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Monday, December 11, 2017

Enabling the Able

Esha Meher in conversation with Mrs Minu Budhia : psychotheraphist, counsellor and a special mother.

Sometimes in life, you realise you don’t have an option. You turn back to appreciate what you have.

There had been a period where I considered myself the epitome of misfortune. Death seemed to laugh ever so mockingly, at my vain plans to embrace it. Every time, I crossed a tall building, I counted its floors, to count as to many floors I’d have to climb to plan a fatal jump. Then, there came a moment, where I learnt, that running away is never an answer. Its an option that a lot of people are not given, not because they are not privileged enough but because they are trusted, trusted by destiny to be able to handle the challenges that life tosses their way. And soon thereafter, I learnt to live.

Tell us about your childhood.
I was born into a large Marwari family in the Tinsukia district of Assam. Having been always recognised as a bright and extroverted student, people knew me for my go-getter spirit. An active sportsperson who proudly displayed trophies in every sport socially possible at that time for a young girl. Being policed by parents or doted by elders, was not a regular occurrence in my life, as morning turned to day and then to dusk, I always found myself busy in the company of my cousins who ran across the place, sprinkling cheer and happiness into every bit of what we call life.
While I nursed dreams of taking up medical science as a profession, logistical difficulties stood my way. No school in Assam would admit women to the Science stream, let alone specialised degrees.  Humanities was an obvious choice and soon followed the typical Indian life of marriage at 18. In fact I finished my graduation a few years after my marriage from Loreto College in Kolkata.

When was your first brush with the term “special needs?”
Terminologically speaking, back in our days, I had almost no idea what special needs stood for. In my maternal town at Tinsukia, there used to be a differently abled young girl. I remember seeing her around, wearing bright clothes and having cluttered hair. I didn’t exactly know what her issue was, but everyone dismissively said, “pagal hai”.
While I remained a stranger to medically and socially tailored terms for a very long time, the understanding that certain people were different in terms of their social needs and expressions probably took root in my mind from this time.

For the free spirited 18 year old, how did you deal with marriage and the responsibilities it brought along?
As it is often said, sayings weren’t coined in a day. We’ve heard them say, once a rebel, always a rebel! And it could not have gotten any real for me as a young bride of 18, often spotting myself at cross roads with my in-laws, standing up for what I felt was unfair. My husband, Sanjay, has always been a pillar of support. In my quest of challenging archaic traditions, and speaking out aloud when I thought I wouldn’t comply, I had him by my side, espousing my cause before family at first, then society and at all stages of life, thereafter.
When motherhood finally arrived, I was too overwhelmed with everything around me, to feel or understand the difference, to be honest… and my naivette and relative immaturity due to my age wasn’t helping as well. Policed by rituals and guided by restrictions, there were too many excited family members who stepped in to offer advice and give a list of dos and donts. Amidst thisrestricted schedule, my first child made her way into the world and our hearts, we named her, Preeyam.

Did motherhood feel any different raising your younger child?
Certainly did. To be very honest, the first time, I even experienced the bond between a mother and an unborn child, was when I conceived my younger daughter, Prachi.
Like most Indian families, the first child is always the recipient of love and attention from every nook and cranny of the extended circle.  Our family was no exception.Grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins queued up to dote on Preeyam, I was left overwhelmed. As Preeyam grew up, my life progressed at a rapid speed, it didn’t take me long to realise that she had taken to me when it came to being active and quick on her toes and little arms. She was the naughty multi tasker, who had a special love for breaking perfume bottles!
With Prachi, things were different. I was a much experienced and matured woman with this passage of time. She came into our lives 8 years after Preeyam was born. In the years that had passed in the middle, I had miscarried a few times and had prayed fervently to god for a healthy child. My prayers had finally been answered.
I doted on Prachi and literally carried her in my arms all the time, till she reached the age of two. Her medical reports were perfect as the growth chart recorded that she was growing just fine. We put her in the best kindergarden there was, in the city, and that’s where it all started. Complaints started pouring in, every single day. Probably an interesting illustration of how even the most prestigious of pre schools, can be completely ignorant to symptoms of special needs subjecting the young children to anger, mockery and ridicule in their own ways. “Prachi is the perpetual talk of the staffroom, she is so naughty”
Soon, instances of Prachi’s “naughtiness” took severe turns. My husband and elder daughter would be apprehensive of taking her to social gatherings or five star restaurants, as she would show blatant disregard to any form of decorum, running around and being restless within a matter of seconds. But I was adamant, I refused to acknowledge that she might be in need of a clinical diagnosis. I insisted that she be treated normally and everyone be indifferent to the obvious difference that Prachi brought along. But this could not have gone along for long. We finally decided to take her to Bangalore for a harmless diagnosis to a presumably tiny issue. It was there in that city, that our daughter was diagnosed with Attention Deficiency Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Low IQ. The terms were told to me, but the meaningless words bounced off my ears. I was far from ready. Far from the reality of being the mother of a special child.

