Below are the remarks delivered by me on January 24th in Delhi at this one of a kind event.
I would like to extend my thanks to SNC Management, Advisors & Consultants and the many individuals who have tirelessly worked to organize this event celebrating National Girl Child Day. It is particularly exciting to see today’s Agenda, with its interesting speakers, discussions and events and to be given this opportunity to share the stage with so many brilliant people and to share my thoughts and ideas with all of you.
I am sure you are wondering, now, as I did, when the invitation was extended to me to address you – what can an aging white man from Chicago, USA possibly say that is relevant to the issue that is the focus of our day together – To Promote Women’s Empowerment. I asked myself – Who Am I to speak to this issue, what experiences have I had that can possibly be relevant to the issue, to you? And Who am I to bring my voice to this struggle?
Let me tell you, at the outset, that in considering this question – I have thought that I must consider for myself and you what does “feminism” mean today?
In answering that question, Over the past years, I have drawn inspiration and knowledge from “We Should All Be Feminists, a personal essay – by award winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – adapted from her much-viewed Tedx talk of the same name. Adichie offers readers a unique definition of feminism for the twenty-first century – one rooted in inclusion and awareness. She shines a light not only on blatant discrimination, but also the more insidious, institutional behaviours that marginalise women around the world.
So, as we talk today, please understand that I subscribe to Chimimanda’s definition of a feminist, which is:
A feminist is a man or a woman who says, “Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better.”
As a conflict management and dispute resolution practitioner, I can tell you about my several years of experience of coming to India, working with College and University students, many of them women. As I reflect back on these experiences, I can tell you that the young women that I have had the privilege to meet, teach and train have an innate, intuitive capacity to lead individuals, corporations and groups in conflict — out of their conflicts.
These young women have a keen understanding of intellectual, business, interpersonal and geopolitical disputes that plague India and plague the world. Like a neurosurgeon’s knife – these women can carefully and precisely dissect complicated issues. Like a psychologist’s manner – these women are able to give disputants the space and comfort to share feelings. Like a chef trained in the finest restaurant or a cook trained in Mother’s and Auntie’s kitchen, these women can peel back the layers of an onion and get disputants to find the heart of their disputes. Like Jacques Costeau, the famous underwater explorer, these women can find the real needs and interests of the disputants that lie way beneath the surface level of the icebergs of conflict that they know so well.
These well trained and motivated young women will lead your justice system and India, itself, to a new and innovative way of resolving disputes where conflict resolution in all its forms –informal problem solving, group facilitation, negotiation, dialogue, and similar techniques, have shown, many times over, that there is a better outcome than winning and losing, a more successful process than accusing and blaming, and a deeper relationship than exercising power over and against others. These better outcomes can be achieved but will only be achieved if there is a collective decision to allow them to be achieved, to allow the highly qualified and motivated women of India to bring this movement forward.
How do I know that this can be accomplished? I know this because I have seen the will, strength and empowerment of some of your own. Before I share with you three stories of woman’s empowerment from amongst India’s own, I ask that you hear them with this prefatory story in your mind. This is a story, you may have already heard:
Two seeds lay side by side in the fertile soil.
The first seed said, “I want to grow! I want to send my roots deep into the soil beneath me, and thrust my sprouts through the earth’s crust above me. I want to unfurl my tender buds like banners to announce the arrival of spring. I want to feel the warmth of the sun on my face and the blessing of the morning dew on my petals!”
And so she grew…
The second seed said, “I am afraid. If I send my roots into the ground below, I don’t know what I will encounter in the dark. If I push my way through the hard soil above me, I may damage my delicate sprouts… What if I let my buds open and a snail tries to eat them? And if I were to open my blossoms, a small child may pull me from the ground. No, it is much better for me to wait until it is safe.”
And so she waited…
A yard hen scratching around in the early spring ground for food found the waiting seed and promptly ate it.
The Moral of the Story – Those of us who refuse to risk and grow get swallowed up by life.
Risk and progress are very much interlinked. When you make up your mind to undergo the hardships and pain, the results will be 100 times sweeter than the pain. It is easy to face the hardships when you are open to face them. So, today, let’s see how open we may be to risks and hardships, all in the name of progress.
