CHAT Ekta Founder-Director Bimla Chandrasekar talks about her struggle to empower women and banish stereotypes
Bimla Chandrasekar's life experiences as a child raised in a conservative family in Orissa makes her fight for other women. "I was fond of my periamma (paternal aunt) but saw her being mistreated as a young widow by my family members. Anger came from this," she says.
Her grandmother was too rigid and imposed restrictions on her aunt. “Everybody wanted to control her,” recalls Bimla. Her aunt had her head tonsured, wore coarse saris, did not mingle with anybody and suffered in silence. "Yet whatever she did," says Bimla, "was eyed with suspicion."
Young Bimla did not understand what was happening but her mind always wondered why it was happening. This influenced her thinking and motivated her to find out whether it was only her family's problem or a common problem. And till date it motivates her to work directly with women. She established "Ekta’ , a centre for counselling and training women and youth in Madurai, because she believes the key to development is unity and the ability to work closely brings about growth.
Bimla describes herself as women's right defender whose work is "to help women, make as many of them count and change the lives of a few."
Had it not been for the 1977 super cyclone in Andhra Pradesh, Bimla Chandrasekar would not have come this far in her journey. As a student volunteer at the affected sites, she met development consultants from Oxfam who motivated her to explore beyond the realms of her home town.
Eager to free herself from the shackles of brahminical upbringing, she was naturally motivated in social service and arrived in Bangalore for a development training programme in 1980. Working under John Stanley, the then director of SEARCH, became her life changing experience. "He gave me conceptual clarity. I researched on poverty and travelled to villages and slums interviewing people."
From there, when she came to Anbagam Special School in Madurai to work with mentally challenged children, little did she know that the Temple Town would become her permanent home. She met her life partner K.Chandrasekar, a development professional.
For a person like her, sitting at home was out of question since she viewed public domain as her concern and got perturbed by women who didn't think so. She wanted to learn and participate in capacity building opportunities. As a young mother, she had to work hard to achieve what she wanted.
Bimla hit a new learning curve when she completed a Junior Research Fellowhip programme at University of Tanjore and joined the TamilNadu Theological Seminary in Madurai. "I worked in 11 slums with the most vulnerable group in the world -- the women, who talked to me about their day-to-day economics and I taught them about health, sanitation, hygiene, nutrition and education. ".
A brief stint with ASSEFA (Association for Sarva Seva Farms) where she started a rural school educationl programme exposed her to caste dynamics and the marginalisation of women and children. "For instance, sexual and reproductive health and rights issues are largely a taboo subject in many rural settings, yet it holds the key to advancement of the gender agenda,” she explains.
Following a training at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, U.K., Bimla returned convinced that people can be made to change and influence their own lives. It got her thinking how to create space for women. "I wanted to strengthen the women's knowledge base. Why should she be always lost in the kitchen or in her domestic sphere? Why should she be passive watcher and receiver of male mandated decisions? Why should a woman be sent to her mother's home for delivery? Isn't the child an equal responsibility of the husband?
"Every issue," says Bimla, "can be related to gender." She notes that everybody is born with some power and it is taken from them because of societal norm, experiences, family or social circumstances, laws and government policies. "There is a need to discuss ‘re-powerment’", she says, "in order to help women to regain their voices and get their due.
During the time when women's rights were seen as anti-women, she registered Ekta in 1990 to open the knowledge thirst for women and give them a choice and a voice to elevate their role in development. She broke down several barriers and engaged more women in the debate on critical public and domestic issues like poverty and politics, economy and education, health and social disparities, discrimination and development.
She helped to develop their managerial, communication and counselling skills to be used in the future for progress. For example, if a woman had to file a complaint at the police station, she was explained how to do so because it is not as easy as one thinks, especially if you are a woman, she says.
Education is another field where Ekta wielded influence. "Of all the agents of change that empower women – education is the most important. It is a game-changer, an equalizer," says Bimla. Ekta organises programmes in direct contact with students called the Life Education Programme. Women need their space for private talks and discussions about personal matters and Ekta introduced the Study Circle to enable, students, mothers and homemakers from different backgrounds discuss the reproductive system or HIV. Another programme called Student for Change where both sexes participate in active debates about contemporary issues such as globalisation and where they are given information to form their own gender analysis in social affairs.
From being labelled femi-nazis and accused of spoiling the fabric of society, Bimla says she sees significant differences in the youth who take part in these programmes. She meets many of them after years who tell her how their lives have changed. With humanism as her sole guiding force, Bimla's role is essentially that of an enabler for building the capacity of women to be strong and assertive.
Her goal, however, she says, is not to bring about a radical change in the society. "If we collectively focus on a new role for women as decision makers, it would be easy to sensitise people about discrimination against women on the basis of gender, caste and religion."
She is also of the opinion that much of today's crime against women can be checked if women themselves are determined not to succumb to stereotypes and if men are trained to accept women's empowerment.
Ekta has evolved five processes to move towards its vision. It is by building the political consciousness of women; helping them to respect and care for their health; making them aware of legal procedures and their right to access and avail of legal protection; challenging stereotypical representations of women in mainstream media; and microcredit as new economic empowerment.
Touched by women’s natural strength, courage and resilience, Bimla says she gets closer to her goal only when more women make their own decisions.” The nature of women's issues has changed today. "We have failed to foster better understanding between men and women due to unequal participation and lack of perspective."
"But", she adds, "lasting social change is possible only if begun early."
Of all the agents of change that empower women – education is the most important. It is a game-changer, an equalizer