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Tiffany Williams is the coordinator of the Beyond Survival campaign of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which works to build survivor leadership and awareness of human trafficking of domestic workers in the United States and around the world. She talks about her work and study on human trafficking and domestic workers across the United States, and the journey behind putting together the report as part of the Beyond Survival Campaign.

I started off about ten years ago. I started as a social worker and was working with women trafficked into the US nannies, caregivers and maids. They came from all over. What we did in 2010, to review all our cases. We looked to see what the impact of our work had been. While we thought we did help a lot of people and were survivor centred, we were not seeing a change in the scenario. If you took a case each from 1998 and 2008, and just changed the dates, you’ll find the case being the same. The kinds of abuse we see in our field are very much tied to issues about migration, labour rights, gender, economic inequality, climate change and foreign policy – all of which relate to issues that people are aware of on a global scale. But, somehow, it hasn’t entered the consciousness about trafficking. We decided to do something different. The cases were not different, so we had to be different. 

We joined the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance. It has 44 affiliate organizations and the groups are in places all around the country and their focus is on domestic workers’ issues and rights, and not just on trafficking. The situation of discrimination and exploitation that the industry itself faces – which is a global problem, not confined to the US or India. It is a condition typical to women’s work in the informal economy. 

Tiffany Williams | Image from here
Our services are based on consent – that’s how we start. What’s interesting about the way trafficking is being addressed globally is that it is looked at as a criminal issue that requires criminal intervention. Trafficking is seen as a criminal problem – looking at it as a victim and as perpetrator is short-sighted. Many of them say that they migrate owing to family needs, climate, trade or policy. There was no safe place to stay in, and are forced to migrate into a system that is strict about migration. Migration happens outside legal channels. What we’ve seen now is that, what we are concerned about is that there is a lot of push towards court-styled intervention, which makes it a problem between choosing to go into forced services or jail. That’s true mostly for sex workers in the US. With domestic workers and immigrant labourers, the situation is deportation or sentencing. It becomes a difficult model to tackle. I work only with domestic workers – but we are in solidarity with the others in the cause, so it matters how they are treated. 

We start with consent. Does the person want to be in the service? Do they have the ability leave at any point? We take care of their immediate needs at first. Safety, respect, immediate needs like housing, shelter and healthcare are given first. We see our work as service providers as being a source of information and coordination. There are a lot of stakeholders in a trafficking situation – we have to deal with the NGO, the police, the government and all of the different service providers that are out there. As a social worker, the service provider is supposed to be the key. We also work on survivor-led goal planning. When we do our case management, we ask our survivor what they want to do next. Obviously, safety and related concerns are a priority, but we ensure that each goal is led by the survivor. 

One of the things we do is also to tell testimonies. We believe that testimonies can be a healing process if the process is done right. We work with survivors and encourage them to share their testimonies on a consent basis. But unlike the conventional form of telling testimonies, we follow a system that goes beyond just being a survivor. Most often NGOs think of looking at telling stories as a way to position a survivor and an advocate, and then telling the survivor to keep recounting the “sad” story, and then turning to the advocate to ask them what they suggest is a way to change the scenario. Instead, we get the advocate to step back and ask the survivor to share her story with the vision she has for herself and the vision she has for policy change and for the world. 

Trafficking takes away choice, and the ability to choose what you want to do at any minute in your life. We try to continually build up an environment of choice for our survivors. We also do a lot of resilience work with our survivors. When we talk about resilience, we think about our role not as saviours and not as people who have solutions to all their problems, we work to help them connect to their own sense of resilience and healing. There are things that we do and already do in our lives to heal from our pain. We try to bring that out in our survivors. Social services in the US are time limited, so we try to make sure that our survivors are on their path to self sufficiency.

Kamla Bhasin | Image from here
Kamla Bhasin, a renowned social scientist and an advocate for gender equality and feminism, is a fiery force to reckon with. With a wholesome perspective of the myriad nuances of gender and feminism, her books have added fuel to the fire of many of the world's activists. She talks about her journey so far, her vision for the future and her work as an advocate for gender equality in this interview.

