“There has been a women’s movement for everything, except in politics. A citizen’s movement is needed. The people who are already in power will not change the status quo,” says Tara Krishnaswamy, a political activist, as she discusses the under-representation of women in public spaces. Clap emojis fill up the computer screen, and messages in the chat box fly by as India’s youth engages with one out of many hard-hitting truths at DURGA India’s NGAGE forum.
This is how DURGA India wants to bring the concept of gender equity on the table, to widen the discussion on gender, its limitations and representation in society. But first let’s back up. There seems to be no dictionary definition for gender equity, even though it is a concept that is becoming widely accepted. So, let’s make one.
Gender equity (noun): The act of treating men, women, transgender, and nonbinary people fairly, according to their respective needs. This may include equal treatment or treatment that is different, but which is considered equivalent in terms of rights, benefits, obligations, and opportunities.
The need for gender equity is crucial at a time when legislation restricting a woman’s choice in who she marries is gaining popularity, when domestic violence is on the rise, when men feel they cannot adequately express their feelings in a healthy manner. The list goes on. Statistics that DURGA has gathered from verified sources show that six out of 10 of India’s youth view homosexuality as wrong, and that 92 per cent of transgender people cannot participate in an economic activity
While it may seem far-fetched to be able to have nuanced discussions around gender and representation during a pandemic, DURGA India believes otherwise. The Bangalore-based organisation wanted the youth to be able to have frank conversations around political representation, how to combat sexual harassment, activism, how to tackle safety as a community problem. They want their voices to be heard amidst toxic news cycles, financial and emotional burden.
The forum was meant to learn and unlearn gender. As Anugraha, Lead of Institution Building in DURGA India, puts it, “Given the diaspora of speakers that we managed to bring in for the inaugural edition, our hope was that we would be able to get past a lot of gender myths, which would allow these conversations around equity to begin”
This diaspora of speakers helps the audience become more interested, as it gives them hope of the representation they are looking for in mainstream conversations. There is an importance of having women, religious, regional and gender minorities at the top. “It gives other people the confidence to climb the ladder”
When someone like Jennifer Liang, a celebrated social health worker in Assam and Co-Founder of The Ant, comes and talks about how things are in the North-East, it brings a kind of connection with the students from such a tough geography. “Women’s equality in the North-East is much more different. Visibly, entire markets, households, hospitals are controlled by women, they are the face, especially in tribal communities. But when you scratch the surface, it is a different situation. All the authority, the big decisions are taken by men. It’s a work-in-progress, breaking that myth.”
Students of the LGBTQ community can identify with the experiences of someone like Manak Matiyani, a feminist queer activist and Executive Director at The YP Foundation. “We are not just talking about having sex with someone outside your community, caste, class, sexuality. It’s also the right to live freely, not be murdered or shunned that gets bundled up with sexual rights.”
Men, too, are hit hard by society’s expectations of them. There is a certain image of masculinity that is attached to them, and they cannot fail to abide by them. Manak elaborates, “We have this image of what men should be like. We try to dismantle it, by teaching them about consent and violence. But many programmes fail to address why men would want to change and give up their privilege.”
Now they aren’t fooling themselves, expecting any major changes in legislature or society by this forum or mission. They want to start in small but effective ways, to reach out to the youth community in India, that can snowball into larger communities. Sohini Bhattacharya, president and CEO of Breakthrough, emphasises on a community-based approach. “Overcoming prejudices about masculinity, femininity, non-binary behaviour, gender rights and sexual rights doesn’t only change the individual. It changes everything and everyone around them.”