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Monday, February 19, 2018

Awareness for Wo+Men

AWARE, or Awareness for Wo+Men to Advocate their Rights through Equality, is an initiative to spread Awareness on Human Laws, Rights and Gender Equality. AWARE creates awareness on women’s rights and legal provisions that they can advocate. It brings real life instances of empowered women in all disciplines for inspiration and motivation. Founded by Sandhiyan and carried forward on the able shoulders of both, Sandhiyan and Janani, the project is making significant difference on ground. Here’s our interview with the both of them.

Tell us a bit about yourselves, your growing years, education and work?
Sandhiyan, Founder, AWARE - I was born and brought up in Chennai, so a pucca Chennaite. Did my BE Mechanical Engineering at Sri Sairam Engineering College, the college well known Gender Discrimination and bias - one of the very reasons why gender parity interested me. In 2012, I got placed with TCS, worked as a software developer for initial 2.5 years and changed my role to CSR Volunteer Engagement Consultant for entire TCS Chennai for 2 years. I found volunteering and my role provide me with a sense contentment and satisfaction. I quit my job last May '17 with a hope to find a better opportunity that would fulfill my career aspirations in social work along with growing and expanding AWARE. 
Janani, Project coordinator, NoMoreNirbhaya - I grew up in Chennai most of my life. I got my
engineering degree in Biotechnology from Rajalakshmi Engineering College. I moved to US in 2012 for my Masters and during that time I got involved in the local south Asian domestic violence organization and was very hurt to see the number of women going through DV in a foreign country. And I felt I wanted to do more. In 2016, I had created a fundraiser encouraging all our wedding guests to donate to help 300 children get education instead of wedding gifts. That caught Sandhiyan's eye and he reached out asking if I would interested to lead this initiative. I took a break in 2017 and worked on establishing NoMoreNirbhaya along with Sandhiyan. I am currently an Environmental Consultant for a firm in San Francisco.

What is the story of AWARE? How did it come about?
Sandhiyan: It was Delhi Nirbhaya incident and series of gender based crimes aftermath of that incident had triggered me to understand how it perpetuates and its influence at all strata of life. As someone who was raised hearing the stories of GBV from my mother and sisters, I really wanted to do something about that. This Delhi incident has been a driving force towards it. I went ahead and started a Facebook page AWARE - Awareness for Wo+Men to Advocate their Rights and Equality and started sharing articles, created online campaigns to create awareness on how women can fight back GBV. The page was a huge hit and I started getting a lot of messages and response to my posts. Following that, along with some friends we adopted a fisherman community in Chemmenchery and have been working with the children and women for three years now.      
What are some of the key work areas / activities at AWARE?
AWARE focuses on three main initiatives in addition to our online awareness page.
Chemmenchery Holistic Community Development
We are running a 5 year committed, sustainable project with a mission of removing all societal issues by empowering the children and women to transform their own community. We have yearly missions to create an alleviating change marching towards our end goal.
Aug 2015 - Initiated CHCD
2017 - Child Friendly Chemmenchery
2018 - Assure Our Girls Future
2019 - Women Safer Chemmenchery
2020 - Gender Empowered Chemmenchery
SaveTheSmiles Movement
Save The Smiles (STS) addresses awareness of Child Sexual Abuse: its prevalence, prevention and processing/handling. We conduct awareness workshop on child sexual abuse and its impact on a child's well being in Govt schools, orphanages and communities in an attempt to create child friendly/safe zones. Our vision is to create child friendly/safe Chennai and to save as many smiles as possible.
NoMoreNirbhaya Movement
We are working in a holistic way to approach various stakeholders and create a Safer and Gender Empowered Chennai. Under NMN, 
    EMPOWER - teaching free self-defense for girls and women
    GEMs- working on creating a Gender Equity Movement curriculum for schools 
    NMN Clubs - Establish NMN clubs in colleges which will be a safe space for students to discuss about GBV, learn legal rights and serve as a root to establish a Gender Empowered Campus
   Safer Transportation - we are working with the transportation authorities on how public transportation can be made safer for women. 
   We also have plans to work with the police department in providing them Gender Sensitization and Child Safety Workshops and seek their support in our sessions and initiatives. 

