TheRED ELEPHANT FOUNDATION An Initiative for Peace and Gender Equality through Storytelling

Raakhee Suryaprakash

Climate Change is all pervasive. You’d think it would only affect livelihoods directly involved with the seas. But it also affects traditional Maldivian mat-making. Through its impact on this social enterprise climate change influences job security and cultural practices and traditions.

MACCS (c) Aisha Niyaz
One of trainers at the South Asian Climate Tracker Conference and Workshop was the wonderful Aisha Niyaz from Maldives. She is an environmental practitioner, passionate about addressing climate change with a background in Environmental Management and Sustainable Development. And she works pro bono with not-for-profit, community based organisations such as the Maldives Authentic Crafts Cooperative Society (MACCS). MACCS founded by 10 women in 2011, strives to revive the traditional arts and crafts of Maldives. One of their key projects since 2012 has been the revival of the authentic Maldivian mat named “Thundukunaa.”

Through successfully receiving the small grant scheme from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Mangroves for the Future (MFF) facilitated through UNDP, MACCS has not only been able to revive traditional livelihoods (reed cultivation and mat weaving) but also has empowered a number of women and enhanced their general well-being. Fiyoaree is the only island out of the 1190 islands across the Maldives, where premium quality reeds preferred by the mat weaving community are found.

In addition to reminding me that Maldives is a collection of atolls – coral islands whose survival is intrinsically linked with the life of the magnificent reefs surrounding the islands – Aisha also showed us how climate change is affecting this attempt at reviving a traditional handicraft.

Marshland with Reed Plantation
(c) Aisha Niyaz
Educating Local School Children
(c) Aisha Niyaz
These traditional mats once found in great numbers in every Maldivian home especially in the southern atolls with more than 70 uses was replaced by multiple alternatives. With competition from import of cheap mats and plastic mats these long-lasting reed mats needed a shot in the arm.  But by being creative in producing value added products  (coasters, table mats, bags, instead of just mats as souvenirs for tourists and prayer mats,  MACCS has successfully revived this traditional industry since 2012 .

First Cheap/Plastic Mats, Then Threatened by Climate Change

Engaging local school children
(c) Aisha Niyaz
Now where does the climate change angle creep into this success story of reviving traditions? Well the raw material for these mats which can last for hundreds of years are a specific kind of reed. The best reeds only grow in one marshland. The marshland of Gaafu Dhaalu, Fiyoaree. This marshland is also a stopover for a phenomenal number of migratory birds. This site is both important environmentally and through its contribution to a major Maldivian heritage. A site of national significance in both ecological and cultural aspects. But like any other land on a small atoll at sea level its very existence is at threat with rising sea levels. It is now a challenge for the reed farmers to continue their farming due to the continuous flooding of the marshland over the past year due to unusual rain. The unpredictable sun and rains affects the correct sun drying of the reed and gathering of other natural materials like barks for natural dyeing.

Water and food security in Maldives depends on import. Cost of living is high. Extreme weather and blockages in the supply chain can further increase prices. Now if the source of income is imperilled by climate change as well as its affecting access we have a Gordian knot of problems. Just 20 minutes of rain causes some islands to flood. Sea level rise, erosion of beaches, bleached corals in a warming and acidified sea, etc. are all problems with origin in carbon emissions.

Reed Plantation
(c) Aisha Niyaz
The atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) crossed 400 ppm permanently this past year. This increases CO2 dissolving in the sea which makes acidic carbonic acid which adds to ocean acidification. Of course CO2 is a major green house gas (GHG) which affects global temperatures.

Now these dry facts translate into a threat to the Maldivian life and livelihood. It’s even affecting a nascent social enterprise that seeks to empower and employ women. It is a threat to a traditional handicraft. Nations and peoples at the forefront of climate change threats thus face multi-layered threats. 

Deepti Sutaria is India's first Woman in Cyber Security. Her experiences across multiple domains in Internet Laws has led her to her core calling: campaigning for security for women and girls online. Here's her story. 

I had a beautiful childhood with amazing parents. I come from a young officer's family. It was good to be posted at different stations. As a child, I loved literature: Wordsworth, Keats, Shakespeare, poems and prose. I loved stories by Enid Blyton. It was all my passion. I earned a degree in literature. My father felt that I should appear for my Civil Service Examinations. I was a strong girl in my family, and I was rather bold - it was the image that was often associated with boys. When I was nine or ten, my father used to say, "She is like my Indira Gandhi!" She was my idol and I would follow her, read her stories and that inspired me. I wanted to be and do something that would help me leave a lasting impression with dignity.

Once, my father was posted elsewhere, and I remained in Boarding School. While I was in Boarding School, I used to love tying the laces of the shoes of my roommates together while they were asleep or not paying attention. I used to hide their shoes, or something similar, too. I was often punished with tasks of cleaning the roof or cleaning shoes and the like. Boarding School was a lot of fun.
I graduated from college and then did Law. I have a Master's degree in Law from London with a specialization in Cyber Crimes. I wanted to make a difference in society. When I returned to India, I came at a time when Cyber Crimes was unknown. It was like I was in the era of Charles Babbage. People were using old computers and huge phones. There were no laptops or smartphones then, and cyber crimes was out of the ordinary. I started my journey then. 

I met Devang Mehta, the head of NASSCOM, and Pramod Mahajan, the then IT Minister. They were shaping laws concerning the cyber realm and I was on the team, framing the key framework for the laws. With these eminent personalities, we framed the Information Technology Act, 2000, which came up overnight. E-commerce was at its peak then, and there were a lot of difficulties for companies that had to travel and sign bonds, and we decided to simplify it with the creation of e-Contracts and Digital Signatures. That became the main goal of the Information Technology Act. Pramod Mahajan and Devang Mehta saw prudence in creating the legislation that would govern this side of things.
The legislation then had only a few sections. Later, over time, a lot of changes were made. It was really a journey that I started on, with the intent of making people know and be aware of Cyber Crimes. They happen, but there is seldom a registration of its occurrence. With time, people learned about Cyber Crimes. I hosted conferences to deliberate and discuss these issues, and to teach the people about their rights vis-a-vis using the internet and the myriad manifestations of the cyber realms. It has been 18 years since I began - I handle everything from industrial espionage, hacking and phising to online abuse of women and kids. Now, I am focusing on the abuse of women and kids. I have begun to notice that kids at schools and colleges indulge in Cyber bullying - when they don't like their teachers or classmates, they indulge in cyber bullying and harassment. This is a form of abuse.
Children these days retaliate against their teachers’ threats and punishments through cyber bullying. They are still children, and their voices are not heard often. Children don't have the freedom to question or report any abuse that they face. This manifests in the form of abusive behaviour and frustration that manifests as cyber bullying. We need to educate children as internet safety advisors. I also work with women who have been abused online, or are being abused online, and help them raise their voice and speak out. This is not a gender blind issue - men and women do face cyber bullying and harassment, but it is women who tend to face a raw deal. Women tend to fall prey to harassment, and cyber stalkers can make things difficult for women.
Young girls, from thirteen to nineteen, are especially vulnerable to cyber bullying. They easily get into the trap of online stalkers. Photos and identities are sold to pornographic sites, and it is a heinous crime against anyone, leave alone such young ones. These children don't know better, and tend to get hooked with the lure of money. The flesh trade then gains traction, and some girls take to it voluntarily as well. Unemployment rates in India also tends to augment this state of affairs, doubly.
After serving as a Judge on Merits after working for 18 years, I gave it up when my daughter was born. I’ve been an advisor for a bunch of companies, BPOs and LPOs. I enjoy handling cyber crime cases. Some cases do affect me when I listen to stories of abuse and harassment. It is so painful to see how much damage stalkers can wreak on their victims. It is essential to be secure and protect your interests online.  