Let me , first, share with you the story of Karthika Annamalai, who I met during her first year of College. Her father was killed in a feud for money, when he sought money from his sister to perform a tubectomy on Karthika’s mother. This happened on the day Karthika’s younger brother, who is around four years younger than her, was born.
Her mother breaks granite stones at a quarry in Bangalore. She became a widow at the age of twenty-five and was subsequently evicted from Karthika’s father’s house.
Karthika spent much of her time as an infant in the house of her aunt and uncle. Like her aunt and uncle, Karthika’s mother, too, found work in a quarry. Their house had four granite slabs covered with mud for walls and stacks of neatly tied woven coconut leaves for a roof. After settling down there, Karthika would walk about the mud roads with her skirt lifted shamelessly over her head to avoid the merciless sun and the rising dust and smoke from the quarry. Otherwise, she would follow her mother down the steep quarry where she would sit a few meters away, watching her mother’s frail body shatter stones with a heavy hammer. Karthika recalls that it was during a time like this, though many years later, that a piece of stone hit her on her forehead. Karthika recalls: “I picked it up. It was crudely shaped like a heart and had tiny specks of gold on it. It is one among the three things I keep on my bed for good luck. It is a tangible reminder of where I came from.”
Karthika’s chance came when she was four years old. On the advice of nuns from a local nunnery, her mother, took Karthika to Shanti Bhavan, a boarding school started by Abraham George, a former army captain, author, and philanthropist.
“Shanti Bhavan is the best thing that happened to me,” says Karthika. “Otherwise I would be married like my (elder) sister or breaking stones like my mother.” Her mother can earn Rs 40 on a good day, working 6 am to 5 pm at the quarry. For two years, 1st standard to 3rd, Karthika was the only child at Shanti Bhavan who never went home. Her mother could not afford it. Later, they met twice every year.
“My mom and I, we don’t talk much,” says Karthika, who also has two brothers, the elder dropped out of school to help his mother at the quarry; the younger studies at a local school. “But I know she loves me.”
“Bringing my family out of poverty is a priority for me. When I used to go home from school during the vacations, I used to be homesick for school. I did not have comfortable and some basic facilities at home that I had at school. I realise that my family cannot afford it. Conditions in my village are bad, with murder and rape being commonplace. I want to bring my family out of all that suffering.
Karthika decided years ago that she wanted to be a human rights lawyer, fighting against the many social injustices that exist in India, more than a handful of which she has witnessed herself in her family and in her community. She says: “The values instilled in me at Shanti Bhavan – those of humility, honesty, and generosity – have all impressed upon me the necessity to always work to help those who are less fortunate than me in any way possible. This is where my desire to work as a human rights lawyer stems from. I also hope that working in the field of law in India will provide me the skills I need to one day alleviate poverty and injustice on a broader scale, hopefully in a political position in India.”
Karthika’s opportunity to advance this vision took a giant step forward by being introduced to IDIA, “Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access,” an NGO founded by Prof. Dr. Shamnad Basheer, Visiting Professor of Law, National Law School of India University and its Managing Trustee. IDIA seeks to find ways to reach out to under-represented communities, with the objective of making them aware of the benefits of law as a viable, lucrative career option and help those interested to gain admission into these law schools. It is hoped that such access to legal education would go some way towards empowering the students and the communities that they belong to.
Following a meeting with IDIA volunteers who visited her high school, Karthika was on her way to a career in law. The assistance Karthika has received from IDIA extends from financial assistance to support with traversing the considerable social challenges that she has faced.
“IDIA has some brilliant student volunteers at NUJS and they made sure that I didn’t face any financial hurdles or discrimination,” she says.
Through all of her efforts and support, Karthika graduated from the West Bengal National University of Juridical Studies (NUJS), Kolkata, in 2017.
She now works as an Associate Attorney at AZB & Partners in New Delhi. The odds of someone like her – the daughter of a stone quarry worker – reaching this point are almost zero. She beat the odds thanks to the help she received.
“My mother was screaming with excitement when I told her I got a job offer,” says Karthika — “Suddenly it dawned on her that my education has paid off.”
