It would be unfair to say that Kirthi Jayakumar is an inspiring woman. She has not only struggled with her demons and come out triumphant. She has been driving the change by making space, for a grossly misunderstood matter of sexual abuse in a much more empathetic and serious manner, via storytelling.
All of 28, founder, CEO of The Red Elephant Foundation, Kirthi Jayakumar’s life is a lesson on how to transform your pain and channelise them into a greater good for a society. A social entrepreneur, a peace activist, artist, lawyer and writer, all rolled into one, SHEROES is thrilled to get you this interesting conversation we had with Kirthi.
“I was born in Bangalore, and grew up between my grandparents' home in Bangalore and with my mum, dad and brother in Chennai. Somewhere in the middle of all this, I faced sexual abuse as a child, and tremendous amount of bullying at school - which put me into a self-imposed slot of silence., because I believed that the threats to keep quiet would be followed by the sanction they said I would earn if I ratted out on them.
I studied Law in Chennai, mostly out of the fact that my father is a lawyer and if I failed in a career in development, I could still fall back on my father's practice.
Once I left law school, I began working - I tried my hand out at the corporate sector and at litigation - they were all wonderful people doing some great work, but something about the system had me running out, kicking and screaming.
It got me thinking that many cases that sat warming the benches in the judiciary could have been addressed had the people involved been aware of their rights at the inception. That led me to start volunteering with the UN Online Volunteering System and a couple of organizations in Chennai.
With time, I gained some understanding of the way things worked, and realised that one of the most common narratives in the journey remained tied to the gender quotient.
If I worked with communities on awareness on their Right to Public Health, I noticed that women were kept out of it. If I worked with communities on their right to clean water, I noticed that women had little to no access. Similarly, for food, education, healthcare, infrastructure, jobs and what have you.
That was when it hit me: there's so much sitting on one domino: gender inequality. If we knocked it, this enormously global burden of inequality could just, just be knocked out.
RED ELEPHANT FOUNDATION AND ITS BEGINNINGS
The story begins on the night of December 17, 2012. On December 15, 2012, I had turned 25. On December 16, 2012, the gang-rape in Delhi, as most people know, took place. On December 17, 2012, I was at the US Consulate General at Chennai, receiving an award for my work with a US-based NGO called Delta Women, which worked for the rights of women in the US and in Nigeria.
When I received the award, I truly felt like a hypocrite - because here I was, receiving an award when there was so much more left to be done, and when a girl was battling for her life because we as a community sacrificed her at the altar of patriarchy and inaction on part of a civilian populace that should have been vigilant.
I went to bed that night, thinking of how much we had allowed to pass in the name of "We are like this only". It was on the same day that I had come to face a dissociated past, where I had completely blocked out my own memories of facing abuse as a child.
I decided to do what I could on my own, and started by telling my story. Six months later, I looked back to see how telling my story had made a difference.
STORYTELLING AS A POWERFUL TOOL
One, parents and to-be parents began to be vigilant about the vulnerability of their children and began to work with their children to have open conversations towards staying safe.
Two, I realised that I began to feel better and my own personal comfort levels felt like they were higher because I had owned my narrative instead of dissociation and my journey to heal began.
Finally, that people were beginning to talk, openly, and get issues that were otherwise covert, out into the open.
The vision was to change the landscape through storytelling - but by about a year, we realised that we had reached a plateau. Great, people were talking. But what about the solutions? We then decided to get down to doing sound research (legal and policy) that we now use to suggest and inform change.
MERGING TECHNOLOGY TO ADDRESS ISSUE LIKE VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN
Then came a time in the journey when we realised that try as we might, the shift could only provide massive ripple effects in the future. But in the present, there is a desperate need to address the state of violence against women. One aspect of this has been to help women get out of a violent environment and get help. This led us to work on developing a tech tool (available now as a website -gbvhelpmap.crowdmap.com, and soon to become an app), that maps organisations across 197 countries (right now, out of these only Syria and North Korea remain information black holes for obvious reasons), providing medical, legal, resource (food, shelter, clothing, crisis response), education and employment, police and medical services and consular establishments (this alone will be added this week) so that women can access them, get help, and stay safe.
GENDER THOUGH BECOMES IRRESPECTIVE IF;
We focus on telling true stories of survivorship and/or changemaking. We don't look at the gender of the subject of qualification because we want to create a culture of understanding that men, women, transgender men, transgender women, non-binary transgender people and a-gender people all face challenges in life, and are so fully capable of rising above it.
But in the mainstream media, we don't get to hear all these true stories - grief becomes a statistic, and one out of many powerful stories becomes a posterchild. What of all the others in between? :) So we try to create a space for empathy and equality, and a sense of mutual understanding. You'll find stories of people of all genders who have faced sexual violence, you'll find stories of people of all genders having faced and survived the damage of war - on our website .
ACTIVISM AND WHY IT HAS OFTEN BEEN MISCONSTRUED
You have both, receptiveness and resistance. However, the resistance is so strong, and the receptiveness doesn't always turn into a payforward, that it seems like the resistance is gaining greater ground. It is not enough for organizations to work with the youth and their parents and address issues like consent and sexual violence and personal boundaries, if pop culture is going to normalize the objectification and stalking of women. This, again, can come only if we collaborate.
LET YOUR BOY WEAR PINK AND GIRL BLUE
I think we make it a point to sell power or shame, and nothing else. We bring up our boys with power and bring up our girls with shame. So, a boy is not able to speak up about abuse because it is eroding of his power, it is emasculating. A girl is not able to speak up about abuse because society has forced her to internalize that she deserved it somehow - by how she dressed or where she was at that point in time. This thinking has to stop.
Lead by example in your houses and classrooms. Stop messages that reassert stereotypes for your kids: don't buy your son blue and daughter pink, don't force your children to play with gendered toys or pursue gendered hobbies, and don't ever, ever say things like "don't cry like a girl" or "be lady like and not a tomboy."
HOW TO DEAL WHEN CONFRONTED WITH A SEXUAL ABUSE CASE?
The first step is to start by understanding that one need not have a professional understanding of sexual abuse and responding to it. We need to have a humane understanding and response system in place.
So, start by understanding what sexual abuse is and how its symptoms can manifest. Teach every child you interact with that it is not okay to be touched inappropriately or to be asked to show body parts that are private - and then, be a safe adult that a child can come share with. From thereon, be vigilant about the world around you, and choose to respond, rather than react.
WAY FORWARD FOR THE RED ELEPHANT FOUNDATION
We take pride in every marginal gain we have. If we've changed one mindset, that's important and rewarding for us. And so we walk, like the man on the shore who threw starfish back into the sea. It makes a difference to each one. With that in place, our mission is to make a gender equal and peaceful world. We want to scale all our activities through two models: one, through more volunteers to join the family so they take it to their communities; two, service delivery through organizations we can collaborate with.
AN ABUSIVE PAST IS NOT YOUR IDENTITY
You are precious. You are important. You are MORE than your abuse. If you look at yourself like a rolling stone that will gather experience until it blasts into smithereens, failure and success will not matter to you. The key is to remember that we are here for the tiny, tiny little dash between our birth and death years, and we can make that space so powerfully meaningful. Be compassionate to yourself.