The key challenges I have encountered as an activist is when people come in and complain about cyber harassment, I tell them to take legal action – but they refuse to do it, and instead ask me to get in touch with the platform and ask them to close down the page or the site. People are not willing to take action for fear of stigma. I feel that a few platforms that are offered by companies are being exploited for the flesh trade, and they should stop doing this. We need to learn how to be secure and how to save ourselves online. We shouldn’t hesitate to take action. My motive is to save women and girls from abuse online. We really need to stop this wrongdoing however we can.  We need to teach children Netiquette, and also train them to discern right from wrong.

I think it is high time we come up with an international cyber crimes court. All countries need to come together to create special cyber courts – this is more important now, more than anywhere else. I hope to be able to work for the creation of this. We have one cyber court in New Delhi, but it is high time we create an appellate tribunal and similar hierarchies in different countries.  The lack of cyber courts results in the cases going to the criminal courts, and this is not good because cyber crimes need specific and nuanced attention. We need to formulate legislation that pivots towards handling hacking, cyber terrorism, cyber stalking and other similar crimes.

Now, when I see my daughter, I see myself in her. She has her own dreams of educating girls – she’s only seven, and she’s inspiring. She met the Prime Minister of India, and I am sure that she will go onto doing some amazing work in the future. I wish for this for the world’s girls and women. This is true women’s empowerment!
The media is often condemned for perpetuating stereotypes and portraying women and communities in a stereotypical way. Between the many “item numbers” from the film industry and the constant portrayal of women as either the “vamp or the do-gooder” on television, the media’s way of portraying women has been far from appreciable. Therefore, the arrival of Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon (MKBKSH) on television with its real life characters and a strong woman as the lead was highly appreciated.

Launched in 2014 by Population Foundation of India, MKBKSH is a trans-media initiative that uses television, radio, the internet and mobile platforms to build women’s agency and steer the perception of people on social determinants of health. Using a rather captivating storyline, the programme is a cultural drama series that challenges age-old social norms and mores that hold women back, while inspiring audiences to stand up for their empowerment.

The series is conceptualised under the guidance of Dr Arvind Singhal, a renowned communication and social change scholar. MKBKSH has used the positive deviance approach, which identifies positive behaviours of individuals within the community and amplifies them through an inspiring storyline. The approach enables communities to discover the best practices and local wisdom they already have, and then to act on it.

Communication media is leveraged and used to ensure reach, recall and result. While the television and the radio series carry knowledge to the community, the mobile forum presents an interactive space to encourage exchange, promotions, contests and interaction. The community radio helps reiterate some of these key messages to keep the community engagement quotient alive.

Season One looks at the inspiring journey of Dr Sneha Mathur, a young doctor who leaves a lucrative  career behind in Mumbai, to move to the village of Pratappur. She works with a sense of commitment and responsibility, and responds to challenges that come her way, becoming a sound role model for many young Indian women who find themselves in similar predicaments. The season touches upon the themes of sex selection, child marriage, age at the first pregnancy, spacing between pregnancies, the quality of healthcare and domestic violence.

Season Two addresses Dr Sneha’s continued crusade to ensure access to quality healthcare for all women. With her leadership, the women in the village gain traction through collective action. The season focuses on the youth, and addresses issues such as nutrition, mental health, substance abuse, gender-based violence, physical changes during adolescence and the need for appropriate peer educators for youth empowerment.

The success of the show was assessed by an external evaluation in the states of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. The ensuing results revealed an increased awareness on child marriage in terms of legal provisions and consequences, and an understanding that child marriage results in a loss of opportunity. It also positively shifted attitudes, and more married women, married men and mothers-in-law, the three groups that were interviewed, felt that girls should complete their education, be 18 years old before marrying, and the ideal age for first pregnancy is 21 to 25 years. More of them were against domestic violence now.  The proportion of men and women who were confident of accessing family planning services rose too.

On ground, there many impactful stories that emerged as a result of the series. For instance, Raju Rainkwar in Salaiya, Madhya Pradesh, consults his wife on the preferred choice of contraception, and educates his peers by answering their queries on family planning methods. Two girls, Vidya Gwala and Priya Meena, in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, have convinced their families to continue their education and not force them into an early marriage. Today, they have turned into champions in their community fighting for the rights of other girls to study and marry at an appropriate age. 
Bhavna Botta is a young woman based out of Chennai, who works for inclusion, peace and non-violence. Her entrepreneurial skills, drive to bring tribal rights to fore, and goal of facilitating disability inclusion make her a force to reckon with.

The earliest memory of my childhood is vague remembrance of me screaming for therapy sessions, but I fondly remember  all the fun I had with my teacher Mrs. Sowmya and my friends  at Vidya Sagar. Since I am person with cerebral palsy (speech impairment and limited motor ability), I use an eye pointing communication system. I am the first born in my family, so I was the most pampered of the lot, I guess. I have a younger sister who is my best friend and solid supporter for all my initiatives. (She has finished her masters in engineering and working in the USA.) I finished my high school from Vidya Sagar and went on to do higher secondary from Lady Andal Matriculation School, Chennai and then bachelors in commerce (corporate secretary ship) from  Ethiraj College for women. Again this was the best time I had, literally being outstanding student (very little studies and more movies!)

In 2011, as soon as I finished my graduation I wanted to start off an initiative which had a social cause inbuilt. I went on an exploration spree, since I wanted it to be an economic model too.

I came across the story of Sri Kusum Rajiaha who had done a lot of research on Ahimsa silk.  It caught my interest .Then as I was contemplating on it I came across Jharcraft which was working with tribal’s and also on ahimsa silk. My interest got growing and I contacted  them.

I was impressed and was totally taken by the idea. Then the concept Saahaagika, an exclusive boutique for ahimsa silk in Chennai started brewing in my head. I went around looking for a place, bank loan and all the permission   etc. I failed in locating an accessible place (me being a wheel chair user that becomes the priority).So ultimately I started it at our own premises at Srinagar colony.

