Following the Nirbhaya incident in 2012, many initiatives aimed at women’s safety were born. Sandhiyan Thilagavathy started one in 2013, and promoted it through a Facebook page.
He adopted an approach that contrasted sharply with those of many others. Rather than focusing on cases of rape, where bystanders stayed bystanders and failed to act in a socially responsible manner, he posted on his Facebook page stories of how this atrocity was prevented with the timely intervention of passersby.
“I wanted to tell positive stories about women safety, especially those in which male bystanders went to the rescue of women victims,” explains Sandhiyan, who is 26-years-old.
He felt that if we wanted more people to respond positively to a cry of help, these stories would have to be told.
Though women’s safety was the spark that ignited the initiative, Sandhiyan made his Facebook page quite broad-based in its focus, calling it AWARE (Awareness for Wo+Men to Advocate their Rights and Equality), in 2013.
He did so, because he felt gender inequality was at the root of most gender-related atrocities.
As he took up this form of social service, Sandhiyan made a significant career move. From an IT role, he switched to the role of a Corporate Social Responsibility consultant at Tata Consultancy, facilitating volunteering initiatives for his company associates and liaising with various NGOs that are looking for volunteers.
Through his Facebook page, he was hosting in-depth discussions on gender equality, women’s empowerment and safety with netizens.
One of their most successful online campaigns was Assure Our Girls’ Future.
“In a 15-week time period, we covered 15 issues faced by girls, including female foeticide, female infanticide, child labour, child marriage, child abuse and personal safety. Volunteers helped us spread awareness about these on social media platforms,” he says.
Two years and a half later, as the online campaign gained traction, Sandhiyan decided to take his initiatives offline. ChildlineSeDosti, Menstruation Open Walk, Child Safety Education and Creating Child Inclusive Spaces were some of the campaigns the team carried out across the city. Sandhiyan and his team of volunteers (of AWARE) decided to work with geographically-defined groups where some of these issues have been noticed.
The team landed at Nochikuppam slum, where child marriage and abuse were said to be rampant. However, before they could kickstart their campaign, they learned that many in the community were shifted to a slum clearance housing board in Chemmenchery. The team followed them there.
However, here’s the rub. “With many infrastructure-related issues to grapple with, child and women empowerment programmes were not the primary concern of these residents. It was close to impossible that they would take these initiatives on a positive note,” he recollects.
The team carried out a five-week awareness campaign on child rights at the colony. While some responded, many dwellers gave them the cold shoulder. “The lack of awareness about child rights partly explained why girls were married off at an early age and boys took to work at a young age,” he says.
As residents were not listening to them, Sandhiyan decided to focus on establishing a rapport with them. They created a holistic community development programme with education central to it.
Many of the women in the community work as helpers and housekeeping staff in companies and gated communities along the OMR stretch. The group taught them spoken English.
His next move was empowering the children. They first identified the education status in Chemmenchery. “We were surprised to find that students between class III and VIII could not even read the material meant for Class II,” notes Sandhiyan.
He quickly deployed a team of volunteers from TCS to conduct tuitions for these children, at the streets. Later, they identified a few learning centres where the classes could be conducted. Many of these centres were however destroyed in the December 2015 floods. He did not give up, yet again.
“My team renovated five learning centres. From sanitation to flooring and furniture, we equipped these centres with basic amenities. The walls were given child-friendly illustrations. We will start working on seven more such centres between January and March 2017,” he says.
A four-year commitment
Team AWARE has now adopted the community and also chalked out a comprehensive, four-year plan, especially for the women and children there, taking inspiration from A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s Vision 2020.
“In 2017 and 2019, we will ramp up our efforts to make Chemmenchery child-friendly and women-friendly respectively; in 2018, we plan to empower all the girl children with education; and in 2020, we will wrap up all our projects, ensuring the changes we introduced are part of the workaday life at the community,” he says.
“We want to make Chemmenchery the first model community in India, and thereby inspire others to focus on such communities and help them get on their feet.”
Taking inspiration from men
“I have been inspired by many men around me who respect women and work for their rights. A few stories on social media, too, helped me understand how men can — and some of them, do — help the cause of women. Besides, I noted that there are not many women volunteers spearheading gender-related initiatives. The probably don’t get the opportunities to do so. Therefore, I to give women a platform to come forward and be the voice for other women and children too,” he says.
Ask Sandhiyan what has been his greatest strength and he says, “My team of volunteers. We have volunteers from TCS, other corporates, colleges and even from Ambattur and Ennore.”