On Thursday afternoon, Manju Sharma, 58, was among hundreds of women who marched from central Delhi’s Mandi House to Jantar Mantar to encourage other women to vote against what organisers called the “current environment of hate and violence” in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

“We are half the vote,” said Sharma, a social worker, adding that she will vote against incidents of mob lynching. “These incidents are murders committed in broad daylight,” she said. “Our Constitutional rights are becoming irrelevant by the day. Freedom of speech is being curbed.”

The Women March for Change was organised by a collective of several organisations and unions comprising women, transgender persons, farmers, students, activists, lawyers, and artists among others. Besides Delhi, the marches were held in several other cities, such as Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Ajmer, Chennai and Ahmedabad.

The march was organised specifically to call on women to vote out the present government, said social activist Shabnam Hashmi, one of the organisers. “This government has taken away jobs because of its policies,” Hashmi said. “A majority of women have lost their jobs because of demonetisation. This is a clear call to them to use their vote wisely. We are not hiding under peace and harmony.”

As the women marched, several chanted slogans that called for an end to patriarchy, fascism and casteism. Many women also held posters that demanded the release of activists Shoma Sen and Sudha Bharadwaj, who were among nine activists arrested in June and August in connection with an investigation into a public meeting organised a day before caste-related violence erupted at Bhima Koregaon near Pune on January 1, 2018.

At the march, women held posters demanding the release of activists Sudha Bharadwaj and Shoma Sen.

Safety and unemployment

The women at the march who spoke to Scroll.in said that a rise in unemployment, incidents of violence and safety were some of their biggest concerns for the upcoming election.

Afroz Gulzar, 50, a homemaker, said that unemployment was the biggest issue for her this election. “If there is no employment, then 10 other problems arise,” she said. “Safety is also a very big concern for us. We are afraid of stepping out late from our homes.”

Safety was a major concern for another participant. “Lower-caste girls are harassed while going to school by upper-caste men,” said Sumedha Bodh, general secretary of Rashtriya Dalit Mahila Andolan. “It is difficult for such girls to complete school because of the problems they face. Atrocities against Dalits have increased since the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] came to power. The main issue is safety and all women have come together for this.”

She added: “It is election season and our issues matter the most. Be it the Ujjwala scheme or the Swachh Bharat scheme, the ground reality is different from what the government claims.”

Shashi Devi, 40, said her vote will go for the cause of finding a solution to drug and alcohol addiction. “We earn the money, and then the son or the husband wastes it because of their addiction,” said Devi, a social worker. “Even because of addiction in other homes, we find it difficult to get out and work. We need a solution to this.”

Women and men at the march held posters calling for an end to privatisation and contractual work.

‘Anti-women policies’

Other women present at the march said they were concerned about the privatisation of higher education and erosion of labour rights.

“The present government has brought out several anti-women policies,” said Devika Singh, a student. “They came in promising women’s rights but now it is just important to vote the right-wing forces out of power. Not just this but there has also been privatisation of higher education. Labour and employment have been affected by demonetisation.”

Ritu Roy, 21, a domestic worker from Gurugram, said that the rights of workers like her were neglected. “There is no value for the work we do,” she said. “The people we work for do not treat us well and the police do not take us seriously if we go to them. Nobody listens to us.”

Another woman who attended the march said that she would vote for a government that would not oppress its own citizens. “The foundation of this government is Brahmanical and patriarchal,” said Somaya Gupta, a student. “They are our oppressors. We cannot get our rights from them.”

All photographs by Vijayta Lalwani.