“In class VIII, I read Anne Frank’s Diary. The first thing I thought was, ‘How could the whole world let this happen?’ More reading, and many years of research, made me see sense in the nuanced dimensions of international politics, international relations, human rights and humanitarian work. Since then, I’ve been hooked,” says 27-year-old Kirthi Jayakumar.
The Chennai-based activist, writer, researcher and artist was nominated anonymously and selected to be part of Michelle Obama’s United State of Women summit held on June 14 at Washington D.C. The summit focuses on economic empowerment, health and wellness, educational opportunities, violence against women, entrepreneurship and innovation, leadership and civic engagement. Meryl Streep, Tina Fey and Oprah Winfrey are some of its key participants. Although she was invited to be at the summit, due to the short notice, she participated via video-conferencing.
Her post, ‘When will change happen?’ has also been featured on the official blog post of the summit. “All the nominees were welcomed to submit blog posts, of which a select few were published. I’m still amazed that mine made it,” she says with a smile.
Her mother is an alternative healer and fitness instructor. Both her father and brother are lawyers, and she herself has studied at the School of Excellence in Law, Chennai. She has also studied peace and conflict and gender studies at the University for Peace, Costa Rica. Kirthi says, “In college, I wrote papers around different issues centred around humanitarian law and human rights law, but I realised that the grassroot was where the key impact of any legislation, policy and its violations are felt. That took me closer to peace and conflict studies.”
So, how does something like United State of Women help women around the world? Kirthi explains, “There’s a lot that’s been done by and for women and girls, but there’s still plenty to do. Convened by the White House, this Summit will rally all of us together to celebrate what we’ve achieved, and how we’re going to take action moving forward. Covering key gender equality issues, we’ll make a powerful difference in our collective future.”
Kirthi has worked with an NGO called Delta Women, where they worked to open the first school in 30 years in a village in Nigeria. The success of that project won her the U.S. Presidential Services Medal, a U.N. Online Volunteer of the Year Award, and a Blue Room Talk opportunity before the UNV Partnerships Forum in Bonn in 2014, where she spoke to some of the world’s key policy makers and leaders.
Apart from that, she has her own NGO, The Red Elephant Foundation, which works around storytelling for civilian peace building and gender equality. “Through this, I’ve told stories of survivors of conflict rape in Congo, the Gaddafi regime in Libya, chemical attack survivors in Syria, Yazidi women who have escaped the ISIS, displaced Kashmiri Pandits, Afghan refugees and change makers the world over,” she says.
Kirthi sums up her work, saying, “One of the more important things in the big picture in any activist’s attempt is that if we want change, we must collaborate, and not compete. It’s not about how many people follow my initiative or subscribe to my ideas versus yours; it is about how much we can do together and how effectively we can make change happen. I get to network with a brilliant bunch of women through the global community, and learn from them, while also sharing what I’ve learned so far in my journey. Together, the combined energy is capable of creating sustainable change. That’s just what I hope to be able to give back to this.”