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REPORT - A Creative Consultation on 'Unified Voice for Gender Equality'

9th December, 2014, IIC, New Delhi


Organized by: Stree Shakti - The Parallel Force (New Delhi) supported by UNDP and IIC
Venue: Martin Luther King Plaza, India International Centre, New Delhi
Time: 3.30 pm to 6.00 pm
CONCEPT
Any development agenda must prioritise gender equality and women’s empowerment primarily because of the pervasive injustice faced by women across economic, social and political spheres. Each woman faces discrimination in diffident ways. Whether it is depriving a girl child education or domestic violence against women, there is often a silence barrier that prevents women and society to raise a voice against such practices. One way to break the silence barrier is to use the creative fields to educate society and to directly empower women to speak up against discrimination.

Keeping in mind this possibility, Stree Shakti - The Parallel Force organized a one day creative consultation on "Unified Voices for Gender Equality" on the 9th of December, 2014. This consultative meeting was held in the India International Centre, New Delhi bringing together a panel of eminent professionals who have inspired women to break free from the barriers of societal norms and find their potential through creative ways.

OBJECTIVE
The objective of the consultation was to bring together distinguished people from the creative fields to share and discuss their knowledge on issues of women empowerment. It aimed to inspire women and society at large to use this creative knowledge to promote gender equality.

PANELISTS & PARTICIPANTS
The consultation brought together distinguished panelists from diverse fields- Dr. A.K. Merchant, Chitra Mudgal, Dr. Indu Prakash Singh, Kothapalli Geetha, Preeti Malhotra, Sangeeta Thapa andT.K. Rajalakshmi. A brief on the panelists is attached as Annexure 1.

The consultation had a participation of about 60 people ranging from teachers, academics, social activities, NGO personnel and government officials. The consultation was moderated by Rekha Mody and coordinated by Sulagna Choudhuri.

MAIN HIGHLIGHTS

The consultation got together eight panellists from diverse fields who spoke on various issues and concerns of gender equality and empowerment.
The concept of shakti (power) was referred to while describing the power and potential of women. Shakti is a old concept in Indian culture which refers to the goddess; however if seen in real life it actually means the wisdom and knowledge that women have which if harnessed well can result in a perfect balance in society.
Dr. Indu Prakash Singh referring to the plight of the homeless women in India said that we need to be the change agents and raise our voices against the injustice that the administration is perpetrating on these women.
Sangeeta Thapa from Nepal referred to art as a medium of education on gender equality. She mentioned that through art common people can be made aware of the disparity that exists in our society and no matter what profession one comes from can join in to make this world a better place.
Chitra Mudgal referred to the various rape cases that is happening around India and said that till the time men don’t stop seeing women as just a body without brains this form of violence is never going to cease. Women need to ascertain their power and believe that their beauty is internal. Once women start raising their voice and showing their potential; men would automatically see the brains behind the beauty.
Rekha Mody, President Stree Shakti-The Parallel Force raised two very pertinent issues: firstly the word ‘widow’ should be removed from all government schemes and policies. It is a discriminatory word and does not consider single and abandoned women. Secondly, women above the age of 70 should be given a freedom pass to travel on busses and this could be implemented when India turns 70 in the next two years. When restricted to the boundaries of home elderly women become depressive and alone. It is important that these women be given their right to travel and be a part of normal active life.
Member of Parliament Kothapalli Geetha mentioned that she would raise the two issues made by Ms Mody in the parliament as she believes in both the causes. She said that the word ‘widow’ compounds the problems of these ladies as it segregates them even more and society starts seeing them differently.


PROCEEDINGS
The consultation started with a welcome note delivered by Sulagna Choudhuri welcoming the participants and the panellists. Rekha Mody then asked the panellists to come to the dais and briefly mentioned about the program.

1. The first panellist Dr. A.K. Merchant was introduced and requested to come to the podium. He started his speech by briefly mentioning about the Beijing Convention and the Post 4th World Women Summit and how at all these forums, equality of women has been prioritized. He then went on to talk about the concept of shakti (power) and how it is crucial in society. In today’s world, power is more of a struggle than balance and hence there arises oppression and injustice. Both men and women have their own shakti and the use of this can bring about development. If there is negligence of one’s power while the other’s is prioritized, it leads to imbalance. Hence gender equality should be seen as how each one’s power- both men and women- can be utilized and harnessed. Also empowerment does not mean charity. Empowerment is when one innovatively uses one’s power to create a positive situation for themselves and for others.

