Taking cue from the International Women’s Day (IWD) theme this year – ‘Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow’, Team CB set out to connect the dots that may at first glance seem to not connect directly, check with key players in the domain about what they have understood regarding the dynamics that shape those connections, and put all of it out there for us to make sense of stuff and do what we should, must, or have to.

What even is a ‘sustainable tomorrow’, one may ask. Is it one where ecosystems and forests are restored, environmental degradation is reversed, carbon emissions halted, clean sources of renewable energy are the standard, resource depletion is replaced by resource renewal, the sustainable development goals met and done with, and there is sufficient or surplus food, water and energy for people everywhere? Is it one where peace rules, the threat of water wars has subsided, and happiness index matters more than stock market index? 

Be that as it may, a ‘sustainable future’ should definitely be one where we are doing better than we are now—actually way better. Because in the present, we are meeting most of our requirements by continuously taking something precious from nature without actually replenishing the same, in the process not only threatening to imbalance ecosystems but also widening the gap between restoration and irreversible damage.

By putting the focus on gender equality in the context of a sustainable future, IWD this year is trying to do two very important things: a) recognise and reiterate the role and contribution of women with regard to climate-change adaptation, mitigation and response – in their homes, in their communities, and at the policy level, and b) make it an urgent reminder that vulnerable and marginalised populations are the most at risk of bearing the brunt of climate-change events. 

Because the fact is that women and girls constitute the majority of people displaced by climate change and climate-related disasters; they are also more than half of the billion-plus people living in conditions of poverty. A ‘sustainable future’ will be a contradictory term without addressing these issues simultaneously – climate change, poverty, and gender disparity.

How can climate action be inclusive or even effective without participation of everyone? Also, how can poverty be addressed without urgently developing resilience against the effects of climate change and without stemming climate change itself in the medium to long term? Empowering women is crucial to attaining all of these goals.

On the one hand, they are vulnerable to the cascading effects of climate-change events; and on the other, they are capable of driving climate action and resilience. Of course, achieving a sustainable future is much broader than climate change. That’s also why it’s important to remember that an empowered woman is also a driver of change in her family and the community on the whole, whether it relates to health or education or the choices that make a difference to standards of living and at the same time reflect care and concern for the environment. 

A deep dive into the linkages between gender equality and environmental sustainability will need some understanding of economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development, of women’s historical role in natural resource management and conservation, of how women experience differentiated effects from environmental factors and are often most affected by environmental degradation due to socio-economic and discriminatory factors, and of the need to have way greater representation of women in management and decision-making roles in organisations. These linkages need us to a) build the resilience of low-income women and girls in the face of many disruptive events and shocks; b) address poverty as a multidimensional issue – one that includes health, education and all other factors that shape women’s standard of living; c) keep gender equality at the front and centre while defining environmental issues, policies and actions; and d) enable greater access to leadership positions for women. Most certainly there are other need-to-dos – such as fighting and overcoming historical biases, stopping violence against women and girls – and hence this conversation must carry on. For now, it’s important to remember that when ingrained biases – generally related to ownership and use of natural resources, energy, housing, agriculture – are not acknowledged or addressed, they get reflected and perpetuated in environment-related decisions and policy design, exacerbating gender inequalities. The combination of gender inequalities, biases and social norms laying out specific roles for women and men lead to a differential impact of environmental factors by gender.

A roomful of empowered women

CB reached out to a host of individuals who have been associated with India’s development sector one way or the other, so as to get a wholesome perspective on these things that we are talking about – be it gender equality, women empowerment, biases, the grassroots experience, sustainable development. While there are many milestones to be crossed yet, what they tell us have the magical effect of keeping these terms relevant and real on the one hand, and on the other hand, pulling us away from any illusions or delusions we may have about there being a magic wand that will make certain evils go away. What will happen will happen because today at this point in time we are putting in our efforts towards what we believe should happen, knowing that it’s a long and arduous journey ahead. (To those who did not respond to CB’s pointers: hope you will the next time.)

The expression ‘women empowerment’ is uttered commonly enough in the development sector and by nonprofits as well as CSR teams, and this is a good thing. What good has it done so far, in your view?

