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Shivangi Singh was born in a family that was patriarchal. But that did not stop her from starting her own initiative to educate everyone on why gender equality is important!
India celebrates 24th January as the National Girl Child Day. With schemes like ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ the government took steps in the right direction. However, a lot is left to be implemented in the real world.
Mindsets regarding girls are changing but at a very slow pace. Meanwhile rampant heinous crimes against women have an altogether different story to tell.
In June 2018, a survey conducted by Thomas Reuters Foundation ranked India as the world’s most unsafe country for women. It put India even ahead of Syria, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. This was followed by India’s #MeToo and Times Up movements leading the MRAs to form anti-women groups. And the groups were obviously fuelled by sexism and misogyny. The patriarchal Indian family system didn’t help, either.
It was then that a woman in her mid-twenties from Lucknow – a small town in India, decided to change things. No stranger to patriarchy, having faced sexism and steep patriarchy growing up, she started a social initiative focused on women empowerment and gender education. In August 2018, the initiative Drishtikona – Changing Perspectives was born with the broader aim of attaining the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of achieving Gender Equality. It is a unique idea which works towards attaining UN SDG 5 through UN SDG 4. Shivangi Singh believes Gender Education and Sensitisation is the way to smash patriarchy and create a Gender Neutral world.
On National Girl Child Day, I sought out Shivangi to throw light on the importance of educating girls on feminism, gender and fighting the sexism and patriarchy.
Why did you feel the need to form a social initiative completely based on Gender Education?
The problem of Gender Inequity and Gender-Based Crimes in India and the world is exponential. Patriarchy is all around us from conception to death. The decision to start Drishtikona was born out of personal encounters with patriarchy, sexism and misogyny at various points in my life.
My extended family negatively affected my life right from childhood by building a culture of great gender discrimination. Gender inequality stared at me wherever I looked. I started rebelling and complaining about it at home. This resulted in several fights with my patriarchal relatives but led to no solution.
I was silenced and the patriarchal culture continued. This frustrated me further. I realised from an early age that gender politics exists everywhere. It is in the very air we breathe. From the microscopic to the macroscopic aspect of daily life in this day and age, gender inequality exists.
My observation continued into my work life. Through my NGO experiences I ventured into places I had never been to: slums, orphanages, child prisons, red light areas, brothels, very low income schools. Attempting to impact social change in these places and meeting the inhabitants who later became friends shaped my perspective and frankly, shook me up.
It made me grotesquely aware of my privilege. I realised how easy I had it in my life in spite of gender disparities. Once I entered the work force, I noticed grave patterns of gender inequality for working women all over the world. I heard, read and witnessed several accounts of sexual harassment at work place where the cases were brushed off as women being “too sensitive.”
In one of India’s leading NGOs that I worked for in Delhi, as part of a prestigious fellowship, one of my friends was sexually assaulted by a manager in the same organisation. We went through the proper channel and reported the case to the higher authorities who promised action. Not only was the manager given a clean chit, my friend was victim blamed, shamed and fired from the fellowship.
I realised that laws exist but are rarely implemented in the direction of gender equality. The Me Too movement in India became the last straw. The said NGO and the fellowship program got under the scanner as many people started reporting several incidents on social media. This NGO then got in touch with my friend and apologised and asked her to kindly keep shut. She asked them if they were ready to offer her any remediation or justice and they refused.
They were only interested in saving their reputation. I was frustrated even more when I noticed several so-called “well educated” and “respectable professionals” in India, mostly men, criticising the Me Too movement calling it a senseless fad and indulging in the ‘Not All Men’ dialogue. I decided it was time to start educating people on gender issues as only through knowledge can this ignorance be eliminated.
Through my social work experience I realised that education can be a solution to social problems. I wondered if it could also solve gender inequality. So, I first explored this idea through my journalistic writings.
In the aftermath of the New Years’ eve-teasing incident in Bangalore in 2017, I wrote an article critiquing the incident. I also presented gender education as a possible solution to patriarchal mindset. This piece was published by Huffington Post India. And I received a lot of appreciation for the idea and I felt encouraged to take action on it.
I realised that I don’t have sound knowledge base of gender studies to develop a curriculum. So when I joined the Young India Fellowship in the same year, I took up courses by leading Indian feminists like Urvashi Butalia and Geetanjali Chanda. These shaped my mind greatly.
Post the one year fellowship I decided it was time to put these ideas into action. I conceptualised a gender education based social enterprise and worked on the gender education modules which I planned to implement in workshop format. Thus, Drishtikona was born on August 18, 2018.
In what ways has patriarchy harmed you while growing up and does it continue to hamper your life today?
My family is deeply patriarchal. I come from a close knit extended family which is very conservative in its thinking. And I was the only “rebel” in the family who believed in social justice. Thus, I was always cast out as the ‘black sheep.’
Even as a kid my relatives constantly judged me on my appearance and my inability to do household chores. Even as a kid, I was taught that women are born for certain roles and should always prioritise their homes lives. I lost several academic and professional opportunities in life due to sexism. But the male members of my family happily enjoyed every experience life had to offer.