You work in the domain of shifting mindsets towards a violence free society, which means you work to address some rather deeply ingrained views and issues. Could you take us through some insights on any challenges you've encountered and how you address them?
As you have rightly pointed out, the challenge has been the deeply ingrained views and the resistance to accept the efforts that we take to change it. It's been baby steps to get our target groups to accept the facts on patriarchy or gender based violence or how the culmination of various societal expectations has affected women and children. We address them by trying to understand their lives and their stories. For example: in many communities women have resigned to the fact that they can change nothing about their lives even if they want to, but they would say they wish for better lives for their children, so we go by their needs. And we have seen how happy they feel when they see their children empowered and confident. 

As a movement, what do you feel India needs in its efforts towards  gender equality? What is preventing that from happening or being available?
We strongly feel we need to start from the roots- "catch them young". We hope changes happen in the way we raise boys and girls and how gender roles are defined at home and in school. We need long term solutions which needs major revamping (evolution) of a lot of our systems. Being an active bystander or being gender sensitive should be a part of growing up just like how we learn math or science. At the same time, we also need short term measures that would curb GBV from various stakeholders across the society - parents, teachers, police, transport authorities, law makers etc. 
People, norms, laws that pulls us or hold us back each time we progress. We need more stronger voices speaking out and working against GBV from all walks of life. As we know well, there is no one size fits all in our country. Every part of our country have their own unique challenges. So to reach different corners of the country we need more movements like ourselves in all states run by representatives of that specific group who can identify and who can, as insiders, steer others towards change. 


Can you share any anecdotes and success stories from your work so far?
Honestly, we still feel we have a long way to go to say we have been successful. During our recent conference, we had Samson, an 8 yr old boy from Chemmenchery who was there as a participant. We had been giving out badges for all participants - the badges have a superman/superwoman picture with the words No More Nirbhaya. Samson was wearing the one with the superwoman and we asked him if he would like superman. He responded back saying he doesn't care, he likes wearing the superwoman badge. He got on stage with pride, wearing his badge and gave a speech on gender equality. That was a moment of pride and reflection on how we would like to create more Samsons in our society. We also feel proud to see those shy/hesitant volunteers who attended our EMPOWER sessions now being transformed as powerful leaders/trainers.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Empathy for the Environment

Ramnath Chandrasekar (c) Rachita Sinha
Ramnath Chandrasekar is a conservation educator. Using the visual medium, he helps children build empathy and understanding towards India’s natural heritage and complex environmental issues. Here is his story.

Tell us a bit about yourselves, your growing years, education and work?
My growing up years in my hometown of Pudukkottai were the best times of my life. They were filled with escapades into nature; looking for frog eggs in ponds; collecting them and putting them in fish tubs, waiting to see them turn into tadpoles; watching spotted owlets and snakes in a nearby scrub jungle; spending long hours seeing a purple rumped sunbird whiff through the hibiscus bushes to build its nest, and walking along the river every evening with my father after coming from school. Because of these enrichingly joyful childhood experiences, I had decided that, I must do something related to nature and wildlife. Since then, my life has been an exploratory journey that became more and more clear as I traveled in following my passion combined with my interests. During this time, I began my career as a naturalist, then as a wildlife photographer and filmmaker, and finally as a conservation educator. Today, using the skills and experiences I gained during the last sixteen years, I work with students to build empathy and understanding in them about India’s incredible natural heritage and complex environmental issues. At the moment, I'm a Leadership Fellow with the East-West Center pursuing the Asia Pacific Leadership Program Fellowship. 

