An evening of empowerment in Mumbai

An evening of empowerment in Mumbai Ayushi Shah

Ayushi's love for writing stems from the belief that the world is full of stories waiting to be told. Her plan is to fix the planet - one word at a time.

An event that promised to leave me inspired, Our Better World’s Mumbai event Women in India had set my expectations high the minute I read about it on Facebook.

A week later, a smiling Mai, the community lead at Our Better World, handed me a colourful tote bag, and invited me to settle down in the conference room. And thus began an evening of impact, empowerment and inspiration.

We watched video stories of the three featured organisations (Cactus Foundation, HelpUsGreen and Akhand Jyoti), which set the stage for the Q&A session with the founders that followed. And what a journey it was, listening as they candidly shared what sparked them to take action, their achievements, their setbacks, and their drive.

Starting a movement

The poet Rumi once said, “The wound is where the light enters”. Such was the story of Nusrat of Cactus Foundation, who turned her childhood trauma of assault into a powerful movement to protect future generations.

After an injury that left her bedridden for months, Nusrat found herself increasingly protective of her young daughter. After persuasion from her supportive husband, and much introspecting, she realised that she was trying to protect her daughter from the painful experiences of her own childhood. Nusrat fought the instinct to stay quiet and retreat. Instead, she turned outwards, determined to make this world safer not only for her daughter but for all children and adults. We listened, rapt, as she recounted the highs and lows of her journey, including the time Cactus convinced more than 20,000 people to participate in the “Chuppi Todo” (Break the Silence) walkathon.

As a woman living in India, I know that speaking about assault is not easy. It is a taboo-laden issue and child abuse accusations are often trivialised. But I sensed Nusrat’s bravery and determination. She knows that assault can scar for life and that staying quiet is not an option.

A good enterprise

I had heard of the Kanpur-based start-up HelpUsGreen, but was pleasantly surprised to see them at the event as I had associated them with the environmental cause, but not with women’s empowerment.

Dalits, often considered “untouchable” under the caste system, have long been trapped in low-paying jobs that have no takers. But these invisible women have found dignity at HelpUsGreen with higher wages, insurance and other benefits.

Ankit, co-founder of HelpUsGreen, shared many moving stories of the impact on the women and their families, including the power of simply being offered a plastic stool to sit on.

Remarkably, he was equally open when he spoke of his setbacks. With frankness, he said he still hasn’t figured out how things will turn out. He knows just one thing – he wants to bring positive change at least 5,000 lives.

Dual vision, double impact

Akhand Jyoti doesn’t lack ambition with their goal to eradicate curable blindness in Bihar by 2022. That mission is brilliantly juxtaposed with another: women empowerment and gender equality.

Their unique programme uses football, a sport perceived as a boys-only game, a sport that requires girls to play outside in a field and to wear shorts – shattering multiple stereotypes at once. Football to Eyeball is a programme where parents allow their daughters to play football and agree not to marry them off before they’re 21. In return, these girls are educated and trained as optometrists, raising a generation of role models to inspire the next generation of girls in Bihar.

What amazed me is that the foundation picked Bihar, which is not only one of India’s poorest states, but also one with deep-rooted patriarchy.

I would have pegged the programme as almost impossible if I hadn’t heard Akhand Jyoti founder Mritunjay Tiwary speak. As he said, “Each one of us can make a difference. It doesn’t matter where we live, how we live, what is our age, what is our financial status, it doesn’t matter, it’s just a mental state of mind. So everyone has the capacity to contribute, change the world, make it a better place.”

Starting simple

Most of us are caught in a rut. That is why events like this one organised by Our Better World are so important. It snapped me out of my routine and sparked questions.

I loved that there was simplicity to be found in all three founders’ ideas. After listening to Cactus, I went home and spoke to my teenage siblings about the issue, and the conversation seemed a little easier.

There was also Ankit’s simple suggestion of having dinner with one’s helpers. It broke my heart when I realised how we treat our helpers.

My key takeaway from the evening was the importance of taking that extra step. Sometimes, it takes as little as a plastic stool.

Despite the heavy-hitting topics covered during the evening, Our Better World’s informal approach put everyone at ease. After watching the stories and having the Q&A, there were no strangers in the room.

After all, we are all trying to change the world. We are at different stages to be sure, but it is the same journey.

comments Ayushi Shah
Ayushi's love for writing stems from the belief that the world is full of stories waiting to be told. Her plan is to fix the planet - one word at a time.