Naghma Mulla, CEO, EdelGive Foundation

Naghma Mulla: “Women have been fighting biases, conventional gender roles and patriarchal mindsets since a very long time. These roles and mindsets have percolated across key demographics of age, geography, and socio-economic classes, and make for inhibitory environments for women.  

“From a macro perspective, the Covid-19 pandemic has further caused a deterioration across indicators for the well-being of women. Take for instance female labour-force participation: India has slipped 28 places in the 2021 Global Gender Gap Index by the World Economic Forum (WEF), ranking 140 out of 156 countries. Such observations make it important for us build a conducive ecosystem for women, and over the past decade, organisations have come together to ensure that this happens. 

“Over the years of our work, we have seen that the impact of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and philanthropy has been incremental, but it has sustained. Words and terms have the capability of influencing mindsets. In the development sector particularly, including terms such as ‘women empowerment’ ensures that women are not excluded from initiatives that might be addressing other social issues. It is such terms that ensure inclusion of people. In another four to five years, you will see an even bigger shift. The word ‘gender’ was not in common parlance in 2008–09. Now it is becoming an important component in discourses on social issues.  

“Moreover, the expression ‘women empowerment’ has been important within the development sector as it has kept the conversation around issues of women constantly engaging and provided focus towards the issues as an important thematic area of investment.”

Neelam Makhijani, country director and CEO, ChildFund India

Neelam Makhijani: “In my experience, if you keep repeating a term, it registers in the minds of people. It also gives it the importance it deserves. However, not much has been done yet and the job is far from over. Therefore, repetitive conversations on the issue is important as it reinforces the need for action towards it. 

“In terms of what good it has done so far is that there is more acceptability for women in leadership positions, there are more voices that women have been able to gather, women today can influence decisions. While it may not apply to everyone, the change is visible. The problem is that this has mainly been visible in urban areas. Specific to rural areas, women are today members of panchayats and are leading conversations around how agriculture can be done and participating in that process. I think where the gap lies is that in urban areas women have enough resources available to them to pave their way to gain financial independence. In rural areas, women have started to participate in the decision-making process in their families and larger communities but financial independence is a constraint as it is still a man’s world. 

“Issues such as domestic violence remain a concern in both rural and urban areas. While the phrase ‘women empowerment’ is making a dent, there is still a long way for us to go before we can say our women are empowered.”

Nidhi Pundhir, director, HCL Foundation

Nidhi Pundhir: “It is an umbrella term that allows assessing the specific needs of women in the society and the magnitude of the problems they face, and building awareness and infrastructure to address the challenges in a holistic manner. It is true that the term ‘women empowerment’ is among the most uttered, but it is also because the term is related to the betterment of at least half our population and is a mission across the board – governments, corporates, and civil society have all directed their efforts in this direction. 

“Women empowerment is one of the most effective tools for social transformation and starts with small steps in education, skill development and access to healthcare. HCL Foundation is dedicated to this cause and believes in a comprehensive approach. The various activities we undertake are in the sectors of early childhood, health, education, environment, sanitation, and livelihoods, all of which have a significant impact on how a girl grows into a woman and leads her life. All our programmes and initiatives address aspects of socio-economic-environmental poverty with focus on inclusion. The efforts are directed toward enabling the most marginalised young girls as well as women, so that they can make choices for their better future.”

Sohini Bhattacharya, CEO, Breakthrough

Sohini Bhattacharya: “Today, the expression ‘women empowerment’ has become an integral part of all discussions and deliberations around the development sector. The HuffPost defines ‘empowerment’ as a process. Through this process, an individual, irrespective of their gender, becomes an agent of change. Countries across the globe, including the developing ones, have understood and acknowledged the need for empowering the vulnerable sections of society, particularly women and girls. This realisation has further translated and transformed into actions and proactive policy formulations to ensure equality of rights and opportunities for both men and women. 

“I believe that being conscious of the need for empowering and supporting women with equal access and rights is the first critical step towards a gender-equal world. And the repeated and conscious use of the expression ‘women empowerment’ helps in driving home the point. As a result of this growing awareness, we have seen a gradual improvement in the economic, political, social and health status of women. However, there is much that needs to be done to further improve these indices. Discussions and discourses around women empowerment need to be further encouraged, but insights and learnings from those discussions should consequently lead to tangible outcomes for sustainable empowerment of women and girls.”