-     What got you into gender advocacy? Your foray into the field came at a time when it was still nascent, and was not seen as a "profession" as medicine, engineering and teaching were.
I got into gender advocacy after becoming a social activist. I started working in 1972, in Udaipur, Rajasthan, as a social activist working with the poor. I was 26, then. I had grown up in rural India. My father was a medical doctor, and worked in rural Rajasthan. Once I began working with the poor, I came to understand consciously that women were poorer than the poor, more dalit than the dalit, and more discriminated than the discriminated. At the conscious level, this realization happened when I worked with the poor in Rajasthan. At the subconscious level, I guess I always knew this to be the truth. It is impossible for girls and women not to know the truth about how women are worse off. I did take to gender advocacy at a time when very few people were in the field. Of course, there were prominent people such as Gandhi and women in politics who talked of the need for gender equality. It was the general atmosphere – I was born on the eve of the partition of India, in 1946. Equality and Justice were in the air back then!
     Could you talk about some of the key challenges you encountered in your journey?  What were some of your strategies in dealing with the challenges?
I started working on the basic needs for the communities that I worked with. The organization said that we had to help with literacy for women and men, saying that they needed it. We tried our best, and I realized that there was no response. When the women built a fair degree of rapport with me, they came up to me and said, “Look at the place around you. Are you all blind? We are poor, and we are in the middle of a drought – what we need most is water. And here, you are all trying to give us literacy – it is not our top priority. Can you find us a way to make a well?” These were people from the Adivasi community. I went back to the organization with what they told me and asked if we could use the same resources to dig a well. It made me realise that social workers tend to come up with plans of action that pivot around their idea of the priorities for the communities they work with – which don’t align with the actual priorities of the communities themselves. I started working with the women as providers of water. Slowly, it expanded into agriculture and other avenues. Meanwhile, I started writing about women in society. I don’t remember having faced any challenges in my work, though. We were doing our work for gender equality and no one stopped us. The Adivasi women were strong and forthcoming. They were helpful all the time. It was really about going from one step to another. The main challenge that I did face was personal – it was about my having to change myself to understand them, and to dispense with my misconceptions about the poor. I suppose I managed! 