For a long time I was put under house arrest by my family for demanding equal rights. I was not allowed to work in the professions of my liking as they involved moving out. And I missed out on education opportunities while people who scored less than me cashed in on their opportunities.
Even today my life is a constant struggle and fight with my family just because I dare to demand equal rights as any other male member in my family. They constantly criticised me and put me under surveillance. I draw inspiration from Maya Angelou’s iconic work “Still I Rise” as I champion the cause of all women and children in my life.
Why is it crucial for girls to be gender educated? What all topics do you touch upon in your workshops?
I can give you a million reasons why girls need to be educated on gender issues. For starters, it directly impacts their lives in the grandest way possible.
From conception to death women’s lives are run over by patriarchy. There never comes a moment in our lives when women aren’t told what to do or how to live by men.
Societal standards for judging women are cruel to say the least. It is very important for girls to learn that gender-based discrimination which they experience all around them is wrong. It is not okay for their parents to expect them to cook and serve food while their brothers enjoy free time and gain the right to yell at them. Young girls need to know that adults support and understand them.
Women are constantly told things like:
“This job is not for girls,” “this profession is good for girls,”“You should only opt for a profession where girls are safe,” “This is not the place for girls.” They are also told, “As a woman you must strive to be a good homemaker. Career should not be your priority,” “Career is not everything for you. You are a girl.” Girls are constantly told that they need to learn to cook and that they would never be the breadwinner in the family.
In such an environment, even dreaming of living a decent life with access to basic rights remains a dream for girls. If we educate them to fight for their dreams and rights then we can bring about a paradigm shift in the tale.
At Drishtikona we work towards eradicating patriarchy, challenging heteronormativity and achieving gender equality through gender education. To achieve this goal I have developed gender education and sensitivity modules which are disseminated in a 10-day workshop format.
The subject matter of the workshop deals with a different issue each day. It was designed based on my discussions with my Professors at YIF, Urvashi Butalia and Geetanjali Chanda.
The workshops begins with how gender roles are presented to us since our childhood in the form of popular stories including ‘Fairy Tales’ moving up to Bollywood movies and song videos.
Next we move to stressing on the need and importance of gender equality, how patriarchy and toxic masculinity are harmful and why feminism is no longer a choice but need of the hour.
Then we share gender based crime statistics and talk about homosexuality, sexual choice of women and gender fluidity. Next we openly discuss the various taboos surrounding women’s bodies such as menstruation and why it is only women’s bodies which are highly politicised. And eventually, we move on to everyday sexism at homes, workplaces, streets and everywhere else.
With this last bit we urge participants to counter their gender bias. And how they allow or participate in casual sexism on a daily basis in terms of how they view or behave with women. It is a rather intense emotional roller coaster as participants and I openly share our encounters with sexism, gender based crimes, sexual violence or discrimination. If it gets too intense and I feel the participant feels the need for additional support, I offer my services as a Counselling Psychologist.
What kind of impact have you been able to create through your workshops in the past?
I launched my social enterprise in August, 2018. Since then we have conducted 50 workshops with 23 schools, one government office and one corporate office and impacted over 5000 people across 20 districts and 5 states in India. The workshops have received raving reviews and 100% positive feedback even with skeptical participants. However, my greatest success stories are about the depth of individual impact.
At the end of one of my workshops, Ravi – a male participant in his 50s gave me a letter. I was very surprised since he was highly skeptical of the workshop and remained passive-aggressive throughout the course of the ten-day session. While handing me the letter he made eye contact with me but said nothing. I noticed he had tears in his eyes.
In his letter he opened up to me about his encounters with sexual harassment and bullying first as a child when it was done to him and later as an adult in his workplace where he saw it happening to others. He realised how toxic masculinity and patriarchy hurts everyone. In that letter, he wrote, “I never expected to tell anyone about this. I had no idea that feminism is for all genders. I feel light today like I never have. Thank you.”
A few days after my workshop in their school, 15 year old Avantika sent me an email. Shy and hesitant to speak up even in person, I was happy to see that Avantika was finally willing to share with me. The email made me tear up as it said, “I have never heard anyone talk about Gender Issues as openly. Although the workshop was initially an uncomfortable experience for me due to its topic and nature, I ended up loving the impact it had on me. I could not get your words out of my mind. As a girl who always felt like a boy and was bullied for that, I have never felt more understood. I wonder why we don’t speak up openly on these topics. I share your dream and wish all schools make Gender Education compulsory.”
This kind of impact, for me, is the greatest achievement. These examples are two of many. Every workshop brings forth unique and interesting stories of group and individual change. These stories motivate me. Individuals like Ravi and Avantika remind me why I do what I do.
She says, “Take inspiration from the lives of women who fought for their rights and achieved their dreams even if it meant fighting with their families and living a difficult life initially and don’t ever let men fool you into making heroes out of men. Choose your sheroes wisely. I wish autonomy, agency, power, motivation and hope to every girl and woman on planet.”
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