2. Dr. Indu Prakash was then called upon as the next panelist to share his experiences. He started by saying that Stree Shakti should not add parallel force in its name it should be the shakti in itself, the only shakti. He then went on to discuss about how in colleges at his time gender was not considered as a subject even in courses related to social mobility, social discrimination and social justice. He had become a part of the struggle for women rights since very early and has now concentrating work on the struggle for homeless; most of whom are also women. He shared that these homeless women are most susceptible to violence and there are no laws that can protect them.
He added that "when we started the work in 2000 with the CityMakers (homeless residents) even the short stay home run by women’s organisations was not open to provide shelter to the homeless women. Nobody seems to be bothered about the homeless. Homeless women face assault, rape, etc day in and day out but our administration is not bothered about it. We need to bring in change first in ourselves". He urged the participants to raise their voices against this injustice and urged the government to take note of the basic human rights of these women.

3. The next speaker was T.K. Rajalakshmi who is a journalist by profession and is the deputy editor of Frontline magazine. She started off by saying that women don’t need to be worshipped as shakti (goddess) but this shakti needs to be recognized as real and treated with respect. She then mentioned that for any development process, women should be equal partners. However a lot of groundwork is required- there needs to be policies, assured rights and laws that will govern the implementation of these. The trajectory of development leaves behind gaps in the society and mostly women are the ones who get left behind. She questioned the government whether they want to address these issues.

4. Sangeeta Thapa was the next speaker who is the Founder and Director of the Siddhartha Art Gallery in Nepal. She started off on personal note mentioning that even though she was married to an emancipated family she had to face a lot of discrimination when she had her girl child. This urged her to rethink the position of women in Nepal and how difficult it must be for them to live in a patriarchal society especially in poor and downtrodden families. In 1997 Nepal saw a big political movement where women joined the streets and by 2009 the king was overthrown; a new constitution was written and 33 per cent reservation was declared for women in parliament. This inspired her and she started her mission of bringing about change through art. She organized 'Separating myth from reality' where 25 countries participated and displayed art which represented women in different ways.
The positive response to the event encouraged her to raise awareness through art and hence she decided to display art in public spaces in vernacular languages with socio-political messages for local people. She now believes in education through art and is on this mission of organizing various workshops across the world to raise awareness through art. She ended the discussion saying "empowerment can only be brought about through education, which does not mean only reading and writing. It means providing women economic independence each one in our own professions can bring about a change".

5. Preeti Malhotra is Executive Director of Smart Ventures Limited the holding Company for the global mobility business of Spice Global, a diversified conglomerate, headquartered at Singapore. Preeti was representing the Global Citizen Forum at the consultation. She is active in the field of corporate governance and has worked towards incorporating gender in the corporate profile. Preeti started her discussion talking about how the corporate world is now becoming more and more gender sensitive; however there is still a long way to go. She referred to the Assocham initiative which she was affiliated to which intends to offer training on various aspects of corporate governance to women members and equip them to take up leadership role. The industrial body expects to train about 3,000 women over the next three years.
She mentioned that today there is no dearth of women in different professions and more women should join the ranks of leadership roles. She felt that women succumb to personal pressures and give up their careers - especially when they get married and have to move or when they become mothers. She urged women of today’s world to wake up to the reality that if they do not become self-sufficient and economically independent they would never be treated with respect and dignity. Especially in old age women lose control of their lives and become extremely dependent on their families. If women start becoming engaged in public life at an early stage they wouldn’t have to face such critical junctures at a later age. She mentioned that education is very important to inculcate such values in women and teachers play a vital role in this process. Towards the end of her speech she said that "if women are economically independent they will have more mental peace". Referring to the Global Citizen Forum and its work, she mentioned that the Forum has a constitution that allows 50 per cent women participation.

