Engaging & Empowering

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An SFU alumna works with women in India

By Marianne Meadahl

In a suburb of Bangalore, India, a group of women sit in solidarity, having dared to do what women in similar neighbourhoods scattered through India have lacked the skills to do. They are buoyed by a power that comes from within.

Banding together, they stood up for a well-educated, professional woman, an alleged victim of domestic abuse. The woman, married to a high-ranking police officer, had tried to file a complaint with the police but had been refused, due to her husband’s status. She heard about an empowering women’s program underway in the city’s marginalized communities – and went into the slums to seek help.

Knowing what to do, the marginalized women took her to the police station, insisting that her complaint be registered and that her husband no longer be allowed in the home, which was in her name only. Despite being advised that nothing would come of it, the women refused to leave until the case was filed, their defiance caught by local TV news cameras.

For SFU alumna Jennifer Ganapathy (BA’00, BA’11), who conceived the program for Bangalore’s marginalized women, the story is both astonishing and gratifying – providing a glimmer of hope, given recent high-profile stories of violence against women in India.

Three years ago, while studying sociology and political science at SFU, Ganapathy travelled to the southern Indian city as a co-op student to work with South India Cell for Human Rights Education and Monitoring (SICHREM), a human rights non-profit organization. While there she undertook a research project on domestic workers and interviewed more than 200 women, between 18 and 60 years of age, who faced myriad challenges, including abuse, violence, discrimination, and poor living conditions.

Despite a language barrier she grew to see both the hope and the hopelessness of their marginalization. The women raised numerous issues, from the right to clean drinking water to the complexities of raising wages for women in communities where poverty runs rampant. The women voiced their desire for change and to take whatever steps necessary to overcome their hardships.

Ganapathy returned home and approached SFU-India Mobility (now known as the SFU BC-India Mobility Initiative), SFU’s Student International Mobility Fund, and the Dr. Hari Sharma Foundation for South Asian Development (named after the late SFU professor emeritus) as she sought to continue her work. With ongoing support from SICHREM, she returned in 2012 to spend eight weeks working with local organizations to launch a pilot series of community dialogues on gender, labour, health, and education issues. Her goal was to determine what women wanted most to address and whether they would benefit from the dialogues.

For SFU alumna Jennifer Ganapathy, who conceived the program for Bangalore’s marginalized women, the story is both astonishing and gratifying, providing a glimmer of hope, given recent high-profile stories of violence against women in India.

“The idea to help these women figure out on their own what they need to reach their goals, and to do so in a way that empowers them, became particularly appealing to me,” recalls Ganapathy, who was eventually invited into the communities to visit with the women.

“I could see that they needed a model that would show them how to effectively reach their goals. A big part of any success would be getting them to come to meetings. I thought it would take a lot of convincing. But it didn’t.”

Instead, Ganapathy was deluged with requests to expand the initial meetings held in local non-profit centres or homes. “I didn’t expect things to develop as they did. Women found ways to subsidize their neighbours so they could attend. They immediately began creating their own efficiencies, helping each other. You could sense the great potential that lay within the women themselves.”

Using her research as a foundation, Ganapathy and colleagues formed Global Concerns Leadership and developed an ongoing dialogue action plan to support their efforts to build strategies for change.

This project also creates safe places where women can deal with the issues they face daily. “At first I thought we’d start with the groups of women who ‘got it’ and see how the idea of empowerment might take shape, but instead, they all got it, knowing what they wanted and how our program could help. We found ourselves with more than 150 women ready to embrace self-growth.”

Ganapathy, one of a growing number of SFU alumni making a difference in India and throughout the world, was inspired by the women’s eagerness to create change. “They jumped right into the process and opened themselves up immediately, talking about some of the most difficult issues in their lives, such as domestic violence and sexual harassment. In some of these communities, physical abuse is epidemic, and in some groups, we saw 100 percent of the women experiencing violence in their lives.

“At first I felt a little unsure myself about taking this further,” admits Ganapathy. “I remember thinking, ‘I didn’t sign up for this.’ But despite feeling overwhelmed by what we were doing, I was completely moved by the hearts of these women and what this would mean for them.

“What really draws me to work with these women is their incredible honesty and authenticity in the face of overwhelmingly difficult circumstances,” Ganapathy reported after her 2012 visit. “I think they wonder why I come all the way over from my safe and comfortable country to help them, but really, they expand my world and my life, hopefully as much as I have expanded theirs.”

During her return visit Ganapathy met Brinda Adige, director of Global Concerns India, whose work involved spearheading projects related to women and child rights. At the time, Adige was immersed in work related to trafficking and rural domestic issues – experience that tied in well with Ganapathy’s vision. Working as a facilitator, Adige quickly built the trust of the women participating in the program.

Not only were women speaking up, many were learning to develop their own leadership abilities and asking if the model could be replicated by local women participants, rather than just the university-educated professionals. That prompted the creation of a leadership advancement program that would expand on the progress of the initial sessions and begin a process to empower women as leaders. A training curriculum for those exhibiting leadership potential is now under development.

“These women will learn more about legal and women’s issues while engaging in fieldwork. They’ll even make visits to police stations and government departments to meet with various officials as they learn to collaborate and build relationships,” says Ganapathy.

Jennifer Ganapathy (right)

“The essence of the leadership program is that the participants begin facilitating their own groups so they can self-identify issues and develop their own solutions,” she adds.
Many of the women can neither read nor write, although some have had low levels of basic education provided through women’s and labour organizations. And in these communities, not all embrace the idea of women becoming leaders. But Ganapathy says the women are willing to work to get past those barriers and take on the role of educating their communities that there is value to developing support systems for women.

Building confidence will also have a positive impact on their families and neighbourhoods, while their increased knowledge will also prepare them to begin to address the social issues they face, says Ganapathy.

“There will be some pushback as women step out of their traditional roles, but there is also a lot of support, a lot of curiosity and questions, and a lot of change happening,” she adds.

Their work builds on the efforts of previous non-profits and women’s organizations in India, which have painstakingly taken steps to educate marginalized women on their rights and have encouraged them to go out and make a change in their communities, Ganapathy notes.

“When we started these groups, many were already aware of the important issues going on in their society and culture; we wanted to show them a different approach. It was that groundwork, identified in my earlier study, that convinced me that a program like ours could work.”

Adige was already pioneering the approach when the two met. “It’s a big reason why our partnership has been such an amazingly good fit, and why we’ve been able to accomplish so much together in such a short period of time,” she says.

Collaborations are also being established, both with Mannkind Charitable Society, a local non-profit that works in Canada and India to alleviate poverty, address environmental challenges, and advance educational opportunities for underprivileged children, and with BasisIndia of  Toronto, which provides a vocational school for disadvantaged children, youth, and young women in India, and protects them from exploitation, trafficking, and abuse.

“I’m certain this will continue to grow and I have every confidence in these women,” Ganapthy says. “When you see first hand how they’ve embraced this, you quickly realize how resilient people are, and how, with a small idea, you might show the possibilities of big change.

She adds,“The women from the slums, standing up for the police officer’s wife, are an amazing example of this. Not only did they know what to do based on their rights and what they had learned from the dialogue groups, they had the confidence to take action and rise above social stigmas. There’s much more to do, but that’s an extraordinary start.”