Could you talk about what happened next?
Oh! What followed that was a long long walk down a path that seemed to never reach its destination. When the news was finally broken to me, my world crashed. I took the blame on myself. As if, bearing a special child was a fault of mine. I could have been a better mother, done something, changed something to alter the course of things. Within a span of a few days, I sunk into the depths of depression and was completely suicidal. The family panicked. Their entire attention turned to me. People sympathised. Some reminded me of the existence of god and his illusions and some sympathised, saying the most over used phrase in the world, “it shall be all right”. People were scared to breach the topic before me, and life at Budhia house seemed all the more tense, as everyone grew further scared to pronounce out loud, what was evident and had now been confirmed by medical sources.

From being clinically depressed and suicidal to standing up-to reality, and then conceiving an intitiative like Caring Minds… What was that journey like?
The firat half of the struggle was real as I had lost sight of things. We travelled extensively with Prachi in search of treatment. One day we were in Bangalore, and the next day, I wanted to fly to Philadelphia for better doctors and better treatment. For ten long years of our lives, we were almost based out of Bangalore. We had an apartment there and for every vacation that Preeyam had in school, they invariably knew where she would have to head to. I even started insisting that Preeyam take the SAT exams so that the three of us (Preeyam, Prachi and I) could relocate to America, where Prachi could have perpetual access to better treatment. And behind the curtains, I was still a broken woman. I could not let my anxiety affect my husband. Sanjay was being the most supportive entity that one could have ever hoped for, if I poured my insecurities onto him, it would jeopardise his career. It was the same phase where he was heading our family business and had just being elected the Chairman of the Indian Chamber of Commerce. I could not have dragged him down. I made sure I was a good wife, an amiable partner. Attending social gatherings and greeting people, but almost everyday as the sun hit the horizon, I would be haunted by my luck and my reality. I would curse my stars and cry on the phone with my mother.
Things took a steep turn, when I realised I could not escape. I was Prachi’s mother. If I could not accept her the way she was, it would be foolhardy to expect the world to. I had to train myself to not only be a good mother to her but also be that entity in her life who could guide her along the way. My unnurtured love for medical science was brought to the forefront as I pursued a degree in counselling from the United States, just so that I could understand her situation better. And it was this degree that changed my life. I subsequently trained myself in Cognitive Behaviour Theraphy from London and started actively practising in Calcutta.
The path to practice in established hospitals and then finally conceiving the idea of Caring Minds, an instituion that would render all mental health services under one roof, was not without hinderaces and challenges. But that’s another story in itself! Emotions sometimes pull us down. Instead of being the light in our lives, it blinds us with intensity, it is at phases  like this that we need to lay it to rest. Diagnosing a situation objectively. And for that, there is no shame in objectively doing what is healthy. And sometimes, actively distancing oneself from a loved one is the healthy thing to do.

Besides being academically enriching, your years of pursuing these degrees made a lasting impression on your life. How did that come about?
These years redefined my relationship with my own self and that’s how it changed my life. For the longest time after Prachi was born, I felt like time was lead bound, it never moved. All I knew and heard and saw was the fact that my child would never grow.
It was only after a point, that I remembered that I had a life too. I was a woman who lived before she became a mother, and I owed something to her. I had to live. For myself and for Prachi. Strength for me was not an option that I could choose or forego. I had to appreciate the fact that I was still living and I wanted to live on. Live for Prachi, live for my family and live for myself. Amidst the shouts and wails of the wife, mother and other social roles that I had, I had completely suffocated the woman in me. I realised that the world worked in strange ways. The weaker you are, the more people would pull you down. Whatever your reality might be, the only way was to embrace it and wear it like an armour. I decided to start stepping out of the house without Prachi and started living for myself. I employed trained staff to be around my child albeit with supervision. And suddenly my days got lighter and easier.
One thing I could not help but notice was how my emotions were pulling us down instead of helping my daughter. The emotional involvement that I had with her was intense and the slightest movement in her would send me in a complete state of panic. I learnt to finally let go, for both our sakes.
But having said that, I never stopped training Prachi. While she was always accompanied by a professional set of governesses who were trained to handle her, I was still her first coach for everything. Every sport, be it swimming, badminton, squash or cycling, I made sure, I mentored her in each of these. But this continued, only till the time she turned thirteen. Another storm hit us thereafter…
When Prachi was thirteen, she was diagnosed with Bipolarity. Her mood changed every minute and she had no control over the extremities of her emotions. But this time, for me, things were different.
I diagnosed her condition much before the doctors did. As luck would have it, when she started showing the earliest signs of Bipolarity, I was reading a book called, “Raising a Moody Child”, and I couldn’t help noticing that my life beyond the pages bore an eerie similarity to what was being written about, in the book. We had written to her doctors in the States who were still trying to figure out the reasons behind her sudden mood swings. It was me who suggested, that she be tested for Bipolarity and soon enough the results confirmed my diagnosis.
Bipolar Disorder is not a life threatening terminal illness, it is rather commonplace affecting hundreds of people every day. It does have medication but is by and large a mood disorder where a peson can feel extremes of emotions within a short span of time. It aggravates with hunger, fatigue etc. It does have medication but no complete cure. But Prachi’s case was different. Things would be particularly difficult because she already suffered from ADHD. In the case of an advent of yet another mood disorder, she would not be able to handle it, as she never understood the need to manage it anyway.
ADHD is a condition where an individual is perpetually in a state of hyperactivity, and that’s what Prachi faced. The viable mode of treatment was to engage her in physically taxing activities, which would tire her down. But with the onset of Bipolarity, that could not happen anymore. On some days, she would play Badminton with great rigour and enthusiasm, the next day, she would refuse to touch the racket. The battle was on, for me. Just that, this time, I was not going to give up.

