When we all first started hearing about COVID-19 we assumed that it would not be ‘our’ problem. It was ‘their’ problem. The reality hit the country at the end of March, with the lockdown in place. While some of us were thinking of ‘being safe’ in the comfort of our homes there was a segment of society that didn’t know what safety meant. They didn’t know how to get the next meal for themselves. In the middle of a busy city like Kolkata with millions of people, in the north lies a community of about 44,000 people who are daily wage labourers, domestic help, rickshaw pullers and garbage cleaners. They are the people who make our lives comfortable.
WHO ARE THE PUNCHING BAGS?
With the people of the community losing their income and their future looking bleak, there was an increase in frustration, hopelessness and anxiety among the people. One of the biggest issues in our nation is the fact that only some of us have access to the legal remedial and to justice. There are millions of people in our country who are far away from receiving access to justice or even legal help.
It was during this time that the WoW team in Kolkata was able to connect with some of the city authorities. The team assured them that they were available to stand by the authorities to help during the time of crisis.
Very quickly this community was introduced to the WoW team. The team was told that it would be a difficult place to work at and would be uncomfortable. We were ready for the challenge.
When we first walked into the community it was indeed something words couldn’t have prepared us for. The houses were crowded- on top of each other literally. There was no sense of lockdown being executed and there were people everywhere. There was no space for social distancing in the area. There was a feeling of hopelessness and sadness in the air. We quickly befriended the political leaders in the area and worked alongside them to reach out to the women and children. We were given a little shack in the middle of the vegetable market where we could station ourselves and wait for the women who would come to buy their daily groceries to find us and speak with us. We were immediately asked to intervene in some of the cases that were happening in the community and help with the problems.
The very first intervention was for a 25- year old lady who was married for about 8 months. Her in laws wanted a dowry of Rs. 2,00,000 but the family was only able to give Rs. 1,80,000. The in laws were not happy with the amount and she was continuously raped by her husband and many times by her father in law as well. On the day we were called, there was some major issue that had happened and the in laws set her on fire. We immediately assisted in getting her transferred to the hospital, being with her late in the evening to ensure she knew there was someone for her.
She was burnt 60% and it was a long and hard few days of battling for her life. We stood with her and helped in getting the statements to law enforcement. Unfortunately, she didn’t live to see justice done.
It was not easy to see her dying right in front of us and we wished there was a different end to her story and her life. She didn’t know she could have received justice for herself since her fight was for survival.
In another instance a 19-year old girl from a Hindu family ran away from home and got married to a 22-year old boy from a Muslim family. There was a lot of tension in the home because of the different faiths. The boy’s family, specifically his mother, would often beat the girl, since she didn’t accept her being from another faith. She was three months pregnant when her mother in law took her to someone in the mosque who looked at the girl and said she was pregnant with a girl child. The mother in law wanted a boy and therefore the severity of the abuse increased. When it got out of control, she ran out of the house to look for help and lost the baby the same night. She didn’t have the security to return to her parental house because they wouldn’t accept her back. We helped in counselling her, standing with her in the hospital, seeing the still born baby and sending the baby for cremation. We were there to support her, so that she knew she wasn’t alone especially when her own family despised her. She chose to return back to her in laws and continue to stay with her husband. She had no complaints against them. She didn’t want to go to the police or resort to any legal action since her survival and security of family and home was more important than fighting for her rights and for justice. We have continued to stand with her to ensure her safety and protection.
In another case, under the influence of alcohol, a girl from the same community was being beaten up by her husband. When we reached, we saw her dripping in petroleum and had we not intervened she would have been burnt alive. We were able to remove her and repatriate her back to her house in Sunderbans. It was a 4-hour long journey to take her back home by road and then crossing over the river in a boat.
Unfortunately, she was not safe in the maternal house either. We are unsure of the details of what happened, but it’s most likely that she was beaten, abused and died a couple of days later.
We couldn’t return back to help her because of the approaching cyclone and all communication on the Bay of Bengal was interrupted. Where was her justice? Did she really need a functional system or people to just be there for her?
What was common for all of the three women was that they needed basic security. They needed to know they are more important than dowry, than the child they would give birth to and that their lives mattered. They needed people to come and stand with them, affirm their worth and teach them that they had a right to life and dignity.
India’s current population is 1.35 billion and women constitute nearly half of it. The decreasing male-female ratio is indeed alarming but that may not change till we address our root issues. It is hard to change that just with policies and policing. Have you ever considered why and how almost one half of our population are also counted among the ‘marginalized’? How can such a huge segment of the population continue to be among the ‘marginalized’ for the last 73 years? The answer to that is not just in fighting for newer policies alone but in bringing about a transformation of culture itself. Transforming our culture is about changing prevailing mindsets from the grassroots level up and in this case that would mean challenging stereotypes birthed by patriarchal notions and norms.