Kamla Bhasin | Image from here

-    As a gender equality advocate, what do terms like Feminism and Gender mean to you?
I work with women, rather than for women. As I work, I realise that I change all the time. Everyone needs to be ready to change all the time. In my work so far, the term feminism has not been difficult to comprehend. Just like we learned words like democracy, human rights, mobile, internet, and even Skype, so too, we learned the term feminism. In South Asia, we came up with a simple definition of feminism: anyone who accepts that girls and women are discriminated against in the domestic setting, in the workplace and in society, and takes action  against such discrimination,  is a feminist.. If a man does it, he can also be a feminist! In other words, feminism is Looking at the World Through Women’s Eyes because for much too long everything has been looked at decided through men’s eyes. Feminism is and ideology and action programme against patriarchy and for gender equality. VERY SIMPLE! Feminism, as some have tended to misunderstand, does not mean that women claim superiority. It only means that we want equality,our dignity, choices, spaces and freedom. After 1947, when India gained independence, the Constitution guarantees it for us. We are, therefore, only asking for what we are already entitled to. However, Gender was tough to understand. It came up after about 15 years of working in the field. We are familiar with the concept of men and women, and not gender. Initially, I was resistant to the term gender – it came across as being very academic. Gender discrimination tends to be used to denote discrimination against women, but in reality, it can be denoted to mean discrimination against men, too.  
      Is gender really a social construct? Or is it much more than that?
Gender is a socio-cultural definition. I have been doing gender workshops for over 30 years now, and 50% of the people I work with, do not know how to define the term. It is not about men and women. It is a socio-cultural construction. The concept of patriarchy is very clear, and has tended to call a spade a spade. On no uncertain terms, it goes about clarifying that it is a male dominated world, in which  men are considered to be superior to women. This is something that the term “gender” did not convey. We were initially resistant, but there are many advantages to using gender as a concept. The concept of gender clearly differentiates between wahat is biological or Nature made and what is socio cultural and Society made.There is a big difference between the biological and the socio-cultural construction. Nature does not discriminate. These discriminatory attributes are a human creation. Since humans created it, humans can change it, too. It can be a powerful thing. Many tend to look at it narrowly, and as independent of other elements. Gender inequality ties in with caste inequality, with racial inequality and with class inequality. It is impossible to tackle any of it in isolation if we want sustainable results.  
      One of the biggest misconceptions is that men are only perpetrators of patriarchy, and cannot be victims of it. Could you weigh in on this statement with your thoughts?
Men do undoubtedly benefit from patriarchy. Of course, all men seem to be born with so called privileges because they are men. They have advantages – 90% parliamentary seats go to men. 95% of the judiciary goes to men. Men inherit property – and all of this, because they are men. Simply because of these privileges, men tend to look at themselves as being in a better place. But let’s look at the other side. Although men are only 50% of the population, 100%  rapists are men,. 95% of the world’s suicide bombers are men. Instances of rash and drunken driving see more men as perpetrators than women. According to one statistic, 40% and another, 60% of married Indian men are violent to their wives. To me, a man who rapes is far more dehumanized than a woman who is raped. A man who beats his partner is not  human. Patriarchy does not let men cry. Patriarchy forces men to become breadwinners. The fact is, patriarchy helps and serves no one. Men should recognize that they can be fully free only when women  are  free. Fathers and brothers have to protect their daughters and sisters, earn and put money in the bank for their daughters’  dowries. Boys in the family are forced to join the family business when they may be much happier writing poetry or doing art. We should come to a state where sisters should be welcome to join the family business, so that they can tell their brothers that they are free to pursue what they want. Women should be able to come home to their husbands and say that they will go out to work while the husband really can sit back and take care of the kids. If the roles remain fluid, it is so much easier to enjoy a happy life. I have been working on masculinity for over 15 years now, and have written a lot about it. I brought out a CD for the One Billion Rising campaign, with four songs that talk about men and masculinity – to some extent, with humour. Using slogans, workshops, art and music, I am working against the established notions of patriarchy to make people realise that it serves no one’s interests. Most of all, it is against the Indian Constitution. Patriarchy really needs to be buried or cremated now just as caste and race need to be out of our lives. This is an era of equality and these unequal and unjust systems have no place here.
      Do you identify with the terminology "masculinities of violence"? Is violence inherently a masculine element? Should we worry so much about classifying violence thus? 
The terms masculine and feminine are social definitions. It is not a biological definition, but rather a social definition of what men and women are supposed to exhibit as characteristics. Society defines men as overpowering, controlling and violent, and keeps teaching them to be violent. Boys are given guns to play with as their toys. All men are not masculine. Many women are masculine, too, and can be violent, too. Violence is not a biological attribute. Man is not inherently violent because he is a man: if that were so, the world would not have had a Buddha or Guru Nanak. It is important to promote non-violence and peace in the way we bring up our children. Masculine and feminine traits are a social notion of how men and women should be, and what characteristics they should exhibit. Society encourages men and boys to be violent. There is a whole industry that works overtime to encourage this – encouraging boys to fight wars in the army, play competitive  games , play with guns and the like. Look at all the films that release today. Boys who are gentle are ridiculed and called sissy. .  In addition to our religious and cultural patriarchies today we have  capitalist patriarchy: pushing for everything from pornography to the world of cosmetics. On the one hand, women are commoditised –  the shape and complexion of their body is focused on. As if we women don’t have character and intellect! To add to it, since women are bodies, they effectively come with a shelf life. On the other hand, men are also victims of patriarchy, and spiritually, men suffer more. A woman who is raped can and will move on – true, what happens is horrible, but the fact is, that she can move on. But the man who rapes, he comes from a psyche that has been built on for years. He is not human, he is finished, virtually. Men should realise that they have so much to lose by being violent.
      Religion has been seen to justify patriarchy, although a lot of this justification stems from misinterpretations of religion. How can this be tackled?
 I feel in their practice all modern religions  are patriarchal. The fact is that the ownership of religion is in men’s hands.  The men who started these religions were extraordinary – the Buddha, the Prophet, Jesus, all of them – they were extraordinary. But, look at what is happening today in the name of their religion. Gender equality is not at all possible if we are going to continue practicing religion in the way in which it is practiced. All modern religions – and by modern religions, I mean Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and everything else – were created in a post patriarchal setting. Patriarchy was created first, and then came all these religions. In these religions, there is a supposition that God is a He. Therefore, if God is  He, He or man is God. That is where words like pati-parmeshwar, husband and swamy come up. All our stories and legends come from this hierarchy. Theoretically, most religious texts do not mention equality. All 10 of Jesus’ disciples were men. No religion has yet accepted women as heads of these religions.. Therefore, they obviously declare 50% of humanity as inferior or second class.. Religion and culture are huge carriers of patriarchy. Very few take up the challenge. There is a lot of work that has been done, of course, but more needs to be done. Religion creeps into life during important moments – such as during a marriage. The practice of “kanyadaan” or giving away the bride is an example. According to our Constitution, No father has the right to give away his daughter. The notions of having an ‘owner’ or pati is wrong! I remember, recently, I read an article in a newspaper about how in a Swaminarayan Temple event  and a woman  journalist who sat in the front row was asked to  go back because  the priests of this Sect are not meant to look at women. It was such a display of crass discrimination, to treat a woman thus. Another example is how a woman is not allowed to do the last rites for her deceased parents – of course, back then, a few of us did defy it, such as Mallika Sarabai and I, for instance. But the bigger issue is that many follow these things quietly. We should be questioning these things. 