Would it be fair to say that these conditions are untreatable?
What do you do when you get diagnosed with something like Asthma or Migraine? There is no permanent solution right? When the attack appears, you medicate yourself. Then it subsides on its own. The situation though not identical, is somewhat similar. There are medications, which are administered when the symptoms get severe and what is of particular significance is the avoidance of known aggravators. As long as a controlled, predictable lifestyle is maintained, life goes on. And its perfectly fine. On the onset of a rough attack, there are medications which improve things.

Can you share the story of Caring Minds?
When I had started my practice as a psychotheraphist and counsellor at Belle Vue Clinic and St Xaviers College, I realised that the city lacked the infrastructure for mental healthcare. All I was mostly doing, was referring people to different places. Place X for speech theraphy, place Y for psychometric testing and so on. I realised that the need of the hour was to have a place which would provide all services related to mental healthcare under one roof. And that is when we conceived the idea of Caring Minds. My husband, Sanjay, being the supportive entity that he is, immediately arranged for a proposed roadmap, probable site and then began conducing interviews for staff.
And there it was. We were shocked to find out, that the area where the proposed clinic would be had their residents protesting as they “had objections to mad people coming here everyday”. They had somehow gone to Court and obtained a stay order. I was devastated. All preparations were done. Staff had been hired and there it was. Everything stalled. Getting into long drawn litigation was not something I wanted. I had a mission to achieve and Caring Minds had to start operating. My elder daughter Preeyam had just quit her job as a banker in London. I called Pree and told her, that I needed her back in the city and there she was, with her neck deep in papers and ideas for Caring Minds, in no time. We decided to start the initiative from a single room in our house itself. That would be the Caring Minds office. We made way for a desk, chair and other furniture befitting of the place and that’s where we first set up shop!
In a matter of some time, we realised that the Court Case would not see its end and I asked Sanjay, if we could look for a new property. We soon obtained the land at Sarat Bose Road, where our Caring Minds Clinic proudly stands today not lacking in space, facilities or any amenity that one could seek therein.

Caring Minds now has yet another little faction, called I Can Flyy. How did that come about?
I Can Flyy is a vocational training institute for Special Needs Young Adults. The individuals here are of the age 15 to 30 and they are trained in Art & Craft, Bakery Skills, Data Entry and other ancillary life skills that can give them a stable livelihood in future. The Craft items made by them are sold by pre order at the I Can Flyy Craft Factory and the food and bakery items are sold in the café as well as the Food Factory. The latest addition to the institute is Café I Can Flyy, which is Kolkata’s first café to be run entirely by and for the interests of Special Needs Individuals. We often bit and request corporate houses who outsource their data entry jobs to outsource it to us at I Can Flyy.
As I raised, Prachi, the thoughts about her future continued to haunt me. What was she to do when she grows up. Her life could not be at the behest of someone else the whole time. That is when thoughts about her and hundreds of other special needs individuals started circling my mind. There had to be a way to socially and economically empower them, as to also increase their sense of self worth in society. A life with dignity is a fundamental right hat we deserve on the basis of our human birth and nothing else, I Can Flyy is an initiative which reaffirms the same, to prove that Special Needs Individuals are just as abled as any other person, just in a different way. They need our love, faith and support, not a sense of empty sympathy.

In your life as a mother of a special needs individual and the founder director of I Can Flyy, how and where do you draw the fine line between empathy and professionalism?
Its difficult, true. But not impossible to achieve. While empathy is an important emotion, using it too much can hinder goals especially when it involves making a change in a diverse society as ours. As the Director of I Can Flyy, I do meet parents quite often, and while I do understand their pains, sometimes I need to make decisions which may not be pleasing to them.
I Can Flyy is a vocational training school, we cannot make place for individuals with severe disabilities or restricted motor functions. While we do make a few exceptions, the ratio is quite strict, for every 5 functioning special needs individuals, there can be 1 severe case. If I make way for almost every parent who knocks on our door, I shall soon be running a special school, which we are not. There are certain criteria that an individual has to meet to be here, and we cant compromise on those very often.