Every time you raise your voice for your own freedom, to be who you are, you are also fighting for those around you. Freedom is contagious.
– Kavitha Emmanuel
So, the level of independence a woman experiences also determines the level of cultural progress in a community and this hugely affects the progress of the nation as a whole. When we talk about ‘independence’ we have to remember that it is not to create societies that are ‘individualistic’. The sort of independence that we are addressing here is about having the freedom to be, to choose and to decide. For women this sort of independence means that they need to have access to equal opportunity in all spheres. It also means that a woman’s perspectives are to be given equal weightage in all decision making processes across boardrooms and leadership teams. This can happen only when we radically change the very male-oriented definitions of leadership and include women as leaders in all avenues.
Every woman should feel the freedom to lead her own life, make her own choices. Every woman within the structures of families should be a leader still in her own right and not be pushed to a corner when it comes to decision making.
Freedom Is Our Birth-Right
Leadership positions are easily offered today for women at the workplace but is she still that vivacious leader when she comes home? True cultural transformation is to see women and men as inter-independent individuals in families and within communities. This means that each individual is a person in their own right even within a family but there is also a healthy mutual sharing of lives. Marriage should be seen as a merging of dreams and visions. Patriarchal norms have so submerged our subconscious minds and thinking patterns that giving up their decision making rights comes as second-nature to women.
As Indian women, our true celebration begins when we can boldly speak up for what is truly ours. Freedom is our birth-right. It is true that we have come to experience more freedom today than our predecessors. Always remember that every time you raise your voice for your own freedom, to be who you are, you are also fighting for those around you. Freedom is contagious. Are you determined to fight for your freedom? In doing so the others will experience it too.
So, don’t stay silent when you face any injustice. Speak up. When you need help, ask for it. Be free. Be yourself!
Kavitha Emmanuel is the founder of Women Of Worth, India. She is an advocate for women’s issues and believes that every individual is unique and intrinsically valuable.
I’m really not sure who the hero of this story is. Is it Udhaya Keerthika – an astronaut aspirant? Or her parents? A dad who is a writer and painter currently facing the herculean task of finding funds for his daughter’s higher studies or the mother who works as a typist with a meagre income, yet determined that her girl’s dream is not compromised for anything.
I had the opportunity to spend the day with Keerthika and her parents at their home in Theni a few weeks ago, and was struck by the humility and patience they displayed. Between the non-stop phone calls and visitors, Keerthika’s parents tirelessly explained their daughter’s aspiration to everyone they met. When I caught a few minutes with her mother, she said,
“it might seem irrational that we are spending so much time and effort to find resources to fuel her dreams, rather than get her married. However, we feel that education is equally important for a girl child.
In fact, my advice to all parents who have girls is to never ever underestimate what a girl can achieve. Girls are just as capable as boys. Girls and boys have aspirations that are equally important, and parents must make sure they believe in their children and encourage them. My husband and I are committed to supporting our daughter and her dreams.”
Her dad remembers when Keerthika was born, he would go around and tell everyone that he had a ‘PT Usha’ in his family, referring to the athlete PT Usha who achieved world records in athletics for India. “I aspire to see my daughter being a good scientist and an astronaut for our nation. One day, we as a family want to encourage and support other girls with dreams like Keerthika. A lack of resources cannot be an excuse for not achieving one’s dream”, says Keerthika’s father.
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Dare To Dream Big Dreams
Keerthika, a 21 year old from Theni, a small town in Tamil Nadu, who recently graduated with 92% in Aircraft Engineering from Kharkiv National Aerospace University in Ukraine. Though her entire schooling was done in Tamil medium, Keerthika always dreamt of reaching for the stars – quite literally, via being part of a manned mission for ISRO and to be the first woman astronaut for India.
Having very little to live by, her friends and family thought that Keerthi was ‘dreaming well beyond her means’, but when her father would tell her stories of real life heroes like Bharathiyar, Abdul Kalam, Karl Marx, Kalpana Chawla and other contemporary achievers, they inspired her!
As a teenager, she stood first in two competitions conducted by ISRO before she was 18 and that really encouraged her to keep her focus firm on space studies and to become an astronaut. She says she would lie down under the open skies at night and gaze at the stars endlessly. “I am so very eager to see the stars and the outer space that God has created”, she says.
As I spoke with Keerthika, I noticed that she is a person with absolute clarity of thought. Although a private person, she politely answered the incessant phone calls, received visitors and humbly accepted the shawl honour that each of them came with.
Keerthika told me that she doesn’t spend more than 10 minutes a day on social media and believes that social media is the biggest distraction for today’s youth.
