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.