In your interaction with society first as a mother, and then as a professional, how have you felt their reception/acceptance/perception of Special Needs Individuals to be?
That’s the answer. The lack of awareness and then sensitivity about Special Needs in today’s day and age is appalling. But then again its varied across the different layers of society. The Middle Class and the Upper Middle Class believe that the solution lies in denial. The other day, I took Prachi to the Consulate for visa related formalities and there was a well dressed girl, who stared at her persistently. After a point of time, I walked up to her and told her, that she was a Special Child and please don’t stare like that. I believe that the few of us who know must not avoid sharing and educating people, wherever we can, in whatever way, we can. However, in stark contrast lies a memory of mine. Once I was at a street vegetable vendors’ and I noticed that she had a special child. The kid was right there, in the marketplace, doing whatever little work that he could do. That was the best illustration of proud acceptance that I had seen. The mother hadn't hidden the child fro the world or refused public association with him. She knew he was different and it was a part of life. She understood, that he may not be able to perform every task in the manner others do. But that doesn’t make him disabled or uncommon. He still could and did work, just in a different way and a different set of work.

Any regrets in life? If you could turn back time and do things differently, what would you change?
No regrets. None at all.
I am a blessed individual. I have a supportive husband and family. I have two loving daughters. Preeyam is a bright young woman handling the family business, an able co founder for I Can Flyy and Heading New Initiatives for Caring Minds. We have the best mother daughter relationship ever! There is literally no taboo topic between us. And Prachi is my darling. She is my strength and inspiration. She helped me rediscover myself and appreciate life like never before. I think of moments when I had cursed my luck and often wonder how wrong I was. I know of a gentleman, who had two sons, one of them passed away of a terminal illness and the other child is autistic. I see him live life, I see him smile, walk and fold his hands in prayer before the same god, whose existence I once doubted. It is all a matter of perspective. Its all out there before us. It ultimately comes down to what we choose to see.

Your parting words to us.
Society is an evolving being and its progressing each day. Its made up of nothing, but a bunch of individuals like you and me. If we start by educating ourselves in the language of peace, love and compassion, it’s the single most important step, taken in the direction of evolution or advancement.
In so far as Special Needs is concerned, the Indian society still lags behind. There is no awareness on a national scale and no clear idea as to what is the way ahead. In countries like the United States, Special Needs is a much more integrated concept. The schooling system there is starkly different. Kids mostly go to the school in their neighbourhood and the same school is open to all children. Once a child grows up seeing a special needs individual in their class itself, he/she is much more understanding of their needs and ways. While in India, nothing legally can stop a Special Needs Child from going to a regular school, such a thing is never heard of. Inclusive education is almost a myth and that is what needs to change.

And as for parents and mothers of special children, I would just have one thing to say. God often chooses the strongest and the best of us as a parent to a special child, because we have it in us to accept God’s purest creation the way it is, and make society a different place. The onus on us is always to lead the way. Hence, the first step ever is to value our own selves, and strengthen our wills, for giving up or giving way for another, is not an option for us. 

Monday, December 4, 2017

Emerging Hope Lanka

Singapore is home to over 200,000 foreign domestic workers who migrate every year from Indonesia, Philippines, Myanmar, India and Sri Lanka in search of financial security. Employed as domestic helpers, these women perform domestic chores such as cleaning, cooking, serving, dishwashing, elderly care and childcare and are required to live with their employers. Nilushika Silva Jayaweera came to Singapore in 2001 to work as a domestic helper and has worked here for 15 years. Despite having worked for years, Nilushika was often left with no savings, which is experienced by most of the domestic workers here, as remittances form a huge part of their financial decisions. But that did not stop her from working hard to overcome these monumental challenges and turn her dreams into reality. In 2017, she returned back to Sri Lanka, but as an entrepreneur. Today, Nilushika is a proud founder of not just her online tea business that has a global market, but also a nonprofit called Emerging Hope Lanka that provides business coaching and training to women in Sri Lanka.  She was also invited to speak at TEDxSingapore in 2016. Here is her story that speaks volumes of her determination to change her destiny.

Tell us about your background to the extent comfortable and your life in Singapore?
My name is Nilushika Silva Jayaweera. I am 36 years old and I am from Sri Lanka. I am the oldest of my five siblings. When I was 16 years old, I lost my parents and I had to take charge and look after my family. As financially we were struggling and hardly had anything to survive on, we were sent to an orphanage. At the age of 18, I took up a job in a garment factory in Sri Lanka. Although it was a lot of work for very little money, this job gave me a sense of independence and I wanted to support my younger siblings. That is when I left home for Singapore to work as a domestic helper. For the first time I was out in a new country all by myself. I was very scared and lacked the confidence to communicate as I could hardly speak or write English. But all I knew was, I had to work hard so that I could give my siblings a good life.

