Women power for global change

From fighting patriarchal structures to building schools in Africa, three Indian-immigrant women in their 20s talk about how they are affecting social change outside the country

Published - March 20, 2015 04:58 pm IST

Kirthi Jayakumar

Kirthi Jayakumar

Kirthi Jayakumar, 27

Delta Women

A small village in Nigeria came to Kirthi’s attention when she was volunteering with the United Nations. With no school in their village for nearly 30 years, children walked 25 km a day to reach the nearest one. “They were jumping over potholes and livewires,” she says. She and her team at Delta Women decided to write a blog about the village, and their videos garnered thousands of views. However, they realised going viral wasn’t enough; they wrote to ministries in Nigeria, and got papers for a school sanctioned. Now run by transnational volunteers and a student body of around 30 children, it caught the attention of the White House and was awarded the President’s Volunteer Service Award, by the U.S. Government, in 2012.

Working for causes in a completely different cultural context and set-up requires sensitivity and understanding, says Kirthi. “You can’t approach a different people and their problems with a condescending attitude. We have a dedicated team in Nigeria, which helps us rationalise and understand the ways of the communities we’re working with.” Witnessing injustice and marginalisation on the scale that she does can take its toll. “There’s about 90 per cent disillusionment and 10 per cent inspiration,” she says, “But the trick is to take that negativity and channel it into inspiration.”

Sangeetha Ravichandran, 28

Apna Ghar

Growing up, Sangeetha had many questions about the ways women were treated in India. She was told she talked too much. Now in Chicago, she’s found a way to channel her voice by helping immigrant women who face abuse with her organisation, Apna Ghar. Acting as their programme manager, she helps serve over 500 women from South Asian communities, providing shelter, legal services and counselling. Her experience as an immigrant in the United States gave her what it took to cope with the demands of the job. “I understand the process and the perils of immigration first hand,” she says. “Pressure and stigma are realities that I’ve faced.”

Sangeetha works with victims of sex trafficking, forced marriages, as well as emotional, physical and sexual abuse. “It takes a lot of courage and hope,” she says. “The highs and lows are intense, so you have to believe in what you do and why you do it. At the end of the day, the work I do has been life-changing.” With the world more connected than ever, she is confident that it’s more important than ever to make a stand. “Social media has recently proved its potential to cause huge waves in the micro and macro levels of change making,” she says, “I’d urge everyone to get involved in social justice, especially the youth. Young people are the best shot we have at changing the world.”

Sanjana Vijayann, 20

Live Below the Line

When Sanjana decided to look for internships in her sophomore year at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, she stumbled across something a little different. She discovered Live Below the Line, a global campaign across six countries that challenged participants to feed themselves on less than USD 1.75 a day, or its equivalent. (In India, this would be about Rs. 100.) Her inspiration to take up the cause against poverty was immediate. “Being raised in India, this is a deeply personal cause,” she says, “Chennai introduced me to activism and made me recognise issues like wealth disparity and difficulties in getting health insurance.”

Living outside of India doesn’t change the impact she believes she can have. She’s also firm that being Indian doesn’t mean limiting herself to issues only within the country. “Poverty is a global issue, irrespective of where you are.” she says. “What matters is how you can change a life.” Living below the line of extreme poverty is an act of sheer will and exhaustion, but looking back on it, she says, “It’s made me grow in my empathy, made me think critically, and most importantly, it’s taught me to put another person before myself.”

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