Women-related issues still don’t get the kind of consideration they deserve, says Shalini Thackeray
Anushruti Singh March 6, 2020
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Shalini Thackeray is a name that needs no introduction in Maharashtra. The daughter-in-law from the politically powerful family in Maharashtra, who entered politics, has been working towards various issues concerning women at the grass root level. In 2016, she founded Kalki Foundation, an NGO that work towards improving health and hygiene conditions of rural women in Maharashtra. Today, she’s a social personality in her own right.
In a conversation with SMEFutures.com, Shalini Thackeray, general secretary of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), opens up on various facets of her life.
Please tell us about your initial life.
I belong to the family of freedom fighters, who were displaced during India’s partition. I was born in into a Punjabi family as Shalini Bhagat. My grandfather Bhagat Ram Talwar was a close confidant of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, and played a major role in India’s independence movement. Although born in Bareilly (a town in Uttar Pradesh), I had lived in Maharashtra since my childhood days. I did my schooling and graduation in Mumbai. I was then married to Mr Jitendra Thackeray, a former Ranji cricketer whose grandfather Damodar was the uncle of late Shiv Sena chief Balasaheb Thackeray. Before joining Raj Thackeray-led political party MNS in 2006, I was handling my family business. After completing an MBA from Massachusetts University in the US, I jumped into the political fray with an aim to change the system.
You belong to a powerful political family. How it has impacted you as an individual. How has been the journey so far?
It has been a memorable experience so far. As the daughter-in-law from the politically powerful Thackeray family, my life is nothing different from any other woman. ‘Thackeray’ surname is one of the most prestigious names in the society. Although I belong to one of the most renowned political family, but still try to keep my personal life as simple as possible. Over the years, I have been able to transform myself into a social personality working towards various causes at the grass root level. I also aim at reaching every social issue concerning the Indian women.
You are the general secretary of MNS; head of MNS’ cine workers’ wing; and director of Cinemantra Production. You wear many hats – how do you manage?
Be it politics, films or business, I only do things that interests me. I personally like being engaged in a lot of socially relevant activities. I do not have to take out time for it separately. You do not feel stressed when you do things that interests you. Fortunately, I have always received an overwhelming support from my family. After all, time management is also very important.
What does it mean to be empowered in 2020? How would you define ‘empowerment’ in today’s scenario?
It is very important for the well-being of the society that women should concentrate on themselves and their overall well-being. When the woman is healthy and happy, the society will be happy. It is only when we are aware of the existing problem and the extent of it, then we will move into action and resolve it. It’s high time that we start the change from our home.
People talk a lot about women’s issues, be it health, workspace or education. But, challenges still persist. Where are we lacking?
Women remain highly vulnerable to many risks, including labour rights violations, domestic violence and harassment at workplace and at home, including risks associated with their health. We have seen over the years that anything relevant to women’s issues is always put on the backburner. We still do not give women’s problems the kind of consideration they deserve. Before elections, every party talk about fighting for women’s rights…but when they come to power, they only debate about it without taking any firm action.
I still feel there is only talk and not much action is happening. We have a very good set of laws, but the problem is that these laws are not implemented properly. Women’s safety is one of the most important issues and the society will only be able to create some difference only when the person committing the crime is punished.
What inspired you to start Kalki Foundation?
The disturbing and unsettling reality faced by women in urban India, and that too in the city like Mumbai, motivated me to initiate the cause for women’s health and sanitary needs. Kalki Foundation was started in 2016, and we stand for the issues, which affect the different aspects of women. Our focus is predominantly on the health and hygiene aspects. We believe that if the woman of the house is healthy, she can keep her house healthy, too. Kalki aims to bring positive change in the Indian society by ensuring that the women in the society are healthy and taken care of.
How Kalki Foundation is encouraging women to be empowered, and changing the lives of women in need?
Kalki Foundation has worked on several projects related to women’s health. Two of the most critical projects are building public toilets for women and setting up of sanitary napkin vending machines in poverty-driven localities. It is a 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 have been working towards resolving the issue spread across the state of Maharashtra. We intend to start at home first and then go outside.
Being the financial capital of our country, the general perception about Mumbai is that it is a highly developed city. While this has been true to a greater extent, but it is also true that the city lacks basic hygiene facilities for women – i.e. toilets. Statistics show that there are 4,500 public toilets in Mumbai, out of which only 30 per cent are for women. Based on these figures, we have set-up bio-toilets in Mumbai with special concentration on forest areas and non-developed zones.
In the city’s largely populated forest area, we have constructed over 200 bio-toilets. These bio-toilets are very effective for areas with a large population of women but had no toilets. Our project of building toilets continues in areas, where there is lack of 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 the provision of sanitary napkins, but it was not being implemented. Since the government was not making the provisions in these areas, Kalki aggressively set up the vending machines, especially in secondary schools and colleges and centres for higher education. We initiated the project in schools to cater to the health and hygiene related issues.
You initiated ‘My Right to Clean Toilets’ initiative, and also working on women’s hygiene issues. What are the challenges that you face while talking about issues [in public] that are still taboos in the society?
There seems to be a lot of resistance in many forums, and people are embarrassed to discuss on issues related to hygienic sanitation facilities for women. They often treat such issues irrelevant, or not relevant enough to be discussed in public forums. But some strong women and even men who work with Kalki have made us proud by bringing such messages in the forefront. People – who are hesitant over such issues – will now be forced to listen, accept and tackle the related problems.
In your opinion, what are some of the women-related issues that need to be highlighted and mitigated?
I would bat for clean public toilets for women; menstrual hygiene and health; employment opportunities for women; equal wages for women; and women’s safety.
What is the vision 2020 for Kalki Foundation? How are you collaborating with the state government?
There is lack of awareness regarding women’s health problems in our country. Even today, only 15-20 per cent women in India use sanitary napkins, while the rest are still going for the traditional methods, and suffering from health-related problems. Our main objective is to create awareness and make sanitary napkins affordable. Our current task at hand is the production of low-cost, hygienic 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 its unaffordability. There is a desperate need to create awareness and affordability; and Kalki is focusing on precisely that.