What is the story of your journey into environmental protection from your original entry into wildlife photography? How did it come about?
It came about in the most unexpected of times, like any self-realization! I moved to Chennai in 2002, and I was delighted to find my path. My arduous travels in the jungles was a fodder for my passion. I envisioned myself forest-hopping one assignment after the other, especially because I had got a toehold into the niche career of wildlife filmmaking in 2008 by working as a field assistant to wildlife filmmaker Sandesh Kadur on a documentary about King Cobras for the National Geographic Television. Returning back from Agumbe after around 8 months of working in the rainforests, I had gone to the river in my hometown which had been one of the sources of my connect with nature. Water wasn’t flowing in it. It was dry. The birds and the fishes were gone. They affected me. I couldn't sleep. Around the same time, I was invited for an awareness program near the western ghats. That's where I was shocked to discover that many children living near the foothills weren’t aware about the role that Western Ghats play in the everyday life of people in Peninsular India.  Most students didn’t know that peninsular Indian rivers like the Godavari and Krishna originate in the Western Ghats, and that, they play a crucial role in the life-giving monsoon. I felt restless. So, I went to my mentor Shekar Dattatri and expressed my urge to do something of more meaningful in life, like him. It was he who found the spark in me and paved the way for my life as an educator. I wouldn’t call myself a conservationist, because, conservationists are the ones fighting on the ground battles to protect our last remaining patches of forests, and the wildlife that lives there. I see myself as a communicator; a facilitator. I do what I can from my own expertise for nature. If everyone one of us does this, lawyers, fashion designers, engineers, then our pristine ecosystems will have a chance to thrive for the years to come. 

What are some of the key work areas / activities you've handled in pertinence to education? 
The first program I worked in conservation education was in 2010 using two documentaries called ‘The Truth About Tigers’ and ‘Save Our Sholas’. Coming from an introverted medium like photography, I needed to start somewhere. That's when Shekar and I started a non-profit initiative called Youth For Conservation. Through the support of Wildlife Conservation Society - India Program, Wildlife ConservationTrust, and our regional partners, I was able to take these documentaries to schools and spread awareness about tiger conservation, western ghats and the role of every single species in an ecosystem.  By the end of these marathon sessions, I was able to interact with 50,000 students across many towns and villages in Tamil Nadu! These programs were curated. For instance, we stitched black curtains and carried all the audio visual equipment so that students get the full experience of viewing a conservation documentary. At that time there were frequent power cuts. So, we even carried a  generator so that the programs were not interrupted! Every aspect was learner driven. These were one of the major turning points in my life. Being a first timer, the response was overwhelming to me. The students were very keen to know more about wildlife. They expressed their interest in conservation by drawings, and talking about it. Their questions challenged me. I had a great time. But, I felt hollow reflecting upon it, because, the programs were one-offs. This was followed by a team of us working on multi-various programs were the engagement with students was periodic and using diverse methodologies. 

You work in the domain of creating empathy and understanding towards India’s natural heritage and complex environmental issues. Could you take us through some insights on any challenges you've encountered and how you address them?
Sure! The challenges are enormous. So, I will keep them to the end!  The first and foremost in addressing them is through our approach to conservation education programs. Students are at the core, and around them are all the materials we use on nature and conservation. It’s not the other way around. We don’t stay at the remember and understand level. For instance, ‘Save the environment’, ‘forests are important’ are at the remember level. “We are not on top of the ecosystem, but a part of it” is at the understanding level. We move further from these two and work with children so that they apply their learning, use pathways to analyze themselves and finally create. That’s when, I believe, deeper understanding and empathy happens. Finally, we co-create our programs with experts. 

For instance, one of the programs we conducted was called ‘The Planet and You’. It was for six months when I was able to work with 3500 students one day a month.  It had six modules, Universe to India, Lifelines of our country, secrets of the coasts, backyard wildlife, conservation and you, and finally a wrap up session. Every session had Shekar Dattatri’s documentaries in Tamil. Arts Educator Srivi Kalyan designed interesting activities for the students. We had an able program coordinator, and I worked with children. It was a team effort, and the results were heartwarming. 

Coming to the hard part, three biggest challenges are: convincing schools to take up long-term programs on nature, conservation and sustainability, training effective communicators to deliver them, and measuring the on the ground impact of these programs. It is vital to link conservation and nature to the competencies that students need to navigate today’s world. I feel this would change the way we perceive and design environment and conservation education programs. 

As a movement, what do you feel India needs in its efforts towards environmental protection? What is preventing that from happening or being available?
This is a tough question! We need a multidimensional approach towards environment conservation, and it is very hard in a densely populated country like India where change is very complex. Community involvement should be multiplied enormously and support for local conservationists should increase. Today, only less than 4% of the forests in India are marked as protected areas like sanctuaries and wildlife reserves. They must be protected like there is no tomorrow. We need an army of people who understand the complexities of wildlife conservation, and who are enabling conservation action. Only then there is a chance for wildlife and wild spaces to survive. 

