"I can be the President Of India" said Pragya, an eighth grade student from Bihar after watching Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon, a trans-media serial by national level NGOs that was designed to bring about a subtle change in India's perception of gender roles. It's one of the few statements which makes one dismiss the overwrought cynicism developed over years of armchair activism.
The art of declaring "Kuch Nahi Hoga India Ka" is an inherent urban Indian expertise which we exercise regularly as knee-jerk reactions to reminders of India's problems. When we are not busy adopting an "Ostrich" defense, we offer our sympathies and frustration to the deplorable problems we see but never a concrete solution or attempt. Fortunately, there are many people in this country for whom denial or complaining isn't an option as they try to effect a change in their environment. This is an article about a few of them.
The irony of India's women is perfectly encapsulated in Pragya's statement - a country with former women Prime Ministers and Presidents still struggles to reassure its women that they are free to follow their ambitions. "We live in a stratified society where women don't even have spaces for communication" says Poonam Muttreja, the executive director of the Population Foundation Of India. The lack of these spaces for communication leads to the spreading of wrong information amongst women from unreliable sources such as their friends. The strong control on the passing of information helps propagate the existing problem as young girls and boys who see patriarchy accept it as norms. The NFHS survey in 2005-06 found that 59% of the rural women surveyed agreed that the man was allowed to beat his wife for reasons such as neglecting household responsibilities or children, suspected of being unfaithful, disrespecting her in-laws etc.
I. Change Through Entertainment
Population Foundation Of India was formed in the 1970s by leading industrialists JRD Tata and Dr Bharat Ram to usher family planning in the country through research and demonstration. Since 1990s, the organisation has worked towards population stabilisation and collaborates with central and state governments as well as various local and national NGOs.
Population Foundation of India's "Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon" represents a unique initiative in busting myths and misconceptions about family planning and social barriers through a trans-media show and the additional communication strategy with it. The show is written, produced and directed by noted film and theatre director Feroz Abbas Khan. "Real life stories have informed and guided Feroz and PFI in developing the scripts" says Muttreja about the show which aired free of cost on Doordarshan in March 2014 and was adapted for an All India Radio broadcast as well. The affluent and oblivious might argue the use of traditional and government mediums over the modern channels? This question is answered when Poonam reveals how Doordarshan has access to nearly 80% of the country while the popular English news and informational channels we watch reach only 0.4% of the total Indian population. This is further evident from the fact that 58 million people tuned in to watch the first season of 52 episodes.The broadcasts were aided by systems such as Integrated Voice Response Systems in local languages, promotional SMS, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and a dedicated website, all aimed at creating effective behaviour change by building engaging methods with the beneficiaries. But then how can one create tangible impact with such measures? And how do you measure the response to such initiatives? The answer to the first lies in the the theory of Positive Deviance which Poonam cites as an effective means of working with communities.The Positive Deviance approach is based on the premise that in every community, there are a few individuals or groups whose uncommon behaviours and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems while having access to the same resources as those around them. She talks about being in attendance at a conference in Seattle a few years ago where they declared that while few other methods had failed, entertainment, education or Infotainment and positive deviance had been effective in creating a positive change.
II. The Voice Of Rural India
A Social Tech Company based at IIT Delhi, Gram Vaani operates on the principle of 'Profit With A Conscience'. The initiative founded in 2009 serves as a rural 'social network' of sorts by catering to over 2 million people in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, South Africa and Namibia and acting as a research and communication tool for NGOs and Corporates.When it comes to the question of measuring and engaging with the community, the role of Gram Vaani becomes vital. We have talked about Gram Vaani in our previous articles as a local citizen journalist initiative, besides being a communication and research solution to various NGOs and corporate . Aaditeshwar Seth says that Gram Vaani was started to offer an opportunity by which those at the bottom of the social chain could communicate and as a computer scientist at IIT Delhi, he also believes in the power of technology to effect change. "These are hard-grained inequalities but technology can be a silver bullet. While many mediums have existed before, only technology can destroy the inequality which currently exists".Mobile Vaani represents an attempt to build a social media platform equivalent to Facebook and Twitter for rural areas using an intelligent Interactive Voice Response system. The IVR system was used by the Population Foundation of India to gauge the response to the show. While the expected response was of only 250 calls per day, the system received over 6,000 calls per day with 50% of the respondents being the youth, giving voice to the unheard opinions of young girls such as Pragya.
III. Technology and Taboos
A simple curiosity about India's difficulty in accepting menstruation led to the creation of Menstrupedia by Aditi Gupta and Tuhin Paul to tackle of the dearth of conversations surrounding the biological process millions of women go through. Menstrupedia serves as a unique blog and offline comic book and textbook to help spread awareness about menstrual hygiene in India as well as tackle the taboos and restrictions placed on women and adolescent girls.The inability to evolve through new and vital information also acts as a deterrent when it comes to issues such as women's hygiene. "Girls can't talk about the natural biological processes they experience. Even their parents act with a bias when they start menstruating," said Aditi Gupta. A 2010 survey found that 75% of the women interviewed lacked adequate knowledge on menstrual hygiene and care with girls missing 50 days of school every year because of menstruation. Girls are not allowed to be a part of social and cultural events, or even pray in temples during their periods, let alone have an open conversation about menstruation. This is where Aditi Gupta's Menstrupedia comes in to play a unique role with a website and even comic books on the topic.Menstrupedia features a network of more than 100 bloggers who have written articles and poems about menstruation, to break the taboo surrounding the issue and start an open conversation. "One of the trending posts on our blog is by a second year law student, a man who uses the title "Ladies, it's unnecessary to hide periods from men," says Aditi. The offline activities are targeted at the next generation with special lectures and distribution of books and special comic books in schools. Gupta explains the reason behind these activities. "It's a question of one generation. Even if one generation changes, it can destroy the long held myths". Recently, a group of youngsters got the Menstrupedia books distributed in ten government schools in Udaipur by raising Rs 50,000 in a week through crowdfunding.
The Road AheadWhile Urban India might regard Internet connectivity as a utility for convenience and ease, it also represents an important economic and social tool for gender equality. A global estimate puts gender inequality in terms of internet penetration and use at 200 million more men who enjoy such access over women. An Intel survey found internet penetration among Indian women to be only at 8%, one of the lowest in developing countries. The survey also found that when provided Internet access, 77% of Indian women said that they used it to further their knowledge while 59% used it to search for a job and 32% even earned additional income through it.
With India slated to have 65o Million Smartphone users by 2019, even platforms like Android are being explored by NGOs such as the Population Foundation of India to create a "Mobile Educational Tool" for women which can provide education, skills up-gradation as well as employment opportunities. While it's clear that the internet and technology can act as a huge leveller when it comes to gender spaces in the country, the efforts of the NGOs are not alone. Corporates play an increasingly vital role with the Companies Act 2013 amendment making CSR contribution mandatory for them.
While Aditeshwar urged the corporates to have a "High Risk, High Return" approach when investing in social projects, Aditi urged them to be patient as well. The research done by her and her team shows that it would take at least a decade for any real impact of the work being done right now to be plainly visible. Poonam also talked about the immense resources and talent available to the corporates and urged them to be more proactive in marketing the social causes as well. "If you can convince someone who doesn't want the soap to buy it, you certainly can promote behaviour change" she added as a humorous but honest anecdote.
To know more about the work done by these organisations, visit the websites below:
Words: Devang Pathak
Twitter : @DevangPat