My dream was to build a business which could get lively hood for some people with disabilities. So I compromised and chose to work from my own premises. Though it had a separate place for work, it was just enough for me and my sales person. So my dreams were unfulfilled. Loneliness cropped in and with the floods last year I thought enough is enough and I formally shut down the premises.

Yes still I am exploring online marketing but I am not sure of it. But there is a steady stream of calls still from old customers and new .I have no answers as of now.

All along my heart was ( will always be)  in activism particularly in disability sector. I am a proud member of Disability Rights Alliance and contribute to  rights based initiatives. I wanted to do something more and started  Connect Special .I am still struggling with this new venture but hopefully what I could not achieve with my boutique of employing PWDS ,Connect Special might in future. Maybe that's what keeps me inspired and  going.
I strongly feel inclusion is a human right. Inclusion is still at a rudimentary level and in pockets because there is no one institution which works only for it. Inclusion at all levels -schools, colleges, jobs, community has to be strategically planned and done in partnership with the community. My experience is people are wary of inclusion due to lack of awareness.

Written by Mehvish Ally

Life tests our vim and vigor at the best of times and seems an insurmountable challenge at the worst of times.  But in our world of low, middle, and high-income nations, some lives are inherently more privileged and systemically valued than others.  This neither means that wealthy people lead easy or care-free lives nor that the poor are relegated to the depths of irreversible misery: it is an illustration, albeit merely one, that the world is a place where complex dualities abound.  Masculine, feminine, rich, poor, these are all roles assigned to society by its own machinations and until we question their presence, meaning, and necessity, humanity’s eyes will be collectively shut to a deeper understanding of what it means to be alive.  Our anatomies and our economic stature are nothing to be ashamed of.  Though they may shape who we are, such identities should not be considered shackles bearing down upon us but weights that increase our muscle and mettle.  

Like other countries around the world, Bangladesh has a tradition of having servants for the upper class.  Though domestic workers were initially considered to be ‘banda’, Bengali for bound to the home, and had little formal legal rights, contemporary society and the law no longer permits this as people have realized the inequitable ways of their past.  Today, many former domestic workers have found more ‘official’ jobs as janitors or cooks in restaurants.  Some are able send their children to college to ensure a fate less chained to the whims of employers’.  Others, though, grow accustomed to their surroundings and feel they would not be able to cope with the life that awaits them outside.  In fact, their employers become a family whom they can’t imagine leaving, a feeling which their employers even reciprocate.  The latter category is where Ms. Mirda falls.  There is still a stigma within Bengali culture of being ashamed of one’s class, though it is dissipating over time.

Rizia was born in the former East Pakistan town of Boro Pasha in Mirda Bari around the year 1969.  She does not have a birth certificate, as most villagers at the time did not have a formal system of birth registration, so her age is a rough estimate.  Her village is still home to many agricultural workers.  Her father, Hamid Uddin Mirda, was a rice and wheat farmer.  Fieldwork is no mean feat, as the workers wake up before dawn and labor until dusk.  Rizia has no recollection of her father, as he died when she was very young, likely before she turned 4.  This left her widow mother and her two brothers Abdul Majid and Abdul Aziz to fend for her and her two sisters.  

Her fondest memories are of her mother and eldest sister, whose names she can no longer remember.  But when she does reminisce, it is about her mother cooking for the family.  She also speaks fondly of her eldest sister and remembers her braiding her hair and running amok in the village with her hand in hand.  After her mother died, Rizia’s eldest sister cared for her like a mother.  These recollections of her sister and her mother are the only instances of love she has from her life before beginning domestic work.   However, as tradition went, her older sister was soon married off, leaving her at home alone with her brothers and her mother.

The memories she has of her brothers aren’t positive ones and she was reluctant to share them, though her employers say she was victim to the domestic violence that is rather common among the rural and more impoverished areas of Bangladesh. When asked if she ever thought of them her reply was an abrupt, ”never.”

Eventually, her brothers could barely take care of their widow mother and themselves and could no longer afford to keep another mouth to feed around.  When she was 12 years old, Rizia’s paternal uncle brought her to the home of her current employer’s mother, to be a playmate and caretaker of her current employer, who was only a year old at the time.  It was a common practice among the nobility in Bangladesh to keep a ‘companion’ servant for their children, who would both feed them, put them to sleep, and play with them. 

Rizia still says that her current employer’s mother and the kindness she showed is the biggest blessing in her life.  Clearly, those of a contemporary mindset will disagree - how can becoming a child-worker be a blessing?  However the fact is that relative to most other children her age she was well clothed, well fed, and not beaten, and therefore, better off.  We cannot dismiss this notion as cruel moral relativism when the same is done when economists chart development in poor countries.  It is not feasible to apply the same standards of healthcare for a mother in a rural Bengali village and a mother in the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  Similarly, it is not feasible to compare Rizia’s childhood to that of a child in America.  Whether you find international disparity to be a fault of colonialism or a self-inflicted problem, the surrounding circumstances in each country are completely different and must be taken into consideration. 

After about a decade of working, she had reached marrying age and was married off to a rice farmer.  The marriage broke down in about 2 or 3 months.  When asked of her husband, Rizia makes sure to clarify that he was neither cruel to her nor beat her (again, a rarity both for her era and now).  It was the in-laws that caused problems, were cruel to her, and led to the ultimate breaking down of the marriage.  Despite not experiencing abuse at the hands of her partner, she instead was subjugated to the verbal and physical abuse of her mother-in-law.  She believes that their abuse was spurred by the fact that her dowry was not properly paid, though they might have been abusive regardless.  Domestic violence committed by in-laws is unfortunately still a prevalent issue in rural Bangladesh and among the working class. 

After her marriage ended, she did not go back to her brothers, as she knew what awaited her there: another forced marriage.  Instead, she went back to her former employer for work.  She was welcomed back and began working again as a nanny to her employer’s newly born son.  Through her work, she says she found a solace and reprieve, and though she never had children of her own she felt her employer’s children to be hers in a sense. 

After her mother died in 1994, Rizia lost touch with her family.  She no longer felt a bond as she did before, and didn’t bother to keep in touch with her brothers.   Her younger brother’s son is now an assistant for clerical workers in the High Court of Bangladesh, which is a big step up from being a rice farmer’s grandson.  Rizia’s  nephew had contacted her and asked her to live with them but she fears they would try to dispossess her of her small but ample inheritance and savings.

