Women and Ma Ganga
Though the river Ma Ganga is said to be a goddess and a mother, the unique relationship women share with the river is sometimes pushed aside or forgotten. Our goal on this page is to shine a light on how Indian women are connected to the river, as well as the amazing women who are aiding in the efforts to clean the river.
Credit: unmanibonnie via Flickr
Women and Ma Ganga: Issues and Challenges
Many challenges presented by the pollution of the Ganges disproportionately affect Indian women. Impoverished Indian women are the single group that work most closely with the river in their day to day activities, such as bathing, clothes washing, and small scale agriculture. The relative lack in effective sewage systems in parts of India makes these processes more difficult and dangerous, via sickness caused by fecal coliform, as well as cancer causing chemicals. As climate change and pollution damage Ma Ganga, resources collected and cultivated by women are becoming scarce. In these situations, women are often forced to sacrifice their own diet and health for their family. On top of this, Indian women must also reckon with sewage system issues embodied by a lack of functional and private toilets, which create additional safety and privacy challenges. In these areas, women are often forced to defecate and menstruate in the open. This leaves them open to anything from bullying and harassment (menstruation is often considered "dirty" and taboo to discuss, let alone view), to sexual assault. Because of this reality, women are forced to wait until after dark to relieve themselves, which is extremely uncomfortable. Many Indian women are even undergoing hysterectomies (a surgery to remove the womb, thereby preventing menstruation).
Stigma and misunderstanding around menstruation is one of the key causes for discrimination against Indian women and girls. This experience is reported by Indian women across all socioeconomic levels, and it encompasses lacking menstrual education, low levels of access to menstrual products, and stigma around menstruation, even from family members. These three factors generally lead to a reduction in mobility and agency for Indian women after menarche.
Credit: Agence France-Presse
Women and Ma Ganga: Programs and Policies in Place
Despite domestic and international efforts to improve the conditions of women in India, little progress is being made. The governments of Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, in which many women are employed in the garment and sugar cane industries, respectively, are beginning to acknowledge the particular challenges women face in their work. Primarily, these challenges stem from brutal workplace policies around menstruation, such as mandatory fines for missing work due to period pain. Additionally, the national government has passed many legislative acts aimed at gender equality, one of the most recent being the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. In general though, legislation by the Indian government does not seem to be improving women's wellbeing in the workplace. From 2005-6 to 2015-16, female workforce participation in India dropped almost 10%. Some aspects of menstrual health in India are improving. The national government recently built 110 million toilets, allowing many more Indian women more privacy and convenience in dealing with their periods. Though these toilets are sometimes poorly maintained and unhygienic, they are nevertheless an improvement. Alternative toilets, like the incinerating Sunidhi toilet, are also beginning to provide women with more privacy and hygiene. The status of women in India is a complicated issue, which varies heavily from area to area. This challenge and the policies in place to work towards solving it cannot always be generalized or applied broadly. Cooperation from all levels of Indian government will be needed to improve the conditions of Indian women, and action by governmental bodies must be informed by the experiences of these women.
Credit: International Water Management Institute
What can Individuals and Communities do?
If possible, donate to the WASH institute of India (donate here: https://www.washinstitute.org/index.php) to aid in the construction of new Sunidhi toilets.
Learn about and possibly donate to the Sea to Source: Ganges expedition, a women-led scientific study of plastic pollution in Ma Ganga: https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2021/02/25/sea-to-source-ganges-expedition-team-releases-key-findings/
Advocate for comprehensive change to menstrual health policy in their community. Many state and local governments in India are currently in the process of creating guidelines and legislation around menstrual health, so now is the best time to influence these actions. Information on local politicians to contact can be found at https://www.india.gov.in/.
Garg, Rachit. “Government Policies for Gender Equality in India.” IPleaders, 22 Mar. 2022, https://blog.ipleaders.in/government-policies-for-gender-equality-in-india/#:~:text=In%20addition%20to%20the%20above,care%20of%20their%20all%2Dround.
Geertz, Alexandra, et al. “Menstrual Health in India | Country Landscape Analysis.” FSG, FSG, 2016, https://menstrualhygieneday.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/FSG-Menstrual-Health-Landscape_India.pdf.
“Latest Publications.” International Water Management Institute (IWMI), 13 Dec. 2021, https://www.iwmi.cgiar.org/publications/latest/.
McCarthy, Julie. “Will Giving the Ganges Human Rights Protect the Polluted River?” NPR, NPR, 2 July 2017, https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/07/02/535017334/will-giving-the-ganges-human-rights-protect-the-polluted-river.
O'Neal, Andrea. “‘Sea to Source: Ganges’ Expedition Team Releases Key Findings.” National Geographic Society Newsroom, 25 Feb. 2021, https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2021/02/25/sea-to-source-ganges-expedition-team-releases-key-findings/.
Pandey, Geeta. “Why Are Menstruating Women in India Removing Their Wombs?” BBC News, BBC, 5 July 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-48836690.
This webpage written by: Samuel Weinstein Zimbel