Common sense tells us that ‘gender equality’ and ‘women empowerment’ reinforce each other – indeed, one cannot happen without the other. In the context of India, do you think that the many ‘women empowerment’ programmes have brought (are bringing) about shifts in thinking and attitudes?

Naghma: Throughout the world and in India too, women have been fighting for their rights for a long time. However, until about 15 to 20 years ago, most were unaware of phrases such as ‘gender bias’, ‘women empowerment’, and ‘gender inequality’, although there was an understanding or realisation of these terms as concepts. The work done by various activists and organisations at the grassroots level has contributed a great deal in creating a conducive ecosystem for women in many spheres of life. Moreover, in the last few years, there has been a gradual entry of women, with the support of non-profits and the development sector, in fields related to technology, agriculture, dairy farming, food processing, entrepreneurship, electronics, and paramedical services – sectors which for ages had been the domain of men. These progressive steps and victories have added value not only to lives of women but also to the nation by ensuring women’s participation in socio-economic and political spheres. 

A great example of women empowerment programmes creating (attempting to) is the UdyamStree campaign, where entrepreneurship as a tool of empowerment is being highlighted as a means to create a shift in attitudes and thinking.

Neelam: Yes, it is bringing about a change. About ‘gender equality’ and ‘women empowerment’, the only difference between the two phrases is that when we say gender equality, it includes both genders, whereas women empowerment would be restrictive to women. Men too have issues, around trafficking and there is a lot violence against men too. So when one says gender equality, it means that we need to care for both genders. Being part of that empowerment, it has to go hand in hand. We can’t have two these two genders in silos. For example, when we work in rural parts of the country, especially under our women empowerment programme, what we do is to first and foremost engage with the men in the family, to change attitudes and to see how they can participate in it to ensure that they are buying into that idea. So, there is ownership and therefore they will support the women. 

There is a need for change in attitude. Which is why when we talk of gender equality, it actually helps women’s empowerment. So yes, we need to carry both genders with us and it’s not one or the other. It is both who have to be empowered. 

Nidhi: Empowering women is a tool to bring change in the thinking and attitudes of people around them, which also includes women. Targeted and interconnected government interventions for children, pregnant women and lactating mothers have been able to bridge the prevailing deficit and control resultant implications to a great extent. 

As a responsible corporate, HCL Technologies is doing its bit through its CSR arm, HCL Foundation. Our flagship programme, HCL Samuday, is significantly impacting socio-economic indicators for rural women, especially women farmers in rural Hardoi district of Uttar Pradesh. HCL Grant has enabled us to reach out to women from remotest rural corners in Nagaland, Jharkhand, Jammu, Madhya Pradesh and many others, to improve reproductive and maternal health outcomes as well as empower rural girls and women through skill training, financial literacy, etc. HCL Uday has been working with girls and women from urban slum communities to enable them to realise their rights and create opportunities for their holistic development. Clean NOIDA addresses the issue of safe sanitation, which is a critical issue while talking about empowerment of girls and women. Across programmes, there is a core focus on inclusion, reaching out to the unreached and working with men for behaviour change. In addition, our special initiatives also work to empower women artisans, create community role models through the medium of sports, and empower girls through scholarship and mentoring support. HCLites also engage in the process and volunteer with us to make the difference. We have a lot of examples of role models who have emerged through these efforts.

Sohini: Gender equality and women empowerment are intricately linked to each other. To a great extent, I believe women empowerment precedes gender equality. When women are empowered enough, gender equality index improves. In the Indian context and elsewhere, the primary aim of women empowerment programmes have been to improve gender equality – be it through creating employment opportunities for them, providing better access to quality healthcare, or making specific efforts to stop different forms of violence against them. 