When asked about any regrets in her life, Rizia wishes she were educated as she feels her life would be very different, however, she has no regrets of her own making.  She feels the few decisions she did have the luxury to make herself were good ones. Even after her employer’s passing, which she still mentions with tears in her eyes, Rizia remained in the household and is now nanny to her two grandchildren, the youngest now nearly 3.  She has cared for an entire generation of a family and they will be forever indebted to her

This is just one snapshot of one person’s life in a world of over 7 billion people.  Rizia’s story brings up numerous complicated issues that illustrious economists and politicians barely scratch the surface of.  Rizia is content.  Caring for children, though not her own, gives her purpose to wake up in the morning.  She is treated well, can go out when she pleases, and does not face the wrath of an abusive husband, which many women of her nation and the world over do.  Yes, she has sadness in her life that most readers and I will never have to experience.  But the human experience is not a statistic – it is an ongoing visceral. She is not ashamed of her life, and no one should feel sorry for her.  Rizia feels at peace with her life, and ultimately, that is a feat most people would be fortunate to accomplish. 

Awett Jared
Awett Jared, the founder of MAIN, has broken stereotypes by speaking about a less-spoken-about issue, the issue of violence against men and boys. MAIN was established to work with men to end domestic violence in Kenya. The idea behind MAIN was mooted on upsurge in cases of domestic violence meted on men as reported by the media and the subsequent public backlash on women’s empowerment. Here is Awett's story.

I am a male activist. I currently work as the Programs Manager of an organization that works on the issue of violence against men, women, boys and girls. I am thirty five years old. I was born and grew up in a poor rural community in Kenya. I went to primary school and secondary school all at rural as well.

After my secondary education, my parents died. I had to feed and educate my siblings, since I was the first born in a family of eight. I did not have any work. So, to put bread on the table, I went to the nearest city to find work. It was not easy, but I managed to odd jobs and enrolled myself in a college to study Sales and Marketing, and Business Management.

With time, I got a job with an airlines company. I worked there for two years. When my contract with them came to an end, I did not renew it. Instead, I opted to do some community work, since I had the passion for social work. I started by volunteering in an NGO and also started learning the roles one could have in a place that did social work.

I went ahead and began to attend different training programmes in community development and project management. Through my participation at the community level, I developed interest in human rights. My first assignments were in the field of human rights advocacy. I then proceeded to work in a peace organization, where my roles related to human rights training, facilitation and peace building.
After doing this for another three years, I started developing interest in the issue of gender-based violence. This was mostly because I had a sister who went through a violent relationship, and at the same time, I too was a victim. I also had many of my friends who were victims of violence in their relationships.

I then decided that I wanted to help get a solution for myself, my sister and my friends, and to society. That was when a few friends of mine and I joined up and founded the Masculinity Institute. It is a vehicle that we use to bring to the attention of the public, that domestic violence is continuing to destroy so many relationships, and stress on the need to end it.

We work to transform social attitudes and practices that perpetuate all forms of violence caused by negative ethnic socialization and gender discrimination that affect women and girls most. MAIN believes that this is the right time to change outdated cultural practices and religious doctrines which have contributed to negative socialization. The acceptance of violence has pushed boys and men into aggressive behaviours in some parts of Kenya especially those inhabited by the pastoral communities and the slums around the country. By eradicating archaic cultural practices men will be able to take responsibility and eradicate gender discrimination and together men, women, boys and girls will make meaningful contribution to development. As a process to ensure that transformation is fast tracked, MAIN mobilize, empower and re socialize men and boys to uphold human rights principles and values to ensure that all members of community live in dignity. When individuals inspire positive change at domestic level, they set a good example which should be adopted in the communities where they live and beyond.

There have been many challenges on the way – but one of the major ones is the lack of resources to address the issue of gender based violence. We have, however, managed to address it by networking with other partners and organizations to address the issue at a larger scale. The response has been so amazing. We are happy for having helped change the attitude of men and women on issues of violence. We also work with religious and cultural leaders who are the gate keepers of our communities and they have also been able to help address the negative norms that perpetuate violence against women. 

Poornima Sukumar (right)
Poornima Sukumar- a muralist, artist, illustrator and documentary photographer talks about her  journey as an artist and how her belief is using arts and crafts as a medium to engage with communities on various social issues acted as a catalyst in founding her organization ‘Aravani Art Project’.

Can you tell us something about yourself?
My name is Poornima Sukumar and I am from Bangalore.  I pursued a degree in Fine Arts  from Chitra Kala Parishat and was also training to become a faculty at The National Institute of Design (NID) Ahmedabad in the field of  Visual Semiotics for Design Communication.  When I returned to Bangalore, I started playing around with the idea of using the wall as my canvas and that led to my foray into the world of mural art and graffiti. 

‘Using the wall as your canvas’ , that sounds interesting! Could you tell us more about the work you do?

I paint walls for a living and currently work as a freelancer based in Bangalore. I firmly believe that art is a great medium of self-expression while also giving the artist an opportunity to connect with the society in various ways. In addition to this, I am also a vivid traveler, and my work takes me to different parts of the country where I try to bridge my art and travelling by painting walls with people belonging to that space and community. And this has further fueled my quest to reach out to more communities and people and intertwine their journey into mine, artistically.

You started your own initiative- the ‘Aravani Art Project’.  What was your motivation behind this initiative?

Aravani Wall Art
In the numerous travels that I undertook, I had the privilege of working with social causes, human welfare- mainly with children, women and the transgender community. And it is while undertaking these projects I realized that I could use art to engage with different communities and address various social issues that continue to plague our society. I was involved in a documentary film for about 3 years which entails the Transgender community. This gave me a firsthand experience in interacting with them and understanding them as individuals and a community. When the documentary was coming to an end, I had an urge to keep my association with them going.  Art being such an important part of my life I thought I would address their societal situation by painting walls with them. A series of discussions with Sharanya Ramprakash who is a vital part of Aravani Art Project and an advisor led to the founding of this project.

What is Aravani Art Project?  What is your organisation's founding story? 
Aravani Art Project aims to create platforms for the Transgender Community creating consciousness and well being through art, awareness & social participation. Aravani Art Project’s objective is to organically create a space for the transgender community in the society by voicing their expressions mainly through visual arts- art as an expression, art as recreation and the idea that art is available and viable to all.  I believe that this would enable them to access and understand their involvement in the society and act as a vehicle for them to voice out their rights and concerns.  No change or empowerment is possible if you do not involve the community and make them part of the process. Thus, the idea is to involve *Aravanis in the process of creativity and equip them with the artistic tools where they can express their stories of freedom, their dreams of acceptance and their hopes of being at par with the society they live in.

(*Aravani (derived from Tamil Nadu, India) is a chosen name to remove the innuendo of the word 'Hijra' hence, a non stigmatized name like that was the intention. The meaning of the term “Aravani” literally means a person who worships Lord Aravan.)

Aravani Art Project began as an experiment for me, to know and observe the responsiveness it creates. It is easy to make a plan, but to know how it works in a community and in public spaces is something that cannot be measured without doing it. 