How did you decide to start your own business-  Tell us more about your journey as a businesswoman.
In 2011, with my employer’s support, I enrolled for a course in financial literacy and management at Aidha, a micro business school. At Aidha, I learnt how to manage my money and all the pre-requisites for starting and running a business. From writing a business plan, to the nuances of marketing your business and pitching your business idea to a potential pool of investors, I picked up these different business and leadership skills at Aidha. I realised, when we learn new skills, it creates more choices and possibilities. I could now envision a new future for myself, my family as well as my communities in Sri Lanka. I learnt the ways in which I could translate my ideas into reality. And yes, I discovered freedom, freedom to make choices and determine my own future. My friends and mentors have played a key role in supporting me in this journey. With their help, I also enrolled for a course in leadership that helped me develop both personally and professionally. I founded my own business- an online tea venture, which now has a global market with clients from France, USA, Hong Kong and Singapore. It is not a very big business. But however small it is, it is mine and I feel great about it as I have never had anything that belonged to me before.  My education empowered me and helped me shape my destiny. I strongly believe that EDUCATION and EMPOWERMENT are very important to enable women to have a brighter future.

You recently launched your own NGO- Emerging Hope Lanka. What has been instrumental in your decision to start Emerging Hope Lanka and what do you wish to achieve?
There are many organizations that are doing some amazing and significant work to empower women in Sri Lanka. However, most of them focus on providing mainstream academic education to young girls. While education is very important, only learning concepts and theories does not help. Education needs to empower individuals so that they are more empathetic, sensitive and learn about their own worth and rights as human beings. What is the use of education in a society that doesn’t value women. Unless women make their voices heard and have the agency to make a choice, the knowledge they gain does not help in any way. It is important for women to be able to make decisions and not follow the rules and norms set by their fathers, brothers, husbands or uncles. And that decision-making is possible only if women get the opportunity to be independent and determine their own future.

I strongly feel that entrepreneurial and leadership training will have a significant impact in the lives of women and communities in Sri Lanka. The way business and leadership skills have helped me, I am confident that other women will also hugely benefit from such a training. I want to pass on all that I have learnt so that women can create a brighter future for themselves and their families. By working with the women in my community, I want to create a community of micro entrepreneurs. Starting and running their own businesses will not only make them independent but also help them support their families economically. It is not easy to leave your family and migrate to another city or country in search of financial stability. Thus, Emerging Hope Lanka will support them in their entrepreneurial journey while giving them the opportunity to be economically self-sufficient while staying with their families.   Today, I am working with 30 Sri Lankan women, teaching them how to start a micro-business in areas like chicken or pig-farming, flower growing, dressmaking, spice packing and many more. And I am happy to share that 10 women are all set to  launch their businesses. Women can now use their earnings to support the education of their children. And the children get to benefit from the academic knowledge they learn at school as well as the entrepreneurial knowledge from their confident, independent and empowered mothers at home.

What are the major challenges that you face in achieving these goals and how do you overcome the same?
Like most nonprofits, lack of funding has been a major challenge. We are constantly in need of staff and volunteers to help us run our day-to-day activities, Further, we are also trying to find a school space to conduct our training sessions. At the moment, I have been self-funding all the programmes and workshops.

How can the community support you in your endeavor?
There are different ways in which one can help Emerging Hope Lanka. You can be our ambassador and spread the word about the work we do. One can sign-up to be a volunteer and help us conduct our sessions or help us with other activities such as fundraising and exploring meaningful collaborations. We are currently running a crowdfunding campaign to help raise funds to help women kickstart their micro-businesses as well as build resources to support our programmes. You can choose to donate.  Every donation counts and will significantly help us take our programmes to a wider community of women. You can also follow us on Facebook and be updated on our work and the impact.

To support Emerging Hope Lanka’s crowdfunding campaign, you can visit:

You can also follow their work on Facebook:

Monday, November 27, 2017


Sabin Muzaffar is the founder of Ananke Magazine, an initiative that publishes mindful content for women, online. Here is an interview with her.

Tell us a bit about yourself.
 I hail from Karachi, Pakistan and was born in a family of Marxists and revolutionaries. My grandfather was in the Indian Communist Party's Central Committee, ideals that were imprinted on my dad and have largely influenced me as well. So I belong to a family with a mindset, which has generationally striven to change the status quo of society - the ills and injustices. The first story I remember my dad telling me was of my grandfather - now some 60-70 years ago - how he had heard screams and shouts outside the house and had gone out to see a couple of burly looking men hitting a woman amidst an 'awe-struck' crowd doing nothing. I was told it was my grandfather who had slapped one of the bullies who reeled back in surprise and eventually stepped away. The lesson that I learnt from that story early on is not to let bullies get away - stand up and step up! I was always a voracious reader and my early readings included children stories about Lenin. In grade 8th, I discovered my granddad's treasure trove of books, so my days were spent in the company of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gorky, Maupassant , Zola and many more.  But at the same time, it was not all rosy as well. Living in a patriarchal society, I both witnessed and experienced what it meant to be a girl in an eastern society. Not to stereotype but it is what it is. From hearing about a young girl - our neighbour's hired help - being murdered by her brother suspicious of her having an 'illicit' relationship to workplace gender biases etc, I was one of the million girls leading the so-called ordinary life. One thing set me apart - I was never silent when it came to inequalities, inequities and injustices. I have learnt from early childhood to always stand up or be a road kill. As Sansa Stark says (taught by Lord Bailesh) in GoT 'There is no justice in the world, not unless we make it.' 
Coming to my education, I did my Bachelors in English Literature and Masters in Political Science from the University of Karachi. But before that, right after finishing high-school, I started working as a trainee sub editor at daily The News International. So I started my professional career even before enrolling into the university. 

