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Interview with Kirthi Jayakumar - India.

Updated: Jan 6

Kirthi Jayakumar

Kirthi Jayakumar is a lawyer and feminist researcher specializing in women, peace and security, transitional justice, feminist foreign policy, and gender-based violence. She founded 'The Gender Security Project,' a research-based organization focusing on the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda, Feminist Foreign Policy, and Transitional Justice. She also established the Red Elephant Foundation, a peacebuilding initiative that promotes gender equality through storytelling, advocacy, and digital interventions. Furthermore, she developed Saahas, a mobile app that aids survivors of gender-based violence and educates users on bystander intervention.

Gender Equality Statistics (India)

In India, as of February 2021, only 14% of seats in parliament were held by women.

In 2016, 72.8% of women of reproductive age (15-49 years) had their need for family planning satisfied with modern methods.

27.3% of women aged 20–24 years old were married or in a union before age 18.

The adolescent birth rate is 12.2 per 1,000 women aged 15-19 as of 2018, up from 10.7 per 1,000 in 2016. 

In 2018, 18.4% of women aged 15-49 years reported that they had been subject to physical and/or sexual violence by a current or former intimate partner in the previous 12 months.

Unemployment rate (Age 15+): female: 4.9% - male: 5.4%.

Proportion of mothers with newborns receiving maternity cash benefits: 41.6%.

Maternal mortality ratio: 145 per 100,000.

Literacy rate (Age 15+): Female: 74.4% - Male: 65.8%.

Proportion of ever-partnered women and girls subjected to physical and/or sexual violence by a current or former intimate partner in the previous 12 months (Age 15-49): 18.4%.

Proportion of women in managerial positions: 14.6%

This interview was organized and conducted by Aidan Duffield, Chloe Truong, and Maddie Comeaux. Ha Nguyen, Duong Le, Shobe Manuel, Sophia May, Sheridan Smith, Nolan Ratsabouth, and Zevin Sanchez contributed with their insightful questions. All of them were members of the Honors College and attended the "Cultural Contact Zones: Asia" class, which was offered by the John V. Roach Honors College in the Fall 2023 semester.


Interview with Kirthi Jayakumar (4 October 2023)


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

What are the most common stereotypes about women in India?

Kirthi Jayakumar:

I believe the main stereotype that I often hear is the assumption that all Indians are the same and the misconception that we all belong to the same religion. It is also common for people to generalize about Indian women as if they all fit into a single category. However, India is incredibly diverse, even within my city of Chennai. For example, we have various dialects of Tamil spoken in my state, Tamil Nadu. Although the language is Tamil, the dialects are so distinct that it can sometimes take a moment to fully understand one another. That's how diverse it is. Now, imagine that multiplied by the size of the entire country.

A second major stereotype that I've always struggled with is the idea that Indian women are constantly facing violence – there are zombie statistics that suggest that an incident of rape happens every few minutes. While it is true that the experiences of Indian women, which likely reflect the experiences of women around the world, often involve confronting patriarchy and violence, it's important to recognize that we also have our stories of strength and courage and success as women in various ways. Indian women are not helpless. We have our worldviews and ideas and experiences that shape our interactions with the world.  

Ha Nguyen:

What is your view on women's rights and gender equality in India at present? What are the main challenges that women are facing in the country today?

Kirthi Jayakumar:

When responding to this, please keep in mind that I am sharing my own views and the views of some people and women in India who may have similar lived experiences. However, it is important to note that India encompasses a wide range of experiences, which I will touch upon later in my answer. So, please remember that there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

Women's rights in India have, in some ways, made many strides, and in some ways, are still in the early stages. We are currently in a critical position where we are discussing the issues that need to be addressed, but we have not yet achieved our goals. Our criminal justice system is still based on a penal code that was established by the British in 1860. Some provisions in this code reflect an outdated worldview and do not address modern forms of violence, such as those experienced in online platforms like Zoom. (At the time of this interview, the Indian Penal Code was the criminal legislation in place in India[A1] )

Enforcing women's rights in India is also hindered by a deeply ingrained patriarchal mindset that influences our institutions. Many of these institutions are predominantly led by men, with few women in positions of power. Regrettably, it is not uncommon for some women within these institutions, including the judiciary, police, and education system, to perpetuate the patriarchal system.