She beat the odds thanks to her efforts, help from Shanti Bhavan, help from IDIA, and the support of those who have shared her friendship over the years. But none of this could have been possible without her determination, hope and spirit.
Now meet Vennela ( “Vensy” ) Krishna. As a girl raised in an Indian middle-class family, this meant that Vensy was brought up believing that there are things she could not aspire to. She was brought up being told that some dreams are just not for her – that you cannot dare to dream beyond your circumstances.
Vensy, however, never believed this. She knew that she had to push herself to her limits and find out for herself what she was capable of, and that she could not let herself believe that her destiny would be different.
One of her early rebellions was to choose to study law after school. Young people where she came from go on to study engineering or other more affordable fields. Law school was for those from affluent backgrounds, who spoke English at home, could afford to go to posh international schools, pay hefty fees for coaching for the law entrance exam. But she persisted, and managed to crack the national exam against 30,000 students and made it to India’s premier law school.
It was at this point that I met Vensy, a few years ago at NALSAR Law University in Hyderabad. Vensy started teaching at the age of 18, when she was in the first year of college, working 16 hours on weekends, traveling a hundred kilometers on crowded buses. After a year, she took the plunge and started her own company to educate students for law school. Vensy decided to do her bit to help students like her who were passionate about studying law, to help them lead better lives. She wanted law to change their lives, the way it changed hers.
Vensy worked as a teacher at Career Launcher, before starting her own company — Law School 101 — in 2014. At the age of 21, when most young people are trying to figure out what to do with their lives, Vensy had become a blossoming entrepreneur.
Law School 101 is Vennela’s brain child and she began working on it in 2014. It is a platform which brings college students to mentor high school students and bridge the gap in between.
In Vensy’s words — “Law School 101 brings college students together to train school students to crack the national law exams. We study on the weekdays as students, but become teachers on the weekends. I’ve been teaching law aspirants from the first year of law school, started up in my second.”
She added, “Starting a business as a nineteen year old was not easy but I had full conviction in the strength of my ambition. Entrepreneurship and leadership aren’t for everyone. It requires me to travel about 150 km in buses every week just to come to the city and take the classes. Being completely student run meant that I had to sit with parents for hours just to convince their kids to attend demo classes. It took a full two years before people started recognizing our efforts and now, it is finally paying off!”
Law School 101 not only helps law aspirants crack the entrance test and trains them in the various aspects of law , it also helps them in extra-curricular activities such as debates, quizzes, motivational speaking, etc. They have also organised Moot Court events, inter-college debate sessions and orientation sessions at schools to attract young children to the subject of law. Vensy and Law School 101 has won, amongst other awards the following:
Center for Management Studies, NALSAR
Herbert Smith Freehills LLP, United Kingdom
Community Engagement Awards
Child & Youth Finance International, Netherlands
Youth Entrepreneur Award
Entrepreneurs’ Organisation (EO), International
Global Student Entrepreneurship Awards
Vensy shared this with me recently: “Looking back on the last five years, I remember the stress and pain and suffering it took to manage a successful company along with juggling studying and competing for the top positions at law school. But what I remember more clearly are the hundreds of students whose lives we’ve touched and changed. They remain the reason I wake up every morning to continue working for my cause, one that I am fortunate to now have hundreds of others believe in.”
Now meet Maithili Pai.
I met Maithili when she was a trainee in mediation in New Delhi, while she was still a student at NUJS, Kolkata. I have continued to be in touch with her, even as recently as a few days ago.
While a student at NUJS Maithili demonstrated a keen awareness of the needs of women and found a place for herself as an advocate of the same. Her areas of interest are human rights law and alternate dispute resolution. In her first year at law school, she worked as a teacher with IDIA which we already heard about in Karthika’s story. From 2014 she assisted as a child counsellor for the NUJS-HSF Bridge project which a partnership between between LittleBigHelp, a charity that works to create better opportunities for vulnerable children in Kolkata, Herbert Smith Freehills – and the students of NUJS.