I spent three years at The News, then joined monthly SHE magazine as assistant editor and later monthly SPIDER Internet Magazine, Health & Beauty. Just as I was a voracious reader, it might seem pompous of me to say that I was quite a prolific writer as well and contributed to numerous newspapers and magazines including Aurora, Women's Own etc. After marriage, we moved to Dubai and I started freelancing for print and digital media such as a little bit in Khaleej Times, Gulf News, ITP Publishing, MangooBaaz, Pakwired, BBVA OPENMIND, Bayzaat, Tuck Magazine, She the, Calcus Publishing and many more. I have been privileged to see my work being reprinted by international media and digital outlets such as, Techjuice, Glassbreakers etc. Apart from my work at Ananke, I still write for other women-centric media outlets such as International Women's Initiative (IWI) because its all about raising awareness so more the merrier. 

 What inspired the creation of Ananke?
 It was actually during my stint at Calcus Publishing. Calcus is an agency that collaborates with Gulf News and/or Khaleej Times to bring out marketing magazines like CEO, where we interviewed movers and shakers of the corporate world across the GCC primarily. In about two years, I interviewed 200+ people in C-suite or director level positions. And almost 75 percent of them were men. And that is what triggered it all. It was at the same time I began to wonder why women in leadership roles, women trailblazers weren't being either interviewed or being documented. This was back in 2014. And I just felt not enough was being done though there were (and are) some amazing magazines but just a handful. That is how Ananke came into existence. I wanted a platform that not only showcased female trailblazers but to highlight them as role models for young generation of women to emulate and follow lead. In addition to this, I wanted a platform that engaged (mainly) women into a meaningful conversation about gender, and how women have a critical role to play in literally every sphere of life and society. 

So with just a crazy passion, I decided to launch an electronic magazine December 2014. With more than 17 years of experience in print and digital media at that time and a determination that I could do it - I launched Ananke. I hired my husband's friend to help me with the technical aspect of the website but from content, SEO, interviews, social media - I did everything myself. Slowly and gradually, Ananke came into its own. Because I was a UN Women's Empower Women Global Champion 2015-2016 at that time, I collaborated with the organization, advocating women's economic empowerment, raising awareness against gender-based violence etc. I strongly believe in the power of collaboration and have made many allies such as Empower Women,, Sayfty, Women's Digital League, Women Engineer's Pakistan, The India Trumpet and many more. 

Can you talk about the current situation relating to gender equality and women's rights in the MENA region? 
I think - in my humble opinion - we have come a long way from the suffragette movement to the feminist revolution and so on. But there is so much more that needs to be done. Every milestone that we have achieved, we achieved in this century while women - the likes of the philosopher Hypatia and the ordinary women alike - have suffered at the hands of hegemonic patriarchy throughout millennia. Yes there have been many women trailblazers but generally women suffered devastatingly because they had no rights, no bodily autonomy and they still don't.  And over the last few years, even though there is a lot of buzz surrounding women's empowerment especially after CEDAW, the MDGs and now the SDGs - I feel, have seen and told how many things are going backwards. Look at the US, women are fighting for the rights to their bodily autonomy - a right they had worked so hard to gain... now in the Trump-era, this hard fought battle needs to be dealt with all over again. Australia is another example where the plight of women, women's homelessness is on the increase. And this controversy 'to wear or not to wear' a burkha, burkini or a bikini. So we do have miles and miles to go. And we can only move forward through education and banding together as one with one voice - Women Empowering Women. 

