Thursday, February 23, 2017

Lessons from the Women’s March at Sambhali Trust

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” - Audre Lorde

The Women’s March took place on January 21st, 2017. It was meant to take place solely in Washington D.C. with an expected turnout of 200,000 protestors. Instead there were solidarity marches around the world with 22% of attendees being men. An estimated 5,000,000 people stood up for women’s rights at over 700 demonstrations worldwide. It was the largest singular day protest in the history of mankind. In India people held organized marches in New Delhi and Kolkata.

In order to share this news with the women and girl beneficiaries I created a workshop that I presented in each of the Jodhpur projects. I wanted to provide the platform for an open discussion about why this was happening and brainstorm as a group how we can each contribute to the global gender equality movement. It was important that they knew that millions of people around the world were standing up for their problems. I created a workshop to introduce them to the Women’s March, engage in discussion, and create their own empowerment signs with mantras to remember in moments where they feel unempowered.

After presenting the information about the Women’s March to the participants of each workshop I asked them to give me reasons why so many people stood up for women on one singular day. Although they didn’t know it yet, their answers were universal. Girls’ education, gender equality and ending gender violence were always the initial responses during the discussion. As I prompted them to think of more reasons we began to discuss sexual assault and harassment, access to health care, the gender wage gap and employment opportunities. I explained to them that all of these issues are universal for all women regardless of race, ethnicity, location, caste, creed or class. We discussed that it is likely that every female on this planet has been made to feel small at some point because of her gender. They began to understand that this movement is for every mother, sister, wife, daughter, friend and even the billions of women we will never meet. They believe that women are capable of anything men can do. They want to see women in leadership roles, as engineers, politicians, judges, doctors and lawyers.

According to Sambhali Trust’s partner Girls not Brides, every year 15 million girls are married before the age of 18 around the world. The American Peace Corps Let Girls Learn program promotes that globally there are more than 62 million girls denied an education. The United Nations reports that more than 250,000 rape cases are reported annually.

I asked the workshop participants to think of issues that were relevant to Indian women. They spoke about their lack of freedom, their husband's and father’s control over their lives and extreme situations such as dowry murder, kidnapping and widow burning. They didn’t think these issues affected women outside of India. Almost 100 women are raped daily in India, and nearly 79% of women are victims of marital rape. Now they can see that their problems are similar to one those a woman might face in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Kenya, Syria and even in the western world. Globally women and the men who support them are saying that we’ve had enough, we are demanding change in the universal attitude degrading and itemizing women.

Across the board each group answered that gender equality was the main reason why the protest took place. I asked them to explain what gender equality meant to them. They described equality as protecting women’s rights. They demanded that they simply want to have the same opportunities as men. They stated that women have to have self respect and be brave. They risk being beaten up or divorced by their husbands for speaking out against the injustices they face or teaching their children to view the female gender as equal. They are not allowed to go out and socialize at night. Girls are taken out of school so that boys can continue their education. These women want that stigma to end. They want every child to have an equal education. They understand that being a feminist simply means demanding equality, not to be better than our male counterparts, but just to be equal. We want the same opportunities that men have. We are capable.  We want to be able to do anything a man is allowed to do.

When I asked the groups of young women and girls why they felt that these problems exist globally they unanimously stated that they believe the root cause is men’s outdated and harmful mentality towards women. They understood that their government has made strides to protect women and girls yet the population widely ignores these laws. Next, I asked them if men and women are equal in India. I obviously received a loud resounding no. When I asked why it was this way they resorted back to the initial answer to why women face injustice globally the response was men’s mentality.  In India particular they believe the patriarchal society is to blame. I asked them if they wanted to be equal. A firm yes was proclaimed across all centers. It was clear that these women felt the weight of their daily injustices and were ready to join their voices with the 5 million others that are advocating for women around the globe.

The next part of the workshop was to brainstorm ideas on how we can overcome and prosper as women in this unhealthy social and political environment. Their key solution is education, for girls through staying in school, and for men through exposure and understanding of the hardships women face. I tried to inspire them to make changes in their own families through the way they teach their children about equality, as I believe a paradigm shift is only possible through youth being raised in an environment where they see all humans as equal.  

The Trust's female beneficiaries are already key fighters in the global movement for women. Each day that they attend the charity’s projects is another step closer to equality in their own lives. They have received permission from their husbands or fathers to continue their education in an untraditional way by participating in the charity program. They are learning basic English and Math as well as valuable vocational skills. They come to a safe place where they can discuss the issues they face with a community that understands and embraces them. Sambhali Trust has provided these women a platform for their voice. It never ceases to amaze me how much joy these women radiate when they are in the centers,despite the hardships they face outside of these walls. They are already warriors for gender justice. They are paving a safer way for their daughters and granddaughters.

I asked the women to explain how they feel when they are at their various projects operated by the grassroots charity. They tell me that when they are at Sambhali Trust they feel important, powerful and capable. Inside the safety of these projects they are fully empowered women. I wanted to know what happened when they left. Most laughed and said when they leave the sense of self leaves too. They leave and they feel small, unequal and less important than their male peers. They do not feel empowered when they are harassed as they walk down the street, buy produce in the markets, or return home to husbands that question their whereabouts and deny them their freedom.  I learned that once they are married they feel even less equal than they did as young single women. Most said their husbands don’t truly believe in equality. They will allow them to attend Sambhali Trust but they are not allowed to work.They giggle when I ask them how we can change their husband’s point of view as if the idea is so ridiculous, foreign and impossible. 89% of marriages in India are arranged. This may be one of the root causes for violence towards women in India. There is a massive amount of love missing from most unions and families. This environment breeds anger, resentment and violence.

I wanted to leave them with the tools to remember how capable and significant they are in these dark moments of injustice. I read them empowerment sayings and they chanted them back in return. I inquired how these words made them feel but it was an unnecessary question. The energy in the room was palpable and their faces showed exactly how empowered they were feeling in that moment. In order to ensure they remembered these mantras we ended the workshop with an activity in which each of the women made their own signs, copying the phrases I had taught them or writing directly from their hearts. This activity was meant to help them embody the feeling of strength when they are put down and made to feel small and weak, to remember that 5 million people are standing behind them in those painful moments. We concluded the workshop with photo shoots at each center to capture the moment and feeling forever. The signs are now plastered on the walls of the empowerment centers. Some women chose to take their signs home as a little reminder of the strong capable women that they are.

March 8th is International Women’s Day. To celebrate we want to share with you the powerful signs and images that were captured during the workshop. If you follow @SambhaliTrust Instagram you’ve already seen a few of the women’s portraits as we are sharing one every day of the month. Thank you to all my fellow amazing volunteers for capturing these moments and letting me do this presentation at the projects where you teach. Readers, I invite all of you to share these images tomorrow to support Sambhali Trust and the work we are doing towards empowering underserved women in the communities of Rajasthan, India. No woman is free until all women are free.

Sisters for Sisters Empowerment Center

Brothers for Sisters Empowerment Center

Jodhpur Empowerment Center

Shakti Empowerment Center

Ladli Empowerment Center

Girls’ Boarding House

Abhivyakti Empowerment Center

Here I am holding a sign that reads Nari Shakti which translates to Women's Strength in Hindi. This is the chant the female beneficiaries shout to great their female role models. I wanted to make a sign in their native language in solidarity."


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