Kamla Bhasin at the One Billion Rising Campaign with Sangat | Image from here

-     Could you talk about Sangat, and your role in it?
I co-founded the Sangat South Asian Feminist Network with 25 others. After working in the grass root level in India, I moved onto working at  the Asian level. I was invited by the Food and Agricultural Organisation in 1975, to join them in a project where I was given the duty of handling a Regional Project on the Role and Training of Change Agents, which supported NGO initiatives. I worked on organising regional and national workshops, participatory training programmes for field level  workers and decision makers mainly from non-government organizations, people's organisations, women's groups on issues related to poverty, development, environment, gender and human rights and to facilitate linkages and networking. The scope of my work here was centered around Asia. For about 27 years, I continued in this position. After resigning from the UN, I moved onto founding Sangat, with 25 other women and men. So in all, for almost 40 years now, I have been working at the Asian level. My aim is to identify groups and individuals doing innovative work to promote equality, gender equality, justice, democracy, human rights ad peace  bring them together for building their capacities and connect them in the process of capacity building. We organize short and long workshops.. Every year we organize a one month long course in which we bring  30-40 women together from different countries and for learning and sharing.,  We start as early as 6:30 AM and go on until 10-10:30 PM. They start with Yoga, and end the day with films, song and dance.  I teach for 5-6 days and we have other feminists who come by and teach, as well. By the end of it, these women have a massive network that they are part of, making friends in countries they never knew they would make friends in. This is, in effect, also action towards peace. Women make friends in other countries, and know enough people in other countries not to be afraid or to stereotype communities unnecessarily. For instance, in the recent Nepal Earthquake, our network was abuzz with activity as women reached out to their friends in Nepal to see if they were alright. Sangat is in effect a small organization comprising 4 people, including me. We have a network of over a thousand women.
      What do you see as the future of women? What are we ignoring in our fight for equality?
The future of women lies in equality, justice and freedom. Theoretically, we have it. Our Constitution and the UN conventions guarantee these rights. Everyone who made these documents was a visionary, but the people are not visionaries. We need to have a cultural revolution, and some amount of social change. We need to be worthy of being called human.  

Cynthia Enloe
Cynthia Enloe is more than an academic: she is a living embodiment of the principles she teaches her students, and thereby, has come to live the very quintessence of feminist perspective. What better a way to be an effective teacher, than to teach by example? Having donned many hats, Cynthia has explored the perceptibly varied dimensions of Feminist Political Economics and Feminist Security Studies – and has bridled the two together to craft the wholesome perspective that we need, to be sound feminists and activists. In the following interview, Cynthia talks about her work and efforts at activism in her domain.

What got you into feminism and teaching feminism?
Feminism and teaching feminism are closely connected in my life. If I had not a teacher, I might have been slower in becoming a feminist. During my undergraduate and graduate years, I didn’t know a single person who thought of themselves as a feminist. That was in the 1950s and 1960s. Then two things happened. I began to have more feminist friends who couldn’t believe that I was not a feminist. They took me to feminist events in London and Boston, and also to feminist bookstores. I was so excited to sit amidst such smart and intelligent women at various events, and to be in the middle of a bookstore filled with ideas that I hadn’t yet discovered or been challenged by! The third thing that happened was that our students at Clark University, began to hear about a new phenomenon called “Women’s Studies”. They called all members of the women faculty together and pressed us to start offering Women’s Studies courses. It was all new to us. One of my colleagues offered Women in US Politics course at a time when there were very few women in formal US politics. Another colleague, Serena Hilsinger, offered a course on women authors in the US and UK. It was so exciting! My contribution was a course called “Comparative Politics of Women.” I looked at Russian, Chinese, US, French and the Algerian revolutions, read loads of then-new feminist histories and began asking feminist questions. Feminist historians have played an enormous part in shaping my understanding of politics of women and of gendered politics. 