Coming over to the MENA region. It is a hotbed. The situation is not very easy to encapsulate because there are many factors that includes poverty and conflict, social norms and mindset as well as multi ethnoculturalism - which actually brings everyone together - now because of outside influences (having ulterior economic motives) triggers conflict. Women (and children) being some of the most vulnerable groups suffer the most. On the other side of the spectrum are countries like the UAE - with a vision to bring about harmony through inclusion and diversity. And you can see how the country has progressed.
What are some of the challenges you have faced in the work that you do?
Investment, funding is the only challenge we really face. We launched a digital internship program for women in girls where participants can work for us virtually. Its a digital office where interns get to work in a real-world scenario and gain experience in terms of advocacy, digital media, journalism and communication. It has been quite a successful program with us mentoring over 25 girls in a single year from literally all across the world (Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, UAE, Pakistan, Australia, the US and Canada).So we want to expand that and also offer the program to talented refugees. Because of their political status, its hard for them to get a job and we want to offer them a platform where they could not only gain experience, share their experiences but also earn a bit of money. Other than that being the eternal optimist and a very determined person - I take everything head-on :)

What inspires you to do the work that you do? 
 Women - their plight, agony, the injustices as well as our resilience! I am talking about all the "Mother India" out there... the Angela Davis, Phoolan Devis and Berta Caceres of this world.

Can you share a few stories / anecdotes from your work so far?
 One story is that of my intern - Josephine Adeti. She wrote a letter to me thanking me for launching Ananke. I shall just quote her here: 
Ananke gave me a lot of confidence, it allowed me do things I never thought I would with my feebleness. I began writing articles and Sabin, you were very encouraging. You published almost all of them when I thought they did not even deserve your attention. Little by little, my dream of becoming a journalist sprang back to life like a mushroom. I totally loved everything about Ananke. I came to appreciate the effort of raising awareness about various issues that are not spoken of in our communities. Initially, I thought it was a waste of our precious time talking among ourselves about these matters during twitter campaigns as I could not see any tangible results. But now I know better… Dear Sabin, I could write a whole ten page article about my experience and exposure through Ananke. I am just so very glad to be part and parcel of Ananke and I want to let you know you have changed a life in some part of the world. The life of a young girl is now taking a better shape simply because you chose to pursue your dream. And I would conclude with my most favorite quote: As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. And as we are liberated from our own fears, our presence automatically liberates others. Thank you for letting your own light shine. Mine is now shining too because yours stood out first.

You are also an Empower Women Champion! Can you tell us a bit about that?
I was selected by UN Women's Empower Women to be their Global Champion for Women's Economic Empowerment in 2015-2016. It was an amazing experience. It was a batch of 75 women and men from all across the world. It was a brilliant experience because the organization helped me connect with some amazing people, like-minded individuals and trailblazers. We had so much fun and so much learning through our advocacy campaigns online and off! We collaborated on many ideas and saw the impact we made by working harmoniously together. It also brought in a diverse set of ideas to life. Last year, I was selected as an Empower Women Mentor to inspire the new batch pertaining to advocacy, inclusion, and diversity. It was a wonderful experience to see fresh new faces excited to take the reins and help make the world a better place. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Weaving an inclusive Web

Aparna Vedapuri Singh, the founder and CEO of Women’s Web, channeled a passion to create an
 inclusive space for women from all walks of life through her platform. Here is her story.

The journey into writing
I always loved working with words. I think I have been very, very lucky to grow up in a home where books were not seen as taking you away from your studies or being seen as pointless. I think I was lucky to have been born in a household as a loved child who was understood for her love for words. I was always encouraged to read and write. As long as I can remember, even when I was eight, if you asked me what I wanted to do, I said I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t have much of an idea of what it entailed. I had a natural inclination to working in a creative space.
Having said that, my career actually did not begin in this place. While my graduation is in literature and journalism, I went into the marketing research and communications space. My corporate career has spanned across B2B Marketing, business development and market research – and for almost ten years, spanned across large corporate and then in an individual capacity, related to this capacity. Throughout, I have been writing as an individual blogger. I was interested in poetry and short fiction. I have always been very interested in writing – although unfortunately I’m not writing as much as I would like to now.

Starting off
I started my own individual blog in 2003-2004. I was one of the early bloggers in the country when blogging had begun to take cyber space by storm. It also helped me get in touch with other feminist bloggers. I realized that we were not these oddballs, angry feminists or any of those stereotypes. There are as many different kinds of feminists as there are women. Some of us express ourselves with anger, some of us express ourselves with humour, some through fiction – and all of these are perfectly valid ways of engaging with the world.

And if there are things women are angry about, why do we fear anger so much? Why do we especially fear women’s anger so much?  Because there is the underlying belief that women must be seen and not heard, and that women are beautiful objects to be enjoyed but must have no negative emotions like anger or fear. As long as women are seen as self-sacrificing, they are seen as strong. Like the single woman who gives up everything for her children, or a rags-to-riches story – these are important stories and are certainly respectable, but we appreciate only a kind of sacrificial strength in women. Things like anger are seen as a selfish sort of strength. A righteous anger in the cause of your children, for instance, is always appreciated.