At Breakthrough, all our programmes are conceived, designed and executed with this objective in mind – to build a gender-equal world. Breakthrough has always used media, arts and pop culture to bring human rights issues into mainstream conversation and inspire critical masses of people to take action for change. We use various digital platforms to address gender-norm change around issues of gender-based violence, safety and security, violence, discrimination and gender equity, and for building an ecosystem where adolescents and young adults’ voices can be heard, amplified and included. Popular culture ranges from films, books, art, social media and ad films to basically anything that is consumed by the masses. This culture impacts our beliefs, opinions and mindset. Progressive messages on gender issues can play a big role in building a positive attitude towards gender and challenge the gender norms.

It is difficult to break the chain of bias. Yet that must happen if we are to see real gender equality in our society. Which biases, in your understanding, must be broken so that we can hope to have an equal society? 

Naghma: It is common knowledge that there are cultural biases due to pervasiveness of patriarchy – where a women’s labour and potential contribution to society is limited to the sexual and reproductive realm. It is when we as a society break out of this flawed mindset of biological essentialism that we will achieve gender equality. Of course, in the current times women are breaking barriers, entering fields dominated by men, but at the same time, in the sectors where they are still excluded, or when faced with gender-based violence or discrimination of any kind, it is this bias towards patriarchy which is at work. The development sector has the tall task of not only changing these attitudes in men, but also making women aware of their rights, of their potential, and giving them more agency to break out of their limitations. 

Another aspect to be considered is that the rooted issue of gender bias cannot be solved solely by creating interventions for women. This has to happen regardless. The breaking of the bias in a true sense will happen if men are also made to understand their behaviour and the ways in which they might cause hindrances in the journey of women.

Neelam: One is that women are weaker, that they are a weaker section of the society. However, emotionally and mentally women are more resilient. The biases exist because firstly, earlier, we did not invest enough in education for women, which perpetuated the bias that they cannot do it and they are not capable of doing it. Such biases are now starting to be discredited. 

One thing to be kept in mind is that many of the biases can be traced to our upbringing; they are not solely rooted in society. A woman’s rights have to be secured from her infancy – it all begins with equality at home. If we can break the bias, we can break the prejudice. It’s all about values, beliefs and attitudes. 

Nidhi: While it may not always be noticeable, gender biases and stereotypes have been deeply ingrained in our thinking through the socialisation process and influence the way we function. The gender biases that exist in society also inhibit access, which makes it difficult for women and girls to reach their full potential. Therefore, we need to work in a structured manner, across the life cycle, not only to train and enable women but also to impact behaviour and attitude change, so that the barriers that inhibit access can be broken. Enabling access for women to proper nutrition, education, and skill development and livelihood opportunities will ensure that they make informed choices, enter the workspace, and attain financial self-reliance, all of which will pave the way for gender equality.

Sohini: Gender stereotypes/biases are deeply ingrained in our society. This has, over the years, led to the formation of certain perceptions in the way we look at women and girls. Due to its deep-rootedness, it is often difficult to break biases and change certain perceptions that are manifest in our everyday life. There are cultural, political and economic factors that perpetuate it. There are a number of biases that need to be dealt with in order to build a gender-equal world, but the following need urgent redressal:

Gender bias: Even today, in many of our states, girls are considered to be a liability and called ‘paraya dhan’. Female infanticides are still a reality. If a girl child is born, she has to go through a lifetime of trauma, humiliation and violence, first at the hands of her parents/siblings and then because her in-laws perhaps harbour their own notions. A major step towards addressing this lies in educating people and making them aware that boys and girls are equal.

Inequality of opportunities: There are many cultural factors responsible for this bias. Women and girls are often considered to be ‘paraya dhan’ and, therefore, very little care is taken to ensure their overall development and growth. One thing that sticks out like a sore point is equal access to education. In many north Indian states where Breakthrough work, we have observed that boys are sent to schools but girls mostly are engaged in household chores. Education, I believe, is the first step to equality of opportunities for women and girls.

What, in your view, are the many, or some, faces of gender inequality in India?

Naghma: There are sex-selective abortions of female foetuses, lack of education opportunities, gender-based violence, gender-based exclusion, unpaid labour, lack of access to public facilities, lack of access to finance, under-representation in decision-making roles across sectors – you name it! Women in India face several biases which start even before they are born. Every step of the way, even after attaining major milestones like completing formal education and gaining financial independence, women continue to be excluded from opportunities available to them.