Given that you worked in the field when it was still new, what kind of challenges did you encounter? How did you overcome them?
I suppose that the biggest challenge was to say out loud that I was working with a feminist approach to politics. It is hard to talk about feminism when the media reduce it to a cartoon, and translate it to mean “man-hating.” I realise that there are a lot of people who are new to feminist ideas; feminist questions about politics are rarely asked in most media. I make it a point to engage with people who respond to feminism skeptically; I try to answer them honestly, and do not dismiss their questions. I am always willing to explain and share perspectives. If you are not challenged, how do you know that you are alive? I don’t despair much when people seem to have cartoonish misrepresentations. I have tried to get people to engage with me, to tell me where they get their ideas from. I prefer a down-to-earth approach, talking in terms of concrete examples so we can together have a genuine conversation.

Having worked in the field, what has feminism and gender equality come to mean to you?
Feminism and gender equality aren’t the same. Feminism is essentially a challenge of all oppression, unfairness, injustices and hierarchies. Feminists ask how – and to what extent – each has been created and then perpetuated by the patriarchal presumptions, processes and structures. Once exposed, feminists try to dismantle them. One cannot dismantle patriarchy unless one makes the serious effort to understand and challenge patriarchy in all its old-fashioned and all its modernized forms. Patriarchy can occur anywhere, mind you, not just in the more unjust, heavy handed and blatantly obvious places. Patriarchy can take root even in arenas of peace-work.

Could you share an example that you have encountered, where patriarchy subsists within activist and peace-work circles?  
A lot of people teach me, and among them have been feminists in Okinawa, Japan, who were protesting militarization. They took me under their wing and showed me what it was like, to be feminists protesting militarization. There was a terrible incident in 1995 – the rape of a 12 year old girl by four US military personnel. Men and women in Okinawa tied in this incident to their protest against the existence of US military bases on Okinawa. Standing up in one of these anti-bases meetings, one of the feminist anti-bases women said that it was important for all of them, as peace activists, to take sexual assault seriously, not just sexual assault and violence against women perpetrated by American military men, but violence and abuse perpetrated by Okinawan men. Almost immediately, the feminists told me, the men in their protest group wanted to dismiss this linkage, calling it a diversion from the main cause, the anti-bases cause. It was a stellar example of how patriarchal peace activism can become, when activism against violence against women is only deemed “relevant” when it serves men’s own core narrow interest. That is instrumentalizing anti-violence against women. It’s patriarchal politics. I remember Cynthia Cockburn once telling me that many feminist peace activists in countries as different as Serbia, Colombia and India have told her that they have had to break away from their male-led peace organizations due to their male allies’ lack of support for feminist anti-violence goals, that is, because too many of those men just could not see the causal links between militarism and masculinized violence against women.

You have done some important work on the question of how women’s labour is made cheap in factories. Could you tell us how that came about?
I self-published my first feminist publication as a four page leaflet. This was in 1979, I think. I had gone to The Philippines to study the globalization of Colt’s M16 rifle manufacturing. I was not a feminist then – not that I was anti-feminist, just that I hadn’t yet conducted research from a feminist perspective. But, luckily, I by then I had feminist friends who pushed me to explore the women’s labour in factories. One of my British feminist friends, Judy Lown, asked me to tell her about the state of women’s labour in Philippines garment factories. By chance, a Filipina I was interviewing arranged for me to go through a Levi’s blue jeans factory in Manila. I took rolls of photographs with my modest Kodak camera. When I got home, I printed the photos and wrote captions for each of them. That was when I started to think about how realized the gendered division of export factory labour was causally related to the militarization of the Philippines. It was my first feminist analytical effort; I sent the 4-page leaflet out to friends and family – and to Judy, of course. Being prompted by feminist historians explorations of how gendered divisions of labour were created - and by whom and for what ends – made me suspicious of the common term “cheap labour.” I realized that no labour is inherently cheap. It is made cheap!

The more I researched factories, the more I realized that a whole stream of actors play roles in cheapening labour – husbands who don’t think their wives’ efforts are worth a decent pay and that their work is not important; mothers and fathers who do not see their daughters’ work as something important and contributory to the family’s needs. I found them to be unwitting allies of the capitalists and state managers running the factories. So an anti-neo-liberal and anti-capitalist analysis is not enough – we need to explore all the actors, all the power relationships which cheapen women’s labour. That is, we need feminist analysis.