The experiences after 3 projects in Bangalore and Mumbai collectively was nothing short of a magical synergy of the Transgender Community, artists and public trespassers. We have had our shares of challenges, but the immense amount of support that was received on all the days was remarkable. One cannot expect everything to be a cake walk considering we want to make a difference by Including the Transgender community and the rest of the LGB community to gather and want to be a part of this. 

It is close to impossible for me to imagine if i did not have a strong group who stood by me and travelled with me wherever the project took us! Sadhna who is the design head for the walls we design, Roshnee who is incharge of making sure the Logo is painted and is taken care of, Abhishek Choudhury who makes sure he strikes a conversation and makes them comfortable being amongst a big group of people. Karthik Shetty the official videographer of Aravani Art Project seamlessly mingles with all of them and makes them look so comfortable in front of the camera. Prathamesh, Deepak, Navin, Divya, Charan, Adrita, Rutuja, Sheetal and all those magical people who came and helped in various ways. Its wouldn't be fair to say that something this large can happen without all of them being mentioned!

The impact of the project for the transgender community is very positive until now, They understand the importance of gathering and to work on something together. It is the first time for almost all of them from the community to paint walls in Public spaces and especially closer to where they belong. It was a conscious decision to intervene into their spaces and for us to go there, instead of finding a wall in famous spots. it was important for me to do so, for their comfort. The response after the project is usually overwhelming followed by some happy tears shared by all and feeling so together! This has been a priceless journey. I can’t wait to do more projects anywhere in the world, just so we all understand that  Humanity, Dignity and Equality matter beyond, race, colour, sex and borders!

Could you talk about some of your projects/ art installations and the impact they have had? 

The first project executed with the community- Aravani Project #001 started with a mural art installation in Bangalore in January 2016. The aim of the project was to create space for the transgender community and to familiarize them with Art.  The project consisted of painting 2 murals on walls in the bustling K.R market area.

While we kicked started the installation on Saturday as scaffolding structure was being assembled and  the artists involved began sketching and marking the walls, Sunday was an important day as it brought members of the transgender and art community together to paint, create, interact and open up a platform to discuss and exchange stories with the artists and with the on-lookers. The day then unfolded into a wall art installation by the participants who came forward to get themselves painted to be a part of the wall art.  The theme of this ongoing project will be the term ‘INCLUDE’- Verb .comprise or contain as part of a whole. This extends to the following themes of inclusion: inclusion in society, inclusion in art, inclusive to their expression and what they feel about inclusiveness in retrospect. The idea is not to make Aravanis the subject, but include the community to be a part of this entirety. 

The entire process from when it was conceptualized until the time when we all assembled at a local bar (which is where they usually hang out) after the painting  was rather an intense yet heart wrenching process. As the members of the transgender community trickled in while all of us waited for them to come and join us, the trans* women and other community members were very touched by how seamlessly they got along with the artists and did not feel excluded or mistreated.   They enjoyed painting together, discussing the hardships and breaking all stigma attached to them. Thus, it facilitated respectful and meaningful exchange of conversations for both the transgender community and the artists.

Why have you chosen Mural Art/ Public Art as a medium to address the issues and get conversations going? 
To get to the point straight, Wall painting was the only way I discovered to express myself as an artist. Slowly, I started painting for communities like children, orphanages, schools. I realized later instead of me being a mediator, I should let art do the talking. So it was an experiment to let them paint on behalf of their own community. It was more impactful and they felt a sense of belonging. When it involves the people of the community, I wanted to also have a first hand experience of how my own circle of friends and artists would react. And needless to say it was an eye opener for all of us  this project facilitated innumerable conversations, helped us break myths and presumptions and understand their woes and challenges.

Painting or art as an activity is very therapeutic and relaxing. It breaks all silences and opens up spaces to let go all inhibitions and engage in small but significant conversations facilitating personal exchanges. 

In the work you do, what are some of the challenges you encounter and of course how do you overcome them? 
The challenges are plenty the minute one decides to take a path that no one has taken. I feel as a society we often are insensitive to the issues and needs of minorities. I find the whole attitude of how we can be so heartless to people who have been created by nature, and make them feel so insignificant that they need to fight for the most basic rights like existence the most challenging. In the recent years, we have seen numerous discussions around gendered social norms and their polarization. But this project made it possible for me to realize that having discussions in one thing but engaging with these concepts towards changing the attitude and thought processes is not only different but extremely challenging. Thus, my primary concern and challenge was to instill trust and build that relationship so that the transgender community is comfortable to engage with and be part of the process.

The second biggest challenge is to give the Trans* community their financial empowerment. Most of them come from a disadvantaged economic background and have had to quit schooling. So I believe that some kind of vocational training needs to be made available to them to enable them to find better opportunities. And it is here that I would like to start providing them some classes/ lessons in English as that would help them develop their communication skills and build their level of confidence to express themselves better. In addition to mural art, through my organisation, I will look at designing and offering other programs to help them develop their skills and become economically independent.

With nearly 70% of professional sports offering equal prize money between men and women we wanted to take a closer look at the prize money and endorsements associated with certain events and competitions. James Smith took a top male and female athlete from a selection of professional sports to see how their salaries and sponsorship deals compare.

As expected the men are earning a substantial amount more in professional football than women but both sexes are entitled to same prize money for winning a grand slam tennis event. The infographic contains a range of detailed statistics on money individual prize money offered across a number of events as well as a history of equal pay in professional sport and an insight into sponsorship and TV deals which affect the levels of money in sport.

Written by Hafsa Badsha

There’s this warm, pleasant medley of scents that hit you as soon you enter 1777 Fifth Ave, San Diego, home to the Tomorrow Project. The source sits on a table in the centre of the room; neatly arranged packages of soup, ranging from flavours like Tropical Lime Pink Peppercorn to an Indonesian Curry Spice Mix. In a room to the left, stationary spills out of every corner, in all sizes and shapes. These are just some of a few projects the women at the Tomorrow Project have been working on, products that will go out into the market to be sold, under the guidance of staff member Shayna Jennings.

It’s a busy, bustling morning when I arrive to meet Shayna, and as decided, we have 30 minutes to wrap up our interview, after which work proceeds. The Tomorrrow Project runs like clockwork, everything precise and in perfect order, qualities needed for an institution that helps rehabilitate homeless and unemployed women and prepares them for employment.

“It’s a job readiness program for homeless and low income women in San Diego,” Shayna explains to me, “It began in 1994 as program of Catholic Charities and was initiated by Sister Raymonda and Martha Ranson,. In ’94, we realised that though we had other services for women, like a drop in day centre and night shelter, but we saw that with the women coming through those programs, there was a need for job training. They needed something productive to do with their time, and to be able to move forward.”