As an aspiring astronaut, she says there are lot of physical challenges to be overcome as a woman, but that she is determined and has dedicated her life to being an astronaut and studying space. She says, “my parents have taught me to fight when things get tough. They have given me the freedom to dream and aspire.”
Her appeal to all the other parents is that they need to recognise that every child first trusts their own parents, and so it is their responsibility to encourage and be there for their children through failure and success. Most importantly, to never compare their child with others and to teach them to face hardships with the right attitude.
She said, “I am grateful for all the challenges that we had to face for they have made me resilient and strong, capable of facing any situation in life.”
I later notice that she sneaks into her room to spend some time in prayer before getting back to the living room to meet with the next stream of visitors.
A Wealth Like No Other
As the day comes to an end, I walk away realising that this family is one of the wealthiest people I know. Rich because of their right attitude, hard work, strong faith and their love and trust of each other.
To me , it seemed like her parents were not just raising a girl child, they were raising a future astronaut and they saw themselves as simply being the ‘wind beneath her wings’.
A few days after my visit, it warmed my heart to find out that the family was able to raise the money for her to go to Poland for a two month course in analog astronaut training, and she is one of just 8 people from around the world that have been selected for this training.
As Kalpana Chawla once said, “If you have a dream, follow it. It doesn’t really matter whether you are a woman or from India or from wherever.”
Christy is a producer for a tv channel. Her first love is street photography and she strives to be a story teller through her images. She is also a volunteer with Women Of Worth and a regular contributor to our blogs.
Every day, we hear stories of women being victimised, raped, assaulted. The number of crimes against women has experienced an 83 % increase from 2007 till date. With a rising number of crimes committed against women day by day, it has become inherently crucial that women learn a self-defense technique to be able to stand up and protect themselves.
Here are 5 reasons every woman should consider learning a self-defense technique:
1: USEFUL FOR SAFETY AND PROTECTION
Perhaps the most obvious reason for having a few self defence techniques at the back of your hand is for the purpose of safety and protection. Every day, we hear one story or another, of a woman being victimised, raped, assaulted.
Although it can be rightfully claimed that the the concept of every woman learning self defence is similar to the concept of victim blaming and not punishing the perpetrators instead; we also need to understand that as stringency, regulations and support grow to reach to the point in society where a woman can walk out of her house at 11 PM in the night with no second thoughts in her head, there needs to be some form of protection that women can depend upon. Imagine a world where every woman was empowered to fight back?!
2: TO AID PROGRESS IN SOCIETY
With female talent rapidly blossoming globally across all professional sectors and industries, for women to continue to expand their reach and potential around the world, one of the major factors that plays an irrefutable role and which is of paramount importance is safety. Women’s safety should not become a burden and more importantly an excuse for companies and businesses to downsize recruitment of women employees and staff. Through knowledge about safety, safety techniques and laws, every woman can progress without being held back.
An inherent feature of being equipped with self defence techniques is the enormous change in level of confidence that a woman experiences along with a concomitant rise in self esteem, self worth and self respect.
4: WOMEN CAN BE PHYSICALLY STRONG TOO
Biologically, it is said that on an average, a man is physically stronger than a woman(not to say that women can’t be stronger than men!). Most attackers are not likely to be equipped with any martial art skills. They naturally tend to use their size and gender as an advantage. This is why most self defence forms primarily aim at performing a temporary defensive move or one that pains the perpetrator, giving enough time to the victim to run away and call for help. The results can mean a matter of life and death for the woman.
5: BREAK STEREOTYPES
Gone are those days when society would force us to imagine a husband, brother or a son to come and save a woman who is almost always portrayed as helpless, desperate, scared and vulnerable. In addition, more women learning self defence could indeed instigate fear in the minds of the perpetrators, and could actually lead to facilitate a positive change towards alleviating the issue of crime committed against women!
Gone are those days when women depended on husbands, brothers, sons and boyfriends to protect and save them. Gone are also the days when women are portrayed as helpless, desperate, scared and vulnerable.
More women learning self defence could not only instigate fear in the minds of perpetrators, but could actually facilitate a positive change towards alleviating the issue of crimes committed against women!
Have you ever learned a self-defense technique? Would you consider learning one? Tell us what you think!
Welcome to women’s history month!
It is always the highlight of every year around this time for us at WOW to celebrate who we are as women, anticipate the changes that are yet to be and be challenged to participate in being change agents who facilitate justice and equality for women and the girl child.
Throughout 2019 our focus will be directed towards emphasizing the need to create a culture of safety for women. Safety is crucial to a person’s well-being and immensely influences one’s quality of life. Lack of safety for women stands in the way of women living lives to their full potential. It is a fact that even today the most vulnerable people group in any part of the world are women and children. Women and the girl child face the brunt of all the worst forms of deprivations. It is imperative that we press on to find solutions that ensure their safety and well-being.