You have also looked into how women's emotional and physical labour has been used to support many governments' war-waging policies. Could you talk about that?
One of the temptations these days is to separate security studies from international political economy (“IPE”) studies. Things are so elaborate in academia - the courses we offer, the issues we address and the structures we follow. We have begun to create new IR silos, academic communities that don’t talk enough to each other. That’s a loss. Feminist International Political Economy and Feminist Security studies must be in constant conversation if we are going to reveal how international politics operates in the way it does. From the start of my feminist work, I’ve been interested in both, military security politics and profit-maximizing political economics – and how the two processes depend on and inform each other. For instance, armaments production managers and owners – in Sweden, in India, in Russia, in China, in the US – today wield both femininity and masculinity in order to produce missiles, drones, fighter planes and rifles. We need feminist-informed studies of specific armaments factories in varieties of countries.

What do you see as the future of your work?

I am not much of a forecaster. I’ve written three books in four years, and that is a lot. This year I’m writing mainly short article. I never know when the next book will begin to take shape, though, I confess, I do already know what image I want to use for the cover of the next one! I love to listen and engage in forums to which I have the privilege for being invited. I recently went to The Hague, as part of the 100th Anniversary of the 1915 International Women’s Congress – in 1915, about 1300 women, during World War I, came together in the throes of World War I to create an agenda to stop war. In all the years of my study, I had never known that this happened! Our textbooks and academic courses should really be telling us about these events! Why isn’t this taught anywhere in IR? At the recent Hague event, organized by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (which came out of the 1915 congress) I met women peace activists from Ghana, Pakistan and India, to name a few countries, and it was amazing too see how much effort is going into making peace a reality even where there is no local war. I believe that activists are thinkers – they are the ones who created most of the concepts we use in our studies today. So, to stay fueled, to stay on my toes, I need to keep listening, to stay in the midst of lively transnational feminist conversations. 
Sandblasting in progress (c) Tellason
Pete Searson and Tony Patella, the Founders of Tellason, talk about a practice called Sandblasting and the harmful effect it has on the people who are involved in the task of creating a pair of denims with a "sandblasted" effect. While most people find these pairs of pants as must-haves for their wardrobes, they are effectively a product of dangerous practices with harmful impacts on people involved in the process. 

What is sandblasting all about, when it comes to denims? 
Sandblasting is a process used to give jeans a distressed and pre-worn look. During this process, workers shoot abrasive sand onto denim jeans under high pressure. Because sandblasting is fast, cheap and easy, this method is preferred by international manufacturers.

Why is sandblasting a harmful practice, and in what way does it affect people?
Without proper ventilation and the right safety equipment, sandblasting can lead to severe risk of lung cancer and eventually death. The International Labour Organization estimates that every year, nearly 2.3 million people will lose their life due to horrible workplace conditions and an astonishing 160 million will contract occupational diseases. One deadly contribution to this statistic is international practice of sandblasting.

Are there any labour laws or labour conditions that prohibit sandblasting?
The use of sandblasting increased when the distressed denim trend took off in the 1990’s. When the Turkish government saw that a high number of denim workers were dying from sandblasting, they banned the practice in 2009. By 2010, 40 major denim brands including Levi-Strauss & Co, H&M, Armani and Versace announced their own ban on sandblasting in efforts to end the fatal approach.

In your research, you've found certain health consequences from sandblasting. What are they? Can they be fatal?
The International Labour Organization estimates that every year, nearly 2.3 million people will lose their life due to horrible workplace conditions and an astonishing 160 million will contract occupational diseases. One deadly contribution to this statistic is international practice of sandblasting. Without proper ventilation and the right safety equipment, sandblasting can lead to severe risk of lung cancer and eventually death.

Is banning sandblasting the solution?
In our opinion, no. The ban on sandblasting may have decreased the amount of sandblasting overall, but by assuming that this is the solution to our problem, we are completely missing the bigger picture. Banning sandblasting does not mean the practice no longer exists-- in fact, it is very much alive and will continue to negatively impact the lives of international denim workers unless we build awareness around the issue and work to end the practice for good.

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Neelam Pol
What’s the first thing you think of when you reflect on the word “childhood”? The simple, carefree joys of playing about? To Neelam Pol, childhood wasn’t just a mnemonic device to jog up such imagery: it became the focal point of her goal as a change-maker, who gave up a high flying corporate career to create spaces for children to have the childhood they deserve.