Time is running out as I type this. Imagine if we have a program where young people in various pockets of India, closer to nature reserves, are into advocacy, learning from the experts with watertight integrity, to save wildlife.  While these are on one side, at the environment education front, we need a holistic approach where student learning about ecosystems, responsible consumption, food security and citizen participation are combined as one and offered in a way the enthuses students and benefits the schools and teachers. There are many factors that prevent these from happening. Funding, mobilising a diverse community, creating the immediacy, and most importantly, time. These are not immediate outcome based work that provide instant gratification. They require constant engagement and working with the system. 

Can you share any anecdotes and success stories from your work so far?
Sure! Couple of years back, I worked as an assistant producer and editor for Shekar’s documentary on the conservation success story of the Amur Falcons. We needed a few additional shots to be captured for this. So, I was sent to a village in a remote corner of Nagaland in India’s far Northeast. That’s where lakhs of Amur Falcons, a small bird of prey, make their pitstop on their way to South Africa. They begin their journey from Siberia and the Russian far east. It’s a twenty-two thousand kilometre migration, the longest by any bird of prey. When I reached Pangti village, I was on a pedestal watching a sky full of these birds. Lakhs of them flying back to the roost in the crimson cloured sky was a breathtaking sight. The shocking fact is, this natural history spectacle was discovered only in 2012. At the same time, a few colleagues from Conservation India and the Nagaland Wildlife and Biodiversity Conservation Trust found that around 150,000 were being hunted during this 3-week season for meat. The killings were immediately stopped due to citizen action, thanks to Bano Haralu, a firebrand journalist who decided to bring the community together, put an end to this massacre along with support from her colleagues. From that year, the hunters were provided alternate livelihoods. Today, they work towards protecting the falcons. 

Personally, one success story to me while working on an education program was when I co-developed a 6-month student diploma called Karthavyam for HLC International School. Students observed various environmental problems, explored them by talking to experts, found their own ways to solve the problem, and in the end wrote storybooks that were published by the school. They went on a roadshow with their books and conducted storytelling sessions in their community, inviting people there to take part. Karthavyam is called dutiful citizenry - That’s what we need, if we are to create a generation of eco-conscious citizens practising conservation from their careers. 

Monday, February 5, 2018

From Gibraltar to Kenya

Meenal Viz
Meenal Viz will tell you that she is in medical school, training to be a doctor, when you ask her what she does. It’s only when you speak to her for some time that you realize that she’s much more than that: she runs the AltCricket Foundation, which is working towards building an orphanage in Kenya, while supporting the well-being and needs of twelve children in the country;  she plays table tennis for Gibraltar, she volunteers her time as a teacher in a school every Wednesday in Prague and nurses the ambition of working in the domain of social medicine some day. Here’s a chat with the young woman herself.

I grew up in Gibraltar, and had a very privileged life. My father had grown up in a rather poor part of Delhi, and his is the typical story of a turn of the tide from poverty to a regular life through hard work. When I was eighteen, I went to a village in Mozambique for six months, where I lived with a family there. I learned a lot in that time – the family made did with life while dealing with a lot of obstacles. They had no power, and no water. They would have to ration out the opportunity for their children to study – if they had three children, one child would go to school this year and drop out the next, so the next child would get to go. It made me realize how privileged I was, and how much I take for granted. It also made me realize that my father’s childhood and growing years were like that. I found myself introspecting: why is it that I had all these privileges, when there were so many in the world that grew up without them? It really got under my skin.

When you’re eighteen, you think you know everything and you’re sure you want to change the world. I knew at the time that I was going to med school, but I really wanted to do something to make a difference. After I got into med school, truly, it felt like the universe was bringing everything together. I am into sports, and ran a half-marathon in April 2014, when I saw a bunch of people from Kenya. I went over to speak to them, and was drawn to speaking to one of them, with Wambugu. We had to run all of three laps to finish the half-marathon, and I was as slow as he was fast – so he was in lap three when I was puffing through lap one. He told me that he had come to run to win the amount so he could go back and support the twelve orphans he was taking care of. He would run a couple of marathons and collect the prize money from them all, and when that amount was converted into Kenyan currency, it went a long way. Wambugu and I didn’t speak too much at the marathon, but exchanged numbers and stayed in touch.