The women come from a diverse range of backgrounds, with their own struggles and stories. “Some women have Master’s degrees and have literally lost their jobs and have literally lost their jobs, women who may have recent issues and women who are still in recovery. We’re seeing higher barriers that women are combating,” says Shayna, “Whether that be mental illnesses (which 80% of the women are diagnosed with), substance abuse, criminal histories, or physical disabilities. When they go out to seek jobs, these are the factors that hinder them and make it challenging. We want to instil the tools and training that enables them not only to get a job, but to keep it.”
Creating a work environment at The Tomorrow Project’s centre is vital, says Shayna, as well as helping women adapt and settle into a new space. “It’s not like a typical job where if you don’t show up on time, it could get you into trouble. Instead, we look at the situation, using it as a coaching opportunity and say, ‘Ok, what happened and how can we fix this?’” Helping the women get back into the flow of a workplace is also something they work on, “We’re trying to help them get back to coming into work on time, to remember what it’s like to work for six or seven hours.”

The job market has drastically changed the way it approaches potential employees in the last few years, a turn of events that hasn’t always worked in their favour, “I think the biggest challenge now is electronic, you don’t have that face to face interaction anymore,” says Shayna, “You don’t have quite the human touch that you once did. For the women that we work with, the internet is a very different environment, considering most are 50 and above.”

The Tomorrow Project has utilised its space wisely, channelling it into a job hub of sorts. They help the women source jobs, with different companies approaching them directly for employees, and also have various tasks within the organisation that create products that are sold locally, like their soup. “We have an assembly line process that creates simple tasks for anyone to be able to; it creates a level field for everyone to start on,” says Shayna, “The soups are one part of what we do. We also do piece work; we have companies that send us product and we put them together. We’re working on charm bracelets right now, as well as a stationery company called the Loom and a coffee roasting company called CafĂ© Modo.  They said us huge bags of tea, and we weigh it, portion and box it out.” The women are giving a stipend for the products they make, an amount that is used to slowly help them get back on their feet, “There was a woman that did not finish high school and didn’t have a diploma,” Shayna tells me, “One of the things that we worked was saving the money that she earned here to take some of those classes and get her GED.”

Around us, what has been a quiet environment for nearly half an hour is slowly coming back to life. Women start moving to their workstations to work on piecing together the charm bracelets in front of them. With Shayna and her volunteers are quick to remind them of their tasks, both motivating and encouraging them, The Tomorrow Project Centre is as energetic a force as when I entered.

I look up. It’s 12:30 on the dot. Back to work. 
Written by Vaishnavi Pallapothu and Sneha Sridhar 
Geeta Madhavan is the first woman in India to receive a Ph. D in Law on International Terrorism. In 1997, she crossed off an important milestone of her life when she was awarded the 'Doctoral Scholarship for Advanced Research in International Terrorism' by the The Hague Academy of International Law at the Hague, Netherlands. She was the only person from Asia to be awarded in that year! In addition to being an avid blogger, Ms Madhavan is also a teacher. She teaches at University of madras and Dr. Ambedkar Law University as a guest lecturer. Her specialization lies in International maritime law and International law and Nuclear Energy. Ms Madhavan is also noted for publishing numerous articles, papers and even published books on international issues such as terrorism, maritime laws, human rights, refugees. Upon invitation from the US government, Ms Madhavan was invited to take part in an 'International Group Project on International Security Issues'. She has also attended the prestigious and well-known Salzburg Seminar and Wilton Park Conference at Brighton, UK. To top it all off, she is also a practicing advocate at the Madras High Court and is a partner of the legal firm, Madhavan & Associates. She is a founding member of the Chennai based, Centre for Security Analysis.      
On 27th April, we had the privilege to interview Dr Geeta Madhavan at her quiet household in Besant Nagar. When we first learnt about her, we must admit that we were completely clueless about her and her achievements. After reading up about her biography, we went to the interview with a lot of curiosity. 

If there was one word to describe our rendezvous with Ms Madhavan, it would have to be eye-opening. She provided such insightful answers to our questions. She was patient and thoughtful and she answered our questions with enthusiasm. After burning through the initial apprehension and hesitation, we were delighted to be able to speak with her freely even after the interview. She spoke to us about her hobbies and passions. She also gave us advice, which as students, I think we will go home and take to heart. 

Excerpts from the interview:

Law on international terrorism seems like a very specific and unique topic to do a Ph.D on. What inspired or motivated you to pursue a thesis like this?
When I was doing my Masters in International Law, I did my dissertation on International Drug Trafficking and Control and while I was working on that subject, I discovered that there was some kind of a nexus between drug trafficking and terrorism. Terrorist groups were using drug trafficking to generate money, so they could buy arms, recruit people and so on. After that, I finished my Masters on Law and subsequently thereafter I got married and took a six year sabbatical from my work. Only when my son went into regular school, did I decide to register for the Ph.D. But even before that, my interest only developed towards terrorism, because during this period the erstwhile prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was blown up by an attack by the LTTE in Sriperumbudur. So in that sense, I realized that terrorism had already come to India. Before that, we had what we call domestic terrorism. This means the people resorting to terror were citizens of India, whether they liked to be called that or not. The problem was internal. But this was the first time a terrorist group from another country committed an act of terror on our soil. That was when I realized the area had expanded, that it was no more going to be problems of terrorism within one country.

Coming from India and especially back then, when career choice was pretty binary with either engineering or medicine, what was your family's reaction for choosing this field?
I was one of those people who was very lucky to have found somebody who has always been extremely supportive of me. My husband has done so much to stand by me and he has always been there for me. My son has also been incredibly supportive. When I got into the thick of my Ph.D, my son said he was proud of me and adjusted to all the times when I could give him all my attention. He and I would actually sit together and study: I would do my work and he would be doing his work. My mother, of course, asked me 'how long are going to keep studying?'

Who is your biggest inspiration? Is there somebody particular who made you develop an interest in this field?
There is never one single person who affects you. Like, my father, he was very ambitious for me. I'm an only child and he always gave me the freedom of thought. In my time freedom didn't mean physical freedom, it meant intellectual freedom. My father was very supportive throughout my schooling and college. He gave me very tough timetables to live by and I had to follow it. Even my summer vacation had a timetable. So discipline, ambition and drive came from my father. The idea of deadlines, punctuality and keeping myself focused came from a lot of people around me. And then of course patience and perseverance, I think, comes from my husband. I don't think a single person ever acts as an inspiration; a lot of people contribute to it.

How was your experience at The Hague Academy of International Law?