The birth of Women’s Web
The internet opened me up to the world of feminist blogging. Not just feminist blogging, but to the fact that there is incredible diversity among women, and women are so much more than what the world gives them credit for. I was still in the corporate world in that space, and began writing. I had a blog, had readers and people who came to engage with my work. I guess that evolved into the next step – if women are so diverse and have diverse interests with the need to talk about different things, why should women’s media and media for women be so uni-dimensional? Personally, I like fashion, but that’s not the only thing about me, or about women in general. A woman interested in fashion can love technology and animals. Another woman may have interests outside of fashion and may not be interested in fashion at all. When it comes to women, there was and is a constant stereotype that women love dressing up and want to spend their husbands’ money. Women’s Web emerged from the need to embrace that diversity. In the early years, it was not a business, but now it has evolved as a media business.

We are an all-women team. There is an assumption that everything that women do is just either a hobby or a not-so-serious passion, or not for profit. Of course there is a space for non-profits but it is not for everyone. There is no need to assume that women’s initiatives must be altruistic alone. We see the space for something to work with a business model, while challenging the notion of frivolity and the superficial understanding of women’s initiatives.

Breaking the Glass Ceiling
As a woman in business, I have found fewer challenges than as a woman in the corporate world, and that’s also partly because the corporate world is changing and there is more conversation today. When I was in the corporate world, from 2000 to 2010, I had an exciting career, I travelled a lot and had a challenging career – hard targets, leading a product line and such. I enjoyed doing all those things. I didn’t face any major crisis. I was probably not at a stage where I was pushing up against the glass ceiling. I was still in the middle managerial level – where until that point, women don’t face as much of a pushback. Women are very good in doing the hard work that is involved in junior and middle managerial levels. We are doing a lot of the grunt work – women are hard workers, and the space at that stage was for performance rather than positioning.

Having said that, I have come across my fair share of sleazy bosses. Even ten years ago, in none of the companies I worked with, did I hear the term “workplace sexual harassment” being uttered, leave alone having a policy. While I have not faced anything significant, we all knew it existed. For instance, new joinees would be subtly told to steer clear of a guy or to avoid being alone with so-and-so if they were staying late. The conversation was never about what the organization was doing about this. That was the industry I was working in, and that was the atmosphere – there was no awareness that it was the organization’s responsibility to create a safe space for their women and not for the women themselves to identify the creeps and steer clear of them.  Women faced it then, and a decade later, women face it now – but there is at least some conversation. There is room for women to speak up and not take it sitting down. I do hear plenty of horror stories from industries where HR managers turn around and ask women what they did to contribute to it. It is not hunky dory, but that women can and do speak up about it is improvement over what it was.

Somewhere, there is a perception that a female-founded team is a hobby, or a charity. Even when one is a profitable business for instance, there is this perception that an all-women team is not a serious business. I must say I have not come across explicit prejudice. Prejudice is rarely that explicit – or at least people have wizened up about how not to express their prejudice. While I haven’t personally faced too much of it yet, I’ve heard enough to understand that the subtle bias of a female-founded or all-women team does exist. Somewhere, this can impact how people look at you, whether they want to work with you and invest in you or not.

In the early days when I networked at events, if I met women, we would introduce ourselves and we would each ask each other about us. But when I met men – most of the men I met fell in this category – enough of them never asked me what I did. They would offer a long narrative, but never return the favour and ask about me. Now, my networking technique has changed. I make sure I have my speech ready and tell them what I do, regardless of whether I am asked or not. It’s not that they are ‘bad people’ – we get defensive when we point things out – it’s just that there is an unconscious bias and they internalize the notion that people doing important things are by default men. So I put a foot in the door, with my elevator speech ready. Otherwise, it’s just about you listening to another, when you have your own amazing story to share! Why should we be ashamed or hide behind a curtain when we do important things?

Lessons from the past and dreams for a future
I know that I am lucky to have an incredibly supportive family – my husband and both my in-laws and my parents. My nuclear family comprises my husband and me. They don’t think of my work or me as a second priority. I must say that I appreciate this about my parents and in-laws – they have always considered me an important person and I have been led to internalize that. That doesn’t happen for a lot of women – I don’t think I realized how unusual it was at first, but speaking to more women has opened me to that. When I say supportive, it is not that I am delegating to my husband. I refuse to be a household manager – everything is shared work and we have an egalitarian partnership.
I hope to take Women’s Web to more places in India. We are currently in English, and are in one way limited to urban centers – and within that, certain kinds. Plans are in the offing to make it more broad-based, encourage regional readership and writer-ship. We want to bring in more diverse voices, and find ways to encourage more writing in different languages, to tell more diverse stories and cover as many different kinds of women as possible. We are also hoping to expand using technology to ensure that access is made easier.

Women’s Web is not only for professional writers and we’ve always been clear about that – the idea is to have some basic capacity to write so that readers can understand. We would like to be open and have non-writers with valuable stories to tell to get on board while balancing the needs of our readers as well. A lot of women have common challenges – be it sexual harassment at work or domestic violence – but if they are so common, why do women feel so isolated? The reason of course is the imposed culture of silence. We want to break that and tell more stories, and make it easier for more people to contribute.


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