Neelam: In my view, the root cause of gender inequality in India is most often poverty, especially in the rural parts. In villages often one will see a little boy wearing slippers, but not the girls. That’s where it starts. The need for  equality starts there. Apart from poverty, there is illiteracy and lack of awareness about the capabilities of women.

Additionally, our culture and tradition can end up reinforcing inequality. For example, there is a village in Madhya Pradesh where women have to get into sex work, while the men spend their time in leisure activities. Due to lack of education, it is accepted that she has to earn money for the house, and that she can undertake sex work as a profession.  

Another aspect of inequality in India is that a man must earn more than the woman and that makes him powerful. This is an unnecessary assumption that creates disharmony and overlooks a woman’s contribution. When we talk about equality, we must talk about developing an equal mindset. It does not matter who earns more as this also creates undue pressure on men. 

Nidhi: Poor access to nutrition and education, leading to poor health outcomes, have an incremental and intergenerational impact. The problem is not just about availability and access; in order to address inequality, there is also a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of behaviour and attitude change. In addition to economic barriers, there are many societal and attitudinal barriers that need to be addressed to enable access for women.

Sohini: In fact, there are many reasons for India’s low ranking on the gender-equality index. The following factors continue to remain major challenges when it comes to gender inequality in India:

Poverty: This is a major reason for gender inequality in India. A large number of women live without the basic amenities required to live a healthy and happy life. Lack of economic opportunities, lack of access to financial resources, land ownership and inheritance, and minimal participation in the decision-making process contribute to gender inequality in India.

Illiteracy: Another major factor that continues to impact India’s performance in the gender-equality index is illiteracy. In many conventional set-ups, women fail to receive the basic education and skills that they require to rise up in life.

Lack of employment opportunities: Despite major progress in spheres of economic growth and advancement in technology, women’s labour force continues to remain below par. This subsequently limits their existence and involvement to their households. For us to build a gender-equal world, it is important to encourage women’s labour-force participation and create an enabling and safe environment for them. 

With regard to the programmes you have been a part of, what worked and what did not?

Naghma: There are numerous factors involved in defining success of a woman-led enterprise. Family support can be crucial in deciding the fate of an enterprise. A woman who was interested in becoming an autorickshaw driver – and who was even trained for driving one through an NGO – could not get the support to buy or hire one because of resistance from her older brother who would not allow it. Another woman could run a beauty parlour because her family supported her and offered to pick her up from work when she was running late. 

A lack of knowledge about government schemes and application processes is also a reason why women can find it daunting to access financial credit. To bridge this gap, we have an initiative under our UdyamStree campaign – for which we collaborated with Haqdarshak – focused on reaching out to women entrepreneurs in rural areas of Rajasthan and Maharashtra for creating awareness and linkage to government schemes. 

A major challenge has been to evaluate the effectiveness of our initiative/programmes. In this context, setting up of a programme and creating a value chain of impact is not enough. There has to be handholding and a feedback loop that goes beyond the implementation of the programme. This has been an area of improvement for us and it always will be, for creating a more sound impact.

Neelam: The programmes we have been doing for years have been around encouraging women entrepreneurship and also focusing on education for girls and boys. We also conduct vocational training for both genders. Our women entrepreneurship programmes are based in the rural parts of the country where women can stay with their families. Our mission is to ensure that children are well protected and well taken care of. It’s important to keep families together and ensure that children are well protected and taken care of, so all our programmes have worked well. We have looked at them as a family, as an institution, wherein they should be together and they should have dignity of living.

We have seen amazing impact in our areas of intervention. We have also seen great impact where we’ve generated more livelihood opportunities and higher education opportunities for boys. They are bright, they get more aware; they start to respect everybody irrespective of gender or race. I believe that the life-skills training have had a big part in this. So, our programmes are not only about women empowerment, but as much about gender equality

What has not worked really is very little. It’s not that it did not work for us – the challenge is that the problem is massive and I think it requires programmes of that scale. While ChildFund does that, the government can also pick it up to scale the impact and such programmes can further be replicated by other organisations. We can collaborate much more.