While a student at NUJS, Maithili was selected to make a presentation entitled “Access to Justice for Domestic Violence Victims: A Need Based Assessment” at the prestigious Global Alliance for Justice Education (GAJE) 8th Worldwide Conference, held in Turkey in July, 2015. She was also a student researcher at the Centre for Child Rights etablished by UNICEF at NUJS.
And, by the way, she is fluent in English, French, Spanish, Hindi and other Indian languages as well.
Maithili is now Law Clerk-cum-Research Assistant to Dr. Justice DY Chandrachud at the Supreme Court of India.
On August 24th, 2017, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, delivered the main judgment for a rare nine-member bench of the Supreme Court issued a historic ruling with potentially widespread consequences, decreeing that a right to privacy is part of the fundamental right to life and liberty enshrined in the country’s constitution.
Nine justices unanimously joined the decision that was an exhaustive treatise on personal liberties. The 547-page judgment overturned earlier cases and declared, “Privacy is the constitutional core of human dignity.”
What does this mean for women in India?
The right to privacy is closely linked to the exercise of several other rights, from what people say online to who they love to what they eat.
This is a game-changer.
In fact, the court waded into the issue of sexual orientation, calling it “an essential attribute of privacy.” It slammed an earlier Supreme Court ruling that upheld the criminalization of homosexuality on the grounds that the LGBT community was “a minuscule fraction of the country’s population.” The court said that was no basis on which “to deny the right to privacy.” It added: “The purpose of elevating certain rights to the stature of guaranteed fundamental rights is to insulate their exercise from the disdain of majorities.”
The judgment says:
“Life and personal liberty are inalienable rights. These are rights which are inseparable from a dignified human existence. The dignity of the individual, equality between human beings and the quest for liberty are the foundational pillars of the Indian constitution.
“Privacy includes at its core the preservation of personal intimacies, the sanctity of family life, marriage, procreation, the home and sexual orientation. Privacy also connotes a right to be left alone. Privacy safeguards individual autonomy and recognises the ability of the individual to control vital aspects of his or her life. Personal choices governing a way of life are intrinsic to privacy.”
The right to privacy judgment is a landmark judgment of independent India. It not only learns from the past, but also sets the wheel of liberty and freedom for future.
Privacy is believed to be central human right.
With a fundamental Right to Privacy now in place, there is a possibility of making broader arguments against sexual assault, bodily integrity, and surveillance issues.
The fundamental Right to Privacy will provide a remedy against the state. We have seen that this has already been a valuable argument against marital rape.
Now, imagine yourselves, as Maithili Pai, once a young student passionate about the rights of women and children and other human rights, sitting side by side with the Supreme Court Justice who is about to change the future of India.
Imagine your hands trembling as you place words on paper, change words on paper, suggest words to be placed on paper that will be hailed presently and in the future as life changing events in the history of India.
Imagine the feeling of satisfaction and empowerment selling up in your heart as you are living your dream, having an impact on a general society for years to come, setting precedents that are going to impact many who have lived without power to change things, lived often without hope, and lived without a voice.
Maithili’s story is quite different than the others.
Karthika’s is a story of personal achievement that shows the impact on self, and through her work impact on others with whom she had a shared identity.
Vensy’s is a story of personal achievement that shows the impact of creating opportunities for others similarly situated.
Maithili’s is a story of personal achievement that shows the impact on a society, in fact a whole country.
Each is a story of personal determination and empowerment.
Do you, do WE send our roots down and flourish like Karthika, Vensy and Maithili? Or are we that seed that is afraid and gets plucked by the yard hen?
If Economic Empowerment is how people work to create wealth.
If Political Empowerment is all the things we do to organize ourselves and to make decisions.
If Societal Empowerment is everything people do when they live, work, and play together.
What then is our mission, if not our social and moral responsibility?
What is our role in the future of the empowerment movement?
What can WE do?
Will we do our share to —
Acknowledge women of all ages in our communities and our country
Recognize women of all ages in our communities and our country
Honor women of all ages in our communities and our country
Coach women of all ages in our communities and our country
Give voice to women of all ages in our communities and our country
Praise women of all ages in our communities and our country
Hold space for women of all ages in our communities and our country
Celebrate women of all ages in our communities and our country
Yes We will