The Hague Academy is King Solomon's mine for anybody doing International Law; it's a pool of gems. When I went there in 1997, I was very fortunate because I was the only one from Asia; I was selected as one of the three as you know. The campus town was very beautiful. I used to be at the library at 10:00 am and I used to work till 5:00 pm, that's when they closed the library. Then from 5:00 pm to 10:00 pm, I used to go to the beach, because the sun sets at 10 o'clock in summer. I would just chill with all my friends and hit the pub at night. It was one wild roller-coaster ride, in the sense that it was fun, it was intensive work and balancing both was really amazing. Now, coming back to the Hague Academy, the library was just fantastic. The environment is so research friendly, it encourages you to read and learn more. If I ever had to run a library, that's how I would do it. The systematic borrowing is amazing there and even if we can't do it in public libraries, I wish at least school libraries would try to use that system. The campus is also really beautiful, it's got trees, flowers, ponds, black and white swans. When you enter, you are so calm and happy and it makes you work very hard.

You have a PHD and you also write several articles, papers and reviews for various platforms. Do you think there is a significant difference in terms of content and tone while writing each of these or is your approach the same for all of them?
Yeah, of course. When I write for international legal journals, it is obviously much more technical with more legal terms and conversation. When I write for newspapers, I have a hard time trying to simplify it and yet somebody recently told me “I read your article, I read it again and I couldn’t understand it”. That surprised me because I thought I had really simplified it.  That was an eye-opener and next time, I will try to make it even simpler. You will probably find some of my journal and newspaper articles on by blog and they are very heavy, tedious and didactic but you can also find some simpler ones like what is piracy and what are the myths about terrorism that I think even school children can understand.

What do you think is the main reason for the existence of terrorism?
Terrorism has been a part of human history for a very long time. The people who commit acts of terror have been doing so for a long time and for various reasons. Religious, ethnic and political reasons for example. But international terrorism has changed over time and what started as an opposition against regime has moved onto a lot more intensive, virulent and frightening form of terrorism. Today, civilian casualties are much more higher than it used to be before. Terrorists want larger and more theatrical actions thus mostly target innocent civilians who have no direct connection to the regime. They find it much easier to hit the softer targets since the leaders are usually heavily protected. To gain attention, they target the public spaces like subways, train stations and markets. That is why you find that even the USA only refers to the world trade centre incident and not the Pentagon one. They won’t mention it because the Pentagon is not considered a civilian target.

What do you think the future of terrorism looks like? How relevant is it in today’s world?
It will be there. You can only counter it and you cannot eradicate it. The cycle of terrorism starts with recruitment, it grows, it gets flushed with funds because of support, it becomes more and more ruthless to that point it thinks it is invincible, it takes on the state or country and ends up being annihilated. Every group somewhat goes through a similar cycle and you find that when one group is tamed, another one is usually rising someplace else.

Why do you think research on terrorism is important for the future of our world?
I consider my research to be important because it focuses on how countries under the international law can tackle terrorism and how to come together to tackle it. Even if it takes a long time, the countries should take steps and start working towards it. Unfortunately, many countries have their own selfish political interests and that is why we are where we are today. There is a mutual consensus for piracy: pirates are considered enemies of all mankind so any country can act against a pirate. Until we (all countries) agree that terrorists are enemies of all mankind, and not sponsor or fund or train them or even give them logistic support, we cannot eradicate it.

*Edited for length and relevancy to answer

Malvika Iyer is a bomb-blast survivor and a motivational speaker. A bundle of power and energy, Malvika leaves you feeling incredibly inspired and moved as she tells you her story. 

Malvika Iyer
My story begins when I was 13 years old. It goes back to 2002. I grew up in a lovely city called Bikaner which is famous for its bhujia and lovely coloured clothes. I was a very friendly child – in fact, my family tells me that I was so friendly that I was always smiling, even at strangers. It didn’t take me a moment to break into a smile at a stranger even if I had absolutely no idea who they were. I had a very happy and a beautiful life as a child. My parents were very sweet. I lived in a very joyful environment with a lot of friendly people around me. I was a tomboy, and had a gang of girl friends and boy friends. It was a very healthy childhood.

This was when I had just entered my 9th standard. It was 2002, I had just turned 13. The accident happened during the summer vacations, on a Sunday afternoon. Six months before the accident, there was a fire in an ammunitions depot near my place, and as a result, there were many scattered shells in the city. A lot of pieces had scattered across the city, my house included. That was how I came across the piece that wound up causing the accident. It was a diffused shell, and it was something that everyone had seen and been familiar with. It looked like an oxygen cylinder and didn’t appear to have anything within. Everyone mistook it for a diffused shell that had already exploded. The inside was hollow, and it also had a top part that looked like it had needles, and everyone thought it was a hollow shell.

Some background - as a teen, I was very creative. I used to make a lot of art and craft out of waste. For instance, I used to go to a tailor shop nearby and pick up pieces of cloth to make wall hangings out of all of them. That Sunday, since the pocket of my jeans had torn off, I wanted to stick it back with a patch so I could use the jeans again. It was my favourite pair and I didn’t want to throw it. I had a patch of cloth and wanted to stick it onto the pair of jeans, and to make it sit, I wanted to find something hard to hit the cloth into place, and went to the garage to find something hard to hit it with. In the garage, fortunately or unfortunately, I found this shell. I assumed it was a diffused shell and was harmless, so I took it back to my room. I hit my jeans with the patch of cloth with the shell on the hollow side at first. Then, I turned it upside down and hit it again. I think it was fate calling. Just then, there was an explosion. This was an already diffused shell, so the explosion was of a low intensity. Everyone was there in the house, but I was the only one in my room when this happened. When it exploded, nothing happened to anyone else apart from me. The area I was sitting was completely damaged. It was full of blood, there was a smell of flesh burning. I lost my hands immediately. There was no hope of saving my hands. I was squatting down, and my legs were completely disfigured. The flesh and bones – it was all a mess. My leg was literally dangling on a tiny piece of flesh. My parents came running into the room the moment they heard the explosion.

At first, no one understood what had happened. They all thought some electrical appliance had burst, and no one thought a shell had done this. I suffered 80% blood loss and my Blood Pressure had dropped to zero. I was taken to the hospital. They didn’t think I would survive. My four main nerves on my limbs were cut. The doctors had given up completely. But somehow, miraculously, I survived and made it out of danger that night. They didn’t give me anesthesia because my body was in shock and I had zero blood pressure, so I watched everything and observed everything that was happening. I was not in pain for three days because of the shock that my body was in. But, I apologized to my mother immediately – I was a naughty child, and I did get into trouble a lot of times before. She told me that I would be fine and that I was not to worry. I didn’t realize the intensity of what had happened, but I remember seeing everything around me very clearly. I did know that something terrible had happened, but beyond that I had no idea. My mother was the one who screamed, “Meri beti ke haath chale gaye,” so that was when I understood that I had lost my hands.

From then, for two years, I had painful dressings being done and re-done on my body. My legs had to be cleaned continuously as there were splinters stuck to them. For two years, it was a very painful time. My mother asked my sister to stay with my aunt in Chennai, and we were in Jaipur. From then on, my mother took care of me.