Issues of safety for women and the girl child begin long before they see the light of day. It begins in the womb and continues on through their life span. Women continue to face violence in the form of ‘gendercide’ (the extermination of the female foetus or infant), domestic violence, rape, molestation, human trafficking, sexual harassment, eve-teasing, neglect, abandonment and more. Also, our definition of safety is incomplete if we don’t include emotional, verbal and intellectual forms of abuse.
Before we ask ourselves what we can do to address issues of safety for women and the girl child, we should consider why they face these forms of violence and what motivates or instigates the perpetrators to exhibit such behaviour. Incidentally, we all should also acknowledge that violence against women is not just endorsed or perpetrated by men. Though the perpetrators are primarily men, women are as guilty of endorsing attitudes ,values,beliefs that perpetuate violence against women.
When it comes to the ‘why’ question about women’s issues of safety, it ultimately boils down to how we value women and the girl child. If they are considered ‘second-class’ and if our social conditioning dictates that women are not equal to men, then it directly will reflect on how we treat them. When our mindset towards women is not challenged, we will continue to experience and endorse violence against women in its various forms. In fact gender inequality in any capacity is an act of violence against women. It is high-time we evaluate our pre-conceived notions and beliefs about women, supported by our cultural practices or traditions.
This is not to say that all our cultural values and practices are all anti-women. But every culture needs to progress to be more meaningful in its expression. And every practice or belief we hold needs to be seen through the lens of our very basic fundamental and constitutional right i.e every human being to be treated with equal value and dignity. Safety is the human right of all people and not just the privilege of a few. Gender, skin colour, religion, caste, economic status or age should not be parameters that determine a person’s worth. And progress needs to be defined by how much we are willing to give room in our belief systems for the dignity and humanity of women and the girl child.
When we recognize this need for a ‘mindset change’, we will have identified one of the fundamental reasons for violence against them. Therefore, safety for women is not an issue that stands alone. On many fronts, it is one of the worst manifestations of prevailing attitudes towards women.
We need to challenge ourselves to rethink our definitions of ‘women’s empowerment’. We need empowerment that starts from within – where we educate a woman to recognize her value and worth. But this is only half the work done. The other half is with how we educate boys and men. Teaching them to respect women as equals is crucial. We don’t have real safety if our concepts of safety is defined by the restrictions we place on women. As long as we hear comments like, ‘what was she wearing when this happened?’ or “why did she go out that late?’ we are setting false or weak standards for a woman’s safety. True empowerment will take into consideration both obvious and hidden factors that shape and mould our attitude towards women. It is in accepting, endorsing and promoting the equality of women in all spheres that genuine safety is birthed. The idea that women are equal needs to span across boardrooms to public offices to schools and colleges. The idea then has to become our posture towards women and the girl child. When we truly begin to acknowledge the equality of women in our attitudes and mind-set we will rise above finding symptomatic solutions to women’s safety.
In keeping with this year’s IWD theme, #balanceforbetter, if balance has to be achieved, men need to be part of the change process. If organisations have to grow, the quickest, fastest, and smartest way is to invest in developing women, creating conducive environments and introducing equitable work place policies. Lasting change can happen only when society as a whole is transformed inside out. This means change at the individual level as well as at the systemic levels. Let not history document how even this generation failed to make a dent in the dream of an equitable world.
A little soul chose to incarnate in the pretty body of a Kolkata Indian. She has evolved and grown up in this belly so benevolent, so comfortable and so loving.
This soul became “Baby”, a baby pampered, warm hearted who heard the voice of her mother, who knew all her deeds, which was really one with her. And then one day in November 1977, in this huge city of Kolkata, the baby decides to live another adventure, to go see outside, that to finally see the face of the one who gave her life.
Yes because I finally could see how beautiful my mother is, and I already know that I will love it with all my heart and especially for life!
On the other hand, I did not know that in India, it was not necessary to be born girl, I did not know that the sex of the child is more important than the love, I did not know that the honour of an Indian family was more important than the life of a newborn.
So I was born in this hospital, I felt your love but as a girl, I also felt your pain and your doubts. This event, which should have been a joy, suddenly turned into mourning. You thought first with your heart, you pressed me very hard against you, you talked to me a lot and together we probably cried.
Well-meaning society did not leave you the choice, you walked through the door of this orphanage, your eyes full of tears and the heart filled with bitterness forever. In France, they say “it’s just a goodbye” and it will be the case, since I’m going to spend the rest of my life looking for you, especially to find you; to tell you simply, “Mom, no, I’m not a girl, I’m YOUR DAUGHTER…”