Growing up in a lower middle class family in India, I was plain lucky to not fall through the cracks in life. Encouraged by teachers and my mother, I built a successful career for myself. My best friend, however, was not so lucky. Her mother is illiterate and her teachers did not believe in her. Even today she struggles to make ends meet in her life.  This 'luck' sets up children in India to either succeed or fail in life and it does not depend on child's own potential, but on parent education, family income or teacher quality. Affected by my friend’s angry and defeated demeanor and determined to make things right, I switched over from the corporate to the social sector. Since then, I have worked with schools and met many such children on whom their teachers or parents have given up. These children may grow up to be as unhappy as my friend. And that is why I have made a commitment to myself to pursue 'quality education for ALL Children' irrespective of class, caste, gender, ability, income or family. Khel Planet is a step in that direction and is registered as a non-profit in India.

While working with low cost schools in rural India, I came across classrooms where teachers taught only to top 10% of the class. Often labeled as dumb and good-for-nothing, every other child wore a look of resignation. Instead of being a place that nurtures learning and growth, school becomes a painful experience for such children. Toying with the question of how learning could be made a joyful and meaningful experience for children, we (me along with Santhosh and Saurabh) started conducting play workshops with children from low income communities in Chennai and Gurgaon. Falling back on existing research that shows (i) 21st century life skills can prepare children to break cycle of poverty and that (ii) play is an effective experiential learning medium; we brought the two approaches together in Khel Planet’s theory of change – ‘Nurture life skills in underprivileged children through games and play to prepare them to break the cycle of poverty and face challenges of the 21st century. These 21st century life skills primarily include leadership, creativity, collaboration, cognitive, emotional, social and civic skills.

There are over 100 million children in who belong to low income families in urban, rural and remotest parts of India. 49 million of these speak only a single regional language, that isn’t English or Hindi. How, then, can we scale Khel Planet’s interventions so as to reach all these children?

Also many of these children are first generation learners, whose parents believe that only a rigorous academic training and good marks will ensure that their children will have a better life than their own. The reality, though, is that industry has termed 47% of Indian graduates as unemployable, lacking confidence and communication skills. How can we alter mindset of such parents to believe that ‘life skills are not optional but essential to have’?

We are constantly addressing these challenges by being innovative in our approach. Khel Planet is designing card / board games with intuitive instructions and in regional languages. We aim to take these games to all children where we cannot reach with our workshops or volunteers. For mindset change, we not only work with children but also engage with parents, teachers and the communities on the importance of life skills education. We are also trying innovations like setting up toy libraries to institutionalize play in schools and taking road trips across a state to raise awareness about a child’s Right to Play (UN CRC Article 31). Learning from these strategies is definitely helping us move forward with more impact.   

I believe that change brings learning and growth in its wake. The transition from corporate to development sector helped me apply experience of business operations and outcomes in a completely different and challenging setting. I learnt why and how sustainable change should go hand in hand with efficiency. Now, having experienced both the worlds, I am actively encouraging more people to crossover between the two worlds.

One of the groups of children that we work with is from a slum dwelling rag picker community in Lucknow. On one Sunday morning after finishing a workshop with us, three kids emerged from the slum, each carrying a sack. They were going to ‘work’ (to rag pick). When they saw us in the distance, they hid their sacks and were embarrassed that we had seen them like that. These children are 7 to 10 years old. Clearly, they face challenges at multiple levels - poverty, child labor, lack of access to formal education and frequent relocation are challenges that are commonly discussed. But a manifestation of these challenges in children can be seen in lack of dignity, low self-worth and self-esteem, very little social skills and vulnerability to abuse. These children might grow up without any sense of control over their own lives and will continue to remain in poverty. In our work with these children, we all need to ensure that in addition to addressing immediate concerns of school enrollment, health or child labor, we are also equipping these children with life skills that help them to adapt and behave positively in life and deal effectively with everyday challenges and stress. We should hold these children to the same expectations and outcomes that we have of children from better-off families. We, the NGOs, CSOs or other developmental organizations working with children, should aim to make our roles redundant. 

My dream for the future is: a ‘childhood’ for every child! In India, underprivileged children often do not experience a childhood due to a number of reasons. They are abused or exploited or forced to grow up too soon. I would be most happy if I could leave behind a legacy of a sustainable environment where all children experience childhood. They play, they learn and they help each other grow.


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