Nidhi: HCL Foundation works to create ‘source codes’ of socio-economic and environmental development. The process of creating these source codes involves experimentation, engagement, assessment and very careful monitoring at each stage. It’s only through this process that we know what works and what doesn’t. At HCL Foundation, we make this a very engaging and vibrant process, where we partner with stakeholders at every level and leverage their experience and expertise. We have well-thought-out processes and programmes which keep in mind the nitty-gritties of the situation and the proposed solutions. We look at long-term commitment, which requires a higher level of field engagement and positive partnerships on ground. This helps us minimise the hurdles and maximise impact.

Sohini: As stated earlier, Breakthrough uses media, arts and pop culture to bring human rights issues into mainstream conversation and inspire critical masses of people to take action for change. Popular culture is one of the major agents of socialisation through which people learn norms and values. Therefore, it also plays an important role in the creation and perpetuation of gender norms, as the socially constructed ideas of gender are reinforced by the dominant narratives in popular culture. We have always used the dominant, existing cultural references in our narratives and then flipped them to show how an alternative is possible. Often that culture is embedded in arts and media. That is why we use popular forms like music videos, digital games and advertising to set the agenda and build public opinion on issues of violence and discrimination. Our experience of engaging various media as a key participant in holding such discussions and talking about ‘difficult’ topics has shown us how it has the  potential to act as an effective tool to create awareness around ending harmful, discriminatory practices. Clearly, media is a major stakeholder in our efforts to create a gender-equal world, reinforcing the need to work with content creators to produce gender-sensitive content for the larger world to consume.

The following programmes have worked really well for us and continue to keep our work relevant: 

Bell Bajao: Bell Bajao! is Breakthrough’s most evolved and sustained campaign to date; it has had the greatest impact, scale, and the most comprehensive set of partners. It is a cultural and media campaign that calls on men and boys to join efforts to end violence against women. 

The campaign’s media component was its most visible feature — a series of television, radio and print ads, created pro bono by Ogilvy & Mather, which were disseminated widely through a partnership with the India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development. The campaign was picked up in China, Vietnam, Pakistan and Canada, among other countries. The campaign saw a 49 per cent rise in awareness about the domestic-violence law (Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act) that was passed in 2005, and it also raised demands for services by 15 per cent.

Taaron ki Toli: The objective of this programme was to shape gender-equitable behaviour among school children. The results revealed that the programme led to an improvement in the career ambition of girls, awareness levels of adolescents, and an overall 16 per cent rise in gender-equitable outlook.

StreeLink Project: Breakthrough worked with 10,000 women in Faridabad with support from Laudes Foundation to change how women perceive workplace violence and how the violence that happens inside homes spills over into public space and hampers their participation in paid work. Breakthrough partnered with one of the largest garment-manufacturing companies in Phase 1 of the project and helped bring about a shift within the management with regards to their understanding of sexual harassment at the workplace. Change was witnessed in the behaviour of the supervisors as well, and workers were also more likely to report serious cases. However, it was also found that while the support system at factory level regarding grievance redressal and reporting had improved, the support system at the community level needed more work. 

Because of our work with women on factory floors, they have started recognising different forms of violence in their lives, and their ability to deal with the same has improved. Our continuing work will reduce the stigma that women who step out of doors in semi-rural populations face.

Please share a story, a case study, or an anecdote from your experience that you think illustrates the kind of equality/inequality we are talking about.

Naghma: Our Landscape Study on Women Entrepreneurs has revealed many challenges that women face when embarking on their entrepreneurship journeys. At the root of these challenges lie socio-cultural issues – women being conditioned from a very young age about what they can and cannot do. In several cases where a woman has started an enterprise, she is still expected to prioritise caregiving and domestic work. The resources and finances are mostly handled by men, which not only limits financial access but also results in low self-confidence when it comes to decision-making in business. A recent field visit, which we conducted as a part of one of our awareness initiatives in Rajasthan, showed that some women who were also engaged as agricultural workers were only offered 15–20 days of work under MNREGA instead of the usual 100, because men were preferred for these jobs.

