Fierce, yet gentle. That’s agua , or water, in Spanish. “Water takes the shape of whatever container it finds. It’s a force of nature, just like women,” says Subha Pandian, who started Agua, a women’s collective in Chennai in 2012. Over 400 women from all sections of society, between the ages of 25 and 73 and across professions, call Agua, a sisterhood.
Agua members meet regularly over events related to self-love, poetry and so on. “Chennai is a place of tremendous empathy so we can actually do a lot with the resources we have,” says Pandian. A single mother since her early 20s, Pandian says juggling a demanding corporate career, while raising a child, has given her a different appreciation for women.
A Six Sigma Master Blackbelt certified training professional, Pandian’s career in the corporate space opened her up to the Joy of Giving month, that served as an inspiration to Agua’s toy drive — Gifting Smiles. “In 2019, we bought over 3000 gifts with the ₹60,000 we collected. Little ones in the Royapuram slum colony received the gifts, and we also sent six gift boxes to the Kalpakkam fishermen community,” explains Pandian. Feeding Souls is another initiative, started by Subha and her daughter Subiksha, that has members cooking food and feeding stray dogs in their neighbourhoods. It is conducted on a monthly basis on OMR.
The collective also supports survivors of domestic abuse. “I was spiralling down a labyrinth when I suffered third-degree burns on 50% of my body at the age of 22. At Agua, we share our poetry and pain with each other and pitch in whenever anyone needs help,” says Shrinanda Sengupta, a member of the core team.
Agua has a number of subsets. For instance, Agua Professionals seeks to bring leadership programmes to professionals in the group, and gives first-time entrepreneurs a space to talk about their business, while Agua Next Gen, goes to colleges, for seminars on self-confidence. Agua Campus to Corporate, takes the same programme to tier 2 and tier 3 cities within Tamil Nadu. Agua Cause takes up social problems and engages in pro bono work in the community — contributing to local food banks, environmental cleanup initiatives or helping local women stand on their feet.
- During emergency, pressing the SOS button on the home page of Kavalan SOS app will automatically send the current location of the person in trouble along with a video to the Kavalan team. Within a minute, the team will contact the person. Simultaneously, the location will be sent to pre-registered emergency contacts as SMS alerts. Staff in the control room, which is manned by a private firm, receive a message and pass it on to police officers. The police locate the nearest patrol vehicle, police officer or police station to reach out to the victim. The call centre staff also alert close relatives or family members if numbers are available.
Subha explains, “We rented a small space in Semmencheri in 2013, where we identified women from lower-income groups and helped them start small businesses by buying them sewing machines and wet grinders. We help put their children through college, if they evince an interest and their grades are consistent.” Women’s safety is also an important ping on Agua’s radar. They also promote conversations about consent and abuse, especially among young adults. “We formed small focus groups and worked with mental health professionals to curate content for a session at Standard Chartered,” says Pandian.
Pandian also promotes the Mahila Police Volunteer programme, a pilot programme by Tamil Nadu police, set up in Chennai and Salem, to form a network of female volunteers in each zone. Their mandate is to report incidences of violence faced by women in private and public spaces. In March, the collective will conduct a session on women’s safety, wherein the Kavalan SOS police app will be a focal point, and a krav maga workshop will enlist self-defence techniques.