With more and more time I spent talking to him, I was sure I wanted to do something to support them, and decided I would build an orphanage. I reached out to a friend of mine, Nishant Joshi,  who was running a Twitter handle at the time called @AltCricket, and we had decided that we would ground all our work in the organizational identity of AltCricket because it had a good amount of following.

When I began, there was a lot of resistance. My parents told me that it was time to focus on my studies, but I insisted that I could handle my studies, this, and play table tennis all the same. I started with a small fundraiser in University, innocently labouring under the assumption that people would all be willing to give, especially to the cause of supporting young children in Kenya. I started with a bake sale, and learned a rather difficult lesson – people would come up to me, pick up the product they needed and tell me they would pay later, only to leave it hanging. But since then, though, we’ve been able to host a few fundraisers that did support us sufficiently. There were also misconceptions sent my way to the effect of whether I could trust Wambugu – because I was giving him money. But I am always inclined towards seeing the good in people, and I trusted him – it turned out just fine. Along the way, my partner, Aakash, joined in. He had reached out to the founder of AltCricket on Twitter, and then got in touch with me, and has helped me since. Thanks to him, I’ve come a long way – and now have a website and a successful few fundraisers!

The journey hasn’t been without challenges. When I started, I had to get all my paperwork done. It used to take forty days at a time, and the office would let me know with an email and tell me that a line was wrongly written or a tiny error had crept in – and then I would have to wait another forty days to get things done! I approached a lawyer in the hope that I would be able to get pro bono support, but they quoted $2,000. Nevertheless, I did manage to get it done.  I went into it thinking that my goal was to build an orphanage, but I realized that we also did have to provide for the basic necessities for the children, and had to start with that. They needed food, only after which would any thought of education or other things come to mind. At some point, say about two or three years ago, we were actually in debt, to the point that we couldn’t even buy milk for the kids. But thankfully, now, though, we are better off. The children had a Christmas party last month, and our last few fundraisers have been able to offer support for the next six or seven months.

Our current goal is to build the orphanage for the children. Wambugu was housing the children in a house that he built – except that the house was not in line with governmental regulations. The good thing, though, is that we don’t have to buy any land or worry about leveling it or laying cables. All that’s been done. We’ve decided to work on it in phases – by building an orphanage for six kids at first, which roughly costs about $13,000. This isn’t the money that a bake sale can bring in, but I’m hoping to seek corporate donations to support us. All money we raise goes entirely into the cause – save for the inevitable loss in transfer fees and conversion rates.

I’ve never met the kids personally, but Wambugu sends me videos of them going about their day. Carol, one of the kids, wants to be a lawyer to help kids like her. One of the other kids wants to be a pilot. It’s beautiful to see them all dreaming big despite facing so many challenges. These kids don’t know what it is to use a phone, and have never experienced watching videos or getting online. When we are low or finding ourselves in a fix, we find motivational talks online and pep ourselves up – but these kids don’t have any of that, and yet find the hope, vision and ambition in their hearts. That’s what makes it doubly powerful – because it comes from the heart, and it’s incredibly real and authentic. And that hope inspires me, to keep going.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Intersectional Musings #17

In this edition, we feature author Kiran Manral. She published her first book, The Reluctant Detective in 2011. Since then, she has published eight books across genres till date. Her books include romance and chicklit with Once Upon A Crush (2014), All Aboard (2015), Saving Maya (2017); horror with The Face at the Window (2016) and nonfiction with Karmic Kids (2015), A Boy’s Guide to Growing Up (2016) and True Love Stories (2017). Her short stories have been published on Juggernaut, in magazines like Verve and Cosmopolitan, and have been part of anthologies like Chicken Soup for the Soul, Have a Safe Journey (2017) and Boo (2017). Her articles and columns have appeared in the Times of India, Tehelka, DNA, Yowoto, Shethepeople, New Woman, Femina, Verve, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Conde Nast Traveller, DB Post, The Telegraph, the Asian Age, iDiva, TheDailyO and more. She was shortlisted for the Femina Women Awards 2017 for Literary Contribution. She is a TEDx speaker and a mentor with Vital Voices Global Mentoring Walk 2017.

Read the comic here.