Neelam: I met a woman in Madhya Pradesh not long back – she was a part of the poultry programme by ChildFund India wherein we introduce women to poultry farming, with the objective of enabling their financial independence. I asked her what motivated her to join the programme. Her story was quite heartbreaking. She was married off at a young age and as soon as she was married she was pregnant, but she was pressurised to pay off the loan that her in-laws had taken. She travelled to Gujarat to work and earn money. In Gujarat she was exploited, made to work 16 hours a day, and she hardly got any food to eat. She was also fired from her job there. Unable to cope with her lot, she joined our programme, which would let her stay at home with her child. This opportunity helped her rebuild her life. 

There are several other painful and heart-wrenching stories. Therefore, we need to do a lot more than what we are doing. 

Nidhi: It is difficult to choose one from the millions of lives HCL Foundation has touched in all these years. But there are certainly some that resonate more – our initiatives with women farmers, women artisans, young peer leaders, sports champions and our talented scholars stand out in my mind. We are also running a campaign on our social media handles in the month of March to share some of these stories and have also documented a few on video which are available on our YouTube channel.

Sohini: I will like to share the story of a group of girls from Murailapur (Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh) who wanted to play cricket and how they overcame the obstacles to realise their dream.  

Discrimination based on gender, caste, creed and ethnicity exists in every society. For women and girls, it is always challenging to raise their voice against such inequities because of the socio-economic and cultural factors controlling their lives. Male dominance, in particular, has contributed to making it difficult for women to demand an equal space in society. However, there are women and girls who, with their persistence and determination, have been able to change the status quo and set shining examples for transformative change. One such example is that of a bunch of girls hailing from Murailapur, a relatively unknown, nondescript village.

The young girls here are no different from the millions of other girls anywhere in the world. They are aspirational, and willing to take risks to make their voice heard and fight for what they believe in. And they had a deep love for cricket. But it was not an easy dream to pursue. The men and boys in their village thought cricket was not meant for girls. And they objected to it. ‘Because of various reasons, the girls could not get help from male members in the village to play cricket. The boys and men kept reminding them that it was not something they were meant to do. This for a brief moment dampened their spirits, but they were not going to give up, and eventually overcame all obstacles that they encountered in the form of gender discrimination, sexist attitudes, and societal constraints. 

The credit for helping the girls stand for their rights goes to Sanjana Chauhan, a resident of this village who is a peer educator under the Adolescent Empowerment Programme run by Jan Vikas Sansthan with Breakthrough’s support. Breakthrough’s gender-transformative curriculum Taaron Ki Toli for students aged 10 to 14, the Nari Sangh meetings, and other mobilisation activities provided the girls an opportunity to understand their rights and why they needed to be more assertive in the face of injustice.

What does a ‘sustainable tomorrow’ look like to you, in a world where gender equality is a reality?

Neelam: It’s going to be so hard to think that we will get to a point where gender equality is a reality. 

A sustainable tomorrow for me will look like a place where women will feel safe. They will not be used as sex objects, rape numbers against them will reduce. Women will live with dignity—it’s all about dignity at the end of the day, wherein they can make their own decisions. They will not be the only ones who have to follow the age-old traditions which actually put them on the back foot. Why should they be the last one? Why should the woman be the last one to eat? Why should the woman be the last one to get anything for themselves? Why is she not a priority?

There are many additional issues to be tackled in a sustainable tomorrow in terms of gender equality. It’s a world where education for all girl children will be a reality and girl foetuses will not be killed. It’ll be a world where women have voice, influence and dignity.

Like I said, women are very resilient. We have far more emotional maturity. If you leverage it in the right way, that will bring sustainability by itself.

Sohini: All our efforts, from the very beginning, have been directed at creating and sustaining a gender-equal world. Our campaigns and policy outreach have tried to reiterate the fact that a gender-equal world is central to social development and increased economic opportunities. I will like to see a world where there is no gender-based discrimination or violence. A world without gender-based violence and discrimination will pave the way for equal opportunities in every sphere of life. This, I believe, will lead to increased participation of women and girls in the decision-making process. But for this to happen, we may have to redirect our focus and keep women and girls at the centre of all our conversations around gender equality.