"In this respect, educated women can be successful because they can realize the evils of it. It is no use multiplying sickly, ill-fed and illiterate children at the cost of the mother’s health." -Sulochanabai Dongre.
Women's reproductive health and healthcare rights have been subject to debates and scrutiny around the globe. In many countries, women's access to safe and hygienic healthcare is at the mercy of dictatorship, theocracy, or a group of lawmakers that are mostly men.
India, being the world's largest democracy and second most populous nation, proper healthcare and birth control is imperative to ensure a stable economy and liberation of the female population.
In India, the conversations related to women's health and reproductive rights began along with the Dalit feminist, that is often sidelined in the history textbooks. Sulochanabai Dongre played a crucial role in this regard.
Sulochana Dongre was a Dalit feminist and activist who fought for female emancipation and birth control. She was the President of All India Depressed Classes Women Conference and was associated with All-India Scheduled Caste Federation.
She was initially associated with All India Women’s Congress but chose to step aside with other Dalit and Bahujan leaders as the organisation was completely dominated by the privileged caste.
This was noted as a bold move because of the inadequate representation of Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasis in the nationalist women’s movement. Yet the exit was necessary because of mistreatment and discrimination faced by Dalit-Bahujan women at the hands of upper caste.
For eg: Jaibai Choudhuri had humiliated Dalit women by setting separate seats for them during meals at the AIWC conference held in 1937.
Women from marginalised communities faced double discrimination due to their caste and gender. Besides, part of the most marginalised group in India, Dalit women were silenced for generations even when India fought against independence. Women did not have control over their bodies, finances, education and thus became victims of sexual violence, poverty and absence from mainstream politics. But the voices raised by outspoken and bold activists like Dongre led to the reckoning that echoed across generations.
She took over the All India Depressed Classes Women’s Conference held at Nagpur on July 20, 1942, to focus on issues faced by the oppressed caste women.
She also led the Dalit Mahila Federation which was a part of All India Scheduled Castes Federation, in 1942, also the last Dalit feminist group to develop.
A lot of Indians suffered from tremendous poverty and violence during the British rule and struggle for independence. The overpopulation was predicted as a major factor that will affect the nation. More than that, birth control was something that was never discussed due to the lack of conversations in the mainstream because of patriarchy and theocracy.
Dongre mentioned this issue in 1942 before 25,000 women from various sections, in Nagpur.
Very boldly, she addressed that there is no point in multiplying sickly, ill-fed and illiterate children at the cost of the mother. She asked all women to consider this in their lifetime.
The man who helped in shaping the Indian constitution, Dr B.R. Ambedkar supported the Dalit movement in their fight for sexual and reproductive health rights for girls and women.
Dongre noted that the most important asset women can get is education. She highlighted that as future mothers, educating a woman can help in educating a generation. Knowledge and education can help women identify their rights, healthcare access, financial independence, and overcoming burdens related to gender and caste.
She hopes that educated women from marginalised will get the kind of opportunities uneducated men to get in politics and others spheres that run a country. She called illiteracy of girls and women as the social evil that continues to shackle them.
The conference she chaired resulted in resolutions such as - reservation for women from Depressed Classes, mandatory education monitoring and dissolution of polygamy as it is deemed unfair to women, right to divorce husbands, working conditions improvement for women in mills and bidi industries, municipalities and railways, etc.
Mandatory primary education for girls and enough facilities for scheduled caste female students such as hostels, scholarships etc are other important resolutions.
Dalit feminist ideas generated a massive difference because women from privileged caste willingly or unwillingly propagated the cultural nationalism that glorified women's status as Sati and Savitri along with the feudal caste system.
Privileged caste women face oppression from heteronormative patriarchy but many generations got social benefits and privileges at the cost of Dalit women.
Dalit women were sexualised and stigmatised due to the social evil called "untouchability". But still, Dalit women face sex-based atrocities from privileged caste men as it was about power and control apart from lust.
Important issues addressed by 'Dalit Gender Radical Change' is the sexual dignity, autonomy and subordination.
So, when Dalit feminism advocated for birth control and education for women, they were rejecting the social hierarchy and casteism propagated by the stereotypical status of women as 'Sati-Savitri.' Besides, cultural nationalism burdened women's bodily autonomy with chastity, honour and purity.
Rejection of these notions is part of the narrative Dalit feminists put forward to tackle sexual abuse and patriarchy.
Early members of the Dalit feminist movement in the 1920s and 1930s, helped bring laws against many social evils like child marriage, dowries and enforced widow system.
'Khabar Lahariya' (News Waves) first newspaper for and by Dalit women was established and it won a UNESCO literacy prize as well.
Indian citizens are encouraged to have just two children to control the population. Between the years 1965 and 2009, the contraception usage tripled. Condoms, vagina caps, surgical options, Intra-Uterine Devices etc are common. Couples are also encouraged to adopt children.
However, women from economically poorer sections still can't afford birth control devices and many due to improper medical treatment and management.