I am still on a high from last week where I attended several events associated with Vital Voices’ annual Global Leadership Awards. As a past honouree in 2017, I know the feeling of being supported, appreciated and loved by the network embodying sisterhood.
Alyse Nelson, the President and CEO of Vital Voices shared a remarkable story at one of the luncheons, amidst 37 women leaders and entrepreneurs from 17 countries who were in Washington DC for the main event later that day. According to the Mayans, 21 December 2012 signified the end of the “Great Cycle” of its Long Count calendar that equalled about 5125 years. At the end of each of these Universal Cycles, the Mayans believe that the Universe is destroyed and then recreated.
Alyse informed us that we are now in the era of “feminine energy” and we will see a rise of women across the world. But in the meantime there will be some kind of tension and upheaval and we will face pushback and backlash.
As I reflected on these words, I could not help but think about how this timeline has affected my life. On 16 December, 2012, a young woman Jyoti Singh was gangraped on a bus in Delhi. She was brutally beaten, gangraped multiple times on the moving bus and then the perpetrators inserted metal rods in her body pulling out her intestines. When they were done with her, they threw her out on the street leaving her to die. She ultimately died of her injuries.
The incident was shocking in its brutality. It opened up the conversation of sexual violence in everyday conversation in India. I was determined to do something about it and as an immediate response, ten days later on 26 December launched a crowd map Safecity to document sexual violence in public spaces.
Since then, we have been working tirelessly to educate people — men and women, boys and girls — on the topic, helping them to think through the issue, unconscious bias, modalities of consent, recognising the spectrum of abuse, understanding the law and knowing their rights. We have collected over 12,000 personal stories from different parts of India and around the world. The information has been useful in developing local campaigns and engaging communities and institutions to take a stand in ending sexual violence and making public spaces safe for all.
Through this journey, which I have referred to as magical and spiritual, I have realised a few things…..
“All in good time” is a phrase we have all heard. For a long time prior to December 2012, I wanted to work on women’s rights but I didn’t really know where to start or what aspect to focus on. Over the years, when I have been asked to share my story, I explain it away saying 2012 was a landmark year for me where a lot of things happened and culminated in Safecity. Some of them were — boredom with my job, reaching glass ceiling in Indian aviation, lack of purpose, dissatisfaction with corporate life, financial downturn and closure of Kingfisher Airlines, renewed energy through the Swedish Institute Management Programme and finally the horrific gang rape of Jyoti Singh.
But now I wonder if the Mayan calendar had anything to do with it. It certainly seems that I was ripe and ready for the work ahead of me. I had time, skill and experience to take on the challenge. Despite no prior background in the development sector or the women’s movement, we have been able to make great strides in adding value to the work being done through our innovative use of data and tech.
Power of Networks
In the last six years, I have benefitted from several powerful networks through fellowships and awards won. Some of them are — Vital Voices, Aspen New Voices, Rotary Peace, Yale World Fellows, UNAOC/BMW Responsible Leaders and more. They have given me a voice and built my confidence, amplified, endorsed, collaborated and strengthened my work and helped us scale.
I am surrounded by feminine and feminist energy that is constantly encouraging me to think bigger and bolder and push the boundaries further outwards. This truly is the “Power to Empower “because with each day our work helps us make public spaces safer through awareness workshops, advocacy with policy makers and community engagement campaigns.
Going with the Flow
We started off with a web app Safecity to help women document their individual stories. But since then, we have expanded our work to engage and educate people on the ground. We cannot see our work independent of the onground component though others might think it is important we only focus on tech and data.
We have trained over 20,000 people ranging from 6 to 60 years on recognising, responding and preventing sexual violence. We have engaged over 500,000 citizens, police, elected representatives, municipal and transport authorities to understand sexual violence and adopt policies at the local level that would prevent it.
These have ranged from communities taking a stand to end sexual violence, demanding accountability from educational institutions or their workplaces, increased security and better responses to redressal mechanisms like helplines, investigation committees, etc. We have seen girls returning to school, negotiating with their parents to extend their education and feeling confident in travelling further and accessing public spaces at night.
We have created campaigns and programmes — online and offline — to reach maximum people across the economic spectrum, transcending barriers like location, literacy, language, caste, religion and class so that they can take action and be agents of change. We have inspired others to replicate our programmes, build on our app, collaborate on campaigns and more.
Patience and Passion
Working on a social and development issue requires immense patience and passion. I came in with a corporate mindset, all set for immediate change. Instead, I have been humbled by the immense effort it takes to shift mindsets and behaviour. Small incremental changes is what I now focus on despite the pressure to measure impact at scale. Often, it is hard to measure and difficult to directly attribute but each positive story I hear makes my heart sing.
Without passion for the cause and a personal stake in it, I would have given up a long time ago. Observing others contribute their time and skill is deeply motivating. They are definitely part of my success because there is no way I could do it alone. Whilst I have an aggressive time line of ending violence against women and girls in my lifetime, I have learned to be patient. I can do my best and with the help of my many friends, we can push the envelope everyday.
Six years is not a long time in the scheme of things. But I feel like I have traversed mountains and crossed oceans. I have often said we are in the midst of a revolution — a gender revolution. So maybe the Mayans are right. We are in a feminine era where the energy and passion will be different from earlier years. I look forward to experiencing these changes and contributing to them too. Here’s to a more diverse, inclusive and safer world.