My mother was always very positive. No one sat and cried next to me and told me that my life was over. But people outside of my family, i.e., strangers, would see me in hospital and feel sorry for me. I was a little girl and my hands and legs were bandaged and plastered and people would look at me with pity and say things like I was a child, and a terrible thing had happened to me and that my future was a dark place, and that nothing would go to me. That was when I realized that I didn’t want to be in a public place. I was very protected and nurtured by my family and friends. They were never negative and never made me feel negative. They never passed such comments, and were always happy and cheerful, and were confident that I would come out of it. My mother’s project was to get me out of this. But outside, it was a very scary place. Everyone would stare and talk, and it was very scary. I refused to go out – I was very happy when my family and friends supported me.

I then went to Chennai, when my treatment began to address my legs, as they were not healing in Jaipur. My mom literally carried me to Chennai, where the treatment began quite soon. I began responding to the treatment, and personally, made small steps – taking the television remote and operating it with my elbow. I didn’t complain much, but I would cry when it hurt while they did my dressings. There were never thoughts of “why me”. I was confident that I was going to get better and that my family was taking care of me. Maybe one day, I would walk. There were no negative thoughts at all – and it was surprising, too. We just never let anything negative hit us. After almost a year and a half after the accident, I started tying a rubber band around my hands and fixed a pen to write letters to a friend of mine in Bikaner. She told me that she was preparing for the tenth board exams, and I felt bad that I wouldn’t be able to take the exams. My surgery had been done and they asked me to use crutches, but I couldn’t use crutches because my hands couldn’t hold them. But I wanted to do the exams.

My cousin had attended a coaching centre in the next lane. I was not going to be able to make it as a school student because there were only three months left, so I had to appear as a private candidate. I told my mother that I wanted to attend the coaching centre and take my exams. That was my first step to recovery. I couldn’t stand the idea of lagging behind by a year, and my mother took me on her two-wheeler to the coaching centre each day. It was scary, at first. I was fitted with artificial hands and I wore short sleeves. Artificial hands are different from real hands and people looked at me. I was conscious and even felt a bit inferior as well. But I wanted to give the exams a shot, and I told the people at the coaching centre that I would come there every day.  They were very supportive and did not question my decision.

It was not easy learning all of it at first. I went to the coaching centre each day and my mother would come to feed me. I couldn’t write, so I had a writer to write my tests. Initially, I was reading maths and trying to learn maths and science. It was difficult – imagine learning geometric figures without writing. The first two tests took place and I did very well. The coaching centre spotted that I had some talent and they decided that they would encourage me. Before the accident happened, I was involved in a lot of extracurricular activities. I was a trained kathak dancer and I would hardly study. But this time, since I couldn’t run around or do anything with my hands and legs, I decided that I would channelize my energy into studies. I wanted to, as well, and since I couldn’t dance or swim or skate, this was what I wanted to do. I studied very hard over those three months.

I didn’t hope for anything great, I just wanted to do my best. I did the exams well, and gave it my best shot. I dictated all my answers to a scribe. It was painful, I had a lot of pain in my throat after all the dictation. I spent time to see that all the spellings were right and that the writer had taken down all that I said. A month later, the results came. I did not expect it – I had turned out to be a state ranker! I had scored 100 in math, and in science, and I scored 97%. It was like a dream. After that, things changed.

Local news outlets covered my story, and then came the major newspapers and television channels. Then, I was invited to meet Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, who invited me to the Rashtrapati Bhavan with my parents. He spoke to me in Tamil and asked me what I wanted to do, and my dreams. I told him that I just wanted to go to a regular school and no longer be a private candidate. Many schools then invited me to study at their place, but my mom picked the nearest one as she had to pick and drop me. I did my twelfth, and wanted to study at St. Stephens. I studied very hard, and knew that the cutoffs would be very high. I made it somehow.

In school, life was different. In college, I had simple dreams – to walk a little more, to stand for a little longer, to climb stairs and to write. I had kind of begun accepting that this was how things would be, but I hadn’t accepted my body. I met amazing people from all over the country. I was shying away a lot at that time, wearing full sleeved clothes and not encouraging shaking hands. I did that a lot in college, trying so hard to be normal and what I am not. I then did my masters in Social Work and worked with a lot of differently abled children as part of my fieldwork. That made me realize that it is okay to not have two hands and still be a perfect person in what I did.

The fieldwork experience opened my eyes and I felt that it was my true calling. I felt like I could associate with them. I was also different, but I was going to make a mark. I came back to do my M Phil research on people with disability. I had hidden myself and not told my story. People never knew about my story until they met me. So for the first time, I wrote my story on social media, and TEDxYouth Chennai was the first outlet to find out about my story. I then talked about my story with a lot of people.

After that, on the tenth anniversary of my accident, I wrote about my story on Facebook, again. A lot of people wrote to me, telling me that they appreciated me. I felt like I had a greater degree of responsibility now that a lot of people were beginning to hear my story. I then began to talk about issues such as inclusion and universal designs, and also hosted the India Inclusion Summit. I was called to South Africa, Jakarta and Norway, and talked about accessible elections. I was also selected as a Global Shaper,an initiative of the World Economic Forum.

I started my PhD and worked on the concept of attitudes towards disability. I designed my own questionnaire and about a thousand students took the survey. I came up with my own module and wanted to introduce modules to address the attitudes that are formed against disability, and then wanted to structure approaches to shifting these very attitudes. I submitted my thesis to the Madras School of Social Work recently. I was also invited to attend the Women in the World Summit in New York this year, where I was awarded the first Women in the World Emerging Leaders Award.
I worked with the NIFT and the Ability Foundation, and as someone who loves fashion, I realized that finding clothes that fit around my artificial limbs was very difficult. I began to advocate for accessible fashion. It was an amazing experience for me to walk the ramp in the beautiful outfits that NIFT had designed or me. My feet hadn’t yet healed so I walked wearing floaters and not heels. I now promote accessibility of fashion, too.

I have had the chance to speak across different platforms, but what really makes a difference to me is how some people have come back to tell me that they were inspired to act or do something in their own lives. For instance, once, a lady who was aged but wanted to learn to drive, actually got out and made the effort to get her license. My favourite part of all my speaking opportunities remains these stories of determination and grit. This is what the last three years of my life have been like.
I am currently living in the US.When I look back, I realize that I had never planned any of these things. I realized that people give a lot of credit and importance to success. Everything is outcome driven and norm-based. It is important, though, to embrace failures, and that is what my mother taught me. She told me always, that even if I had never scored so well and got such high marks, it would still have been an accomplishment for having given those exams my best shot. At the end of the day, it is how you survive your challenges that matters the most. Acceptance is the greatest reward we can give to ourselves – the day I accepted everything, I was able to understand things better.

(c) The Red Elephant Foundation | 2013 |. Powered by Blogger.