Meet The SHEROES - Kirthi Jayakumar
1: What problem are you trying to solve?
I am trying to build a world of gender equality.
2. What do you do to solve this problem?
In all honesty, you could say that the idea was in the making, but didn't quite catalyse into the form and shape until June 2013. But the story, though, 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, and the right to education for children 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, misogyny, toxic and hegemonic masculinity, 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: 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, and 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, AND, we also work with the youth and their parents through workshops, to shift mindsets through interactive and educational workshops to make them internalise gender equality as the norm.
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 blackholes 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.
3. What inspires you every day to do what you do?
Just the sheer strength of the potential for goodness that all human beings have. How much good we can do!
4: What was your childhood ambition, and how did you share it with family and friends ?
I was born in Bangalore, and grew up between my grandparents' home in Bangalore and with my mum, dad and brother in Chennai. I grew up with stars in my eyes, hoping to do medicine in the hope of "helping people", until I realised that I could do that with development, too. I always loved art as a child, and doodled subconsciously.
5: Your schooling, college: was it targeted towards what you hoped to be... did you become what you 'studied' to be, or did you change course and chart a different path?
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 organisations in Chennai. To put money in the bank (because it did, at that age, irk me that my peers were earning and I wanted to save the world without a pie to my credit), began freelancing with a bunch of local publications and a bunch of legal journals and publishing initiatives.
6: How and when did you chose your field?
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, health care, 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.
7: What were the personal hurdles you had to cross - i.e the reaction of friends and family?
Thankfully, I was privileged in that I had no hurdles in terms of a personal kind. My family was incredibly supportive, and my friendships have all come to occupy the same space as the work I do.
8: How did your peers react to you? As a young educated woman, were you at an advantage, or disadvantage?
A lot of my peers thought I was taking a big risk, so they wished me well and told me that they were there to help if I needed it. I think I was at an advantage in that I had the power of youth and my idealism was still intact, and unaffected enough to work hard despite resistance on field. I was at a disadvantage because there was an ocean of things that I had to learn about, still!
9. What were challenges you faced and how did you overcome hurdles?
When you work in a field like Gender Equality, you find receptiveness and resistance. Society can make a turn around if all the influences on society honestly dovetail into the same message of gender equality. It is not enough for organisations to work with the youth and their parents and address issues like normalising violence and inequality - we really need to work together. I don't think I've overcome them altogether, because each day presents a new version of the same challenge.
10: What do you see changing for women professionals in India? How would you encourage young women to consider entrepreneurship as a viable profession. Please share your top 5 tips.
I think the social and country set up is capable of becoming, and is slowly actually also becoming more and more encouraging of women professionals.
My five top tips would be:
1. Look at a problem and find a solution that is workable, practical and sustainable
2. Don't second guess yourself. There is so much you are capable of if you put your mind to it
3. You are important, and what you say has value, so never let "log kya kahenge" become your yardstick.
4. Work hard - work so hard that you put your every sinew into making your impact tangible
5. Stay hungry for your dream to achieve fruition every night, and stay wide-eyed like a child - because only then will you go forth and achieve it.
11: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Having made a mark somewhere in the field of gender equality, and dented the social situation favourably.
12. What do you do for fun?
I am a writer and a doodler, so some of one or the other. I enjoy reading in my free time, and I love dancing, kick-boxing, yoga and pilates.
The Red Elephant Foundation