6. Kothapalli Geetha was one of the esteemed guests of the event and she joined the consultation for a short while but left behind very powerful messages. She is a Member of Parliament from Araku (Lok Sabha constituency), Andhra Pradesh. She started of her speech by mentioning that at this presently there are 61 women in the parliament hence we have not achieved the 33 percent women reservation mark yet. She believes that women are the creator of the universe and a representation of power. However women themselves sometime suppress their inner feelings and are not able to recognize their strengths. She urged each woman to stand up for their rights and speak up against discrimination.
She mentioned that disparity lies in the family when the mother is not able to recognize the strengths of her children; that a girl and a boy are able to do similar things. Disparity is fostered in schools when girls are sent to only girls’ schools and not a co-education school. This compounds the gender imbalance in society. Lastly she added "don’t protect your girls so much so that they forget to protect themselves". Hence one needs to recognize one’s strengths and also pass it on to their children so that the next generation does not live in an unequal society.

7. The last speaker was Chitra Mudgal who is a novelist. She spoke about representation of women in our society. She referred to all the rape cases and violence against women that we keep hearing about in media and said that what is wrong in our society is that we see women as an object and not as a subject. Men only view women endowed with a body and forgets that she also has brains. She also referred to the shakti that is there in both men and women and a balance of both is important for the growth of society. Till the time women are only viewed for pleasure the world will not be peaceful and men themselves would suffer without a proper balance of nature. She requested women not to be flattered when they are complimented for looking beautiful and ended on the note that we are all beautiful in our own ways and we ourselves have to recognize that, we do not need men to ascertain whether we have that beauty in us or not.

8. Rekha Mody concluded the session by thanking all the panelists and the participants for making the consultation as success. She spoke of how Stree Shakti had started its journey working for women empowerment in very small ways and how the issue drove them to seek a real change in society. She made two very pertinent points and asked the MP Ms. Geetha to raise them in Parliament. Firstly, that the word widow should be removed since the word has a stigma attached to it and it is discriminating for women who do not want to live a life of abandonment. The word also discounts single and abandoned women who are not accounted for in any policy or scheme since they are not widows. Secondly, she requested that since India is going to complete its 70 years of independence, the government should make travel free for 70 plus women. This is because a lot of women who have reached that age do not venture out because they feel that even that much money could be saved if they stay home; but this increases their loneliness and depression as they are not able to participate in normal daily activities. She concluded the session by thanking UNDP, India for its support and the India International Centre for sponsoring the venue. She ended by requesting everyone to speak up for the issue and break the silence barrier because it is us who can make a difference.

Annexure 1: About Our Panelists
Dr. A.K. Merchant is the General Secretary of the Temple of Understanding—India; an NGO with consultative status at the United Nations. Dr Merchant is an active promoter of gender equality and has spoken on the subject on various national and international events. He also represents the issue of equality of men and women on behalf of the Baha'i Community.

Preeti Malhotra has been an active player in various social development platforms. She is the promoter of the Global Citizen Forum that is committed to the cause of building a better planet based on the principles of interconnectedness, collaboration and unity.

Chitra Mudgal is a highly respected novelist and has over 37 publications to her credit. Some of her important works in Hindi include Zahar Thehra Hua (1980), Lakshagraha (1982) and Apni Vaapsi (1983). She is a trained Bharatnatyam dancer. She has spent most of her youth working with the weaker sections of society. Chitra Mudgal is the first woman writer to receive the prestigious ‘Vyas Samman’ for her book Aawaan in the year 2003.

Dr. Indu Prakash Singh is a human rights defender, poet, author, a feminist and a PRA practitioner and is also currently the Executive Committee Member of Shahri Adhikar Manch: Begharon Ke Saath and National Convenor, National Forum for Housing Rights (NFHR).

Kothapalli Geetha is an Indian politician and a Member of Parliament from Aruku (Lok Sabha Constituency), Andhra Pradesh. She won the Indian general election, 2014 being a Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party candidate. She is a promoter of gender equality and has throughout her political career supported the cause of women issues and rights.

Sangeeta Thapa is from Nepal and is the Founder and Director of the Siddhartha Art Gallery in Kathmandu. Since the last two decades she has been actively involved in the promotion of contemporary art work in Nepal. Ms Thapa organizes community art projects and workshops with students promoting gender equality. She has won awards such as the ‘Navadevi’ Award 2006 and the Best Gallery of the Year Award 2005.

T.K. Rajalakshmi is the Deputy Director of Frontline and has written on various issues of gender, specifically, she has written on women garment workers, declining sex ratio, violence against women and children as well as basic health care issues for women. She is associated with the Indian Women's Press Corps and the Delhi Union of Journalists.

 
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