lot from the governance. We can’t always expect the government to do it, but the government has to find different ways to make it possible because of which I’m saying we need this private-public partnership.

So my point is that till we get a governance that is proactive and is focused on really making a difference in a woman’s life or a girl’s life, I don’t see any change happening.

How difficult is it to become a politician in India for women?

It is very difficult. I come from a family which is already into politics. But even then I’m telling you, family is not going to be there with you through your journey. You still have to work with other people. You can only get that door to open with a name, but after that it’s going to be the same journey as for any other woman. After that one door has opened at the starting point, you face the same discrimination. Opportunity is not given, just as it is for any other women.

Then there is added disadvantage of ‘dynasty politics’ stigma. And that’s why you are not given those opportunities. Otherwise you run the risk of being perceived as basking in the glory of ‘family name’. It’s ultimately reverse discrimination.

Having said that, the only way you do survive politics is if you are focussed. But that is true of every field. If you’re focussed you deliver results and you do get opportunities. Essentially what I am saying where women are concerned is that, as in other fields, women have to keep on proving their value and worth to even be considered, let alone be given opportunities. Even if you are hard-working and delivered results, you still have to keep proving yourself.

What is the extent of awareness about lack of menstrual hygiene in India?

There isn’t any awareness about it. Even today, only 10-11% of women in India use sanitary napkins, while the rest are still resorting to traditional methods and still suffering. One of the main objectives of Kalki is creating ‘awareness’ and making it sanitary napkins affordable.

What steps should be taken to remove taboo surrounding it?

Whether it is a girl who’s entering adulthood or a senior citizen passing on knowledge, this is a subject which should be freely spoken about. We are still living in a society which doesn’t want to talk about mensturation! ‘Period’ is a word that is not to be mentioned such that we have given them different names like ‘chums’, ‘monthly’, etc. We should stop treating it like it an ailment or something ‘dirty’ or ‘impure’.

There seems to be a lot of resistance in many forums and people are embarrassed when issues related to menstruation are brought up. But some strong women and even men who work with Kalki have made us proud by bringing the message forth strongly such that people will now be forced to listen, accept and tackle the related problems.

What is your message to women in India with regards to health and financial independence.

It is very important for the well-being of society that women should concentrate on themselves and their overall well-being. Whether it is to do with their health or their awareness. When the woman is healthy and happy, the society will be happy.

To sum it up, I am a very positive person, notwithstanding the grim picture before us. It is only when we are aware of the existence of a problem and the extent of it, that we will move to action and resolve it. So I will say this again, we start within our homes and then we go outside!