Furthermore, a major barrier to achieving our future goals regarding women's rights is the tendency to homogenize women as a single group. As I mentioned earlier, India is incredibly diverse in terms of religion, language, and social class. Our society operates on multiple levels, intersecting to create unique experiences for women that are not universally shared. I come before you as an upper-caste, upper-middle-class woman who speaks English. However, I represent only a small fraction of the women in my country. Many women do not have easy access to the internet or even English language skills. If we pass legislation granting all women in India these rights, it will primarily benefit the more privileged women, excluding those who lack such privileges.

To illustrate this point, let me share a recent example. India recently adopted the Women's Reservation Bill, aimed at increasing the representation of women in positions of political power, from Parliament to local councils. However, this bill faced opposition, as it was argued that it did not adequately represent women from various caste groups. If a quota of 30% or 50% was implemented, it is likely that the more privileged women would be the ones benefiting, rather than those who lack such privilege. By acknowledging and addressing factors such as class, caste, and other divisions in society, we can begin to understand the different forms of oppression and discrimination experienced by women in their daily lives. In conclusion, I believe that change is more likely to occur if we reflect on and address these issues.

Duong Le:

How can we modify and improve the law to foster equality in women's rights and increase political participation?

Kirthi Jayakumar:

I want to plant a seed of thought in your mind. Remember these three key points.

First, always recognize your position. When initiating change, consider the following: Am I the appropriate person? Who is the target of this change? If the change doesn't directly affect me or those similar to me, what should I understand about the individuals I'm supporting?

This brings us to the second point: acknowledging your privileges. Understand that you might not have a complete understanding of the experiences of women from different contexts. We might have similar challenges or share some aspects of patriarchal experiences. However, our backgrounds, appearances, worldviews, and family dynamics can vary. We're engaged in similar, but unique, struggles. For example, if I suggest that all women in a class should be given 50% of the speaking time, it might not appeal to everyone. Some women might prefer not to speak, and that's perfectly acceptable. Enforcing such a rule, based on my viewpoint, could be inconvenient for others whose needs differ from mine.

A good way to do this is to always ask 'why'. Many challenges persist because not enough people question the status quo. Consider a recently passed bill that won't take effect until 2029, after a population census. The representation of women from each state could vary based on the census results, potentially leading to a fragmented, unequal implementation of the bill. So, why is this the case? Whose voices are we not hearing? Why am I not hearing certain voices? Who benefits from their silence? The answer to 'why' can lead to an array of new questions. So, start by asking 'why'.

The third point to remember is to acknowledge the autonomy of those you aim to support. This is somewhat related to perspective, but it's essential to understand that your view of the change-making process is influenced by your position. If you alter your position, your perspective shifts significantly. Recognizing the agency of all participants, both present and absent, is vital. Their agency should shape the strategy, expected outcomes, and efforts to achieve these outcomes. Change is a gradual process, but we will persist.

Aidan Duffield:

Do you believe social change will stem from new legislation, or from improved and evolving values?

Kirthi Jayakumar:

I'd like to share a story that might provide some perspective. In the late 1800s in India, laws were passed allowing women to access education, and for more individuals to exercise their rights, despite the prevailing colonial rule. During this time, efforts were made to prevent certain forms of violence against women. One such legislation banned the practice of Sati—where young widows were burned on their husbands' funeral pyres, as living as a widow was considered socially stigmatizing.

While changes for women were gradually taking place, these changes weren't reaching the grassroots level due to various obstacles, one of which was caste discrimination. A woman named Savitribai Phule, who belonged to the Dalit caste, worked to end caste-based discrimination along with her husband. She pioneered the education of women. Despite the barriers put up by the caste system, she worked hard to create opportunities for girls to receive education.

Savitribai educated herself with her husband's resources and then taught girls from her caste and others. Every day, she would walk to her school premises – and on the journey, she would be pelted with stones, garbage, and cow dung. Despite this, she persisted, making education possible for girls in her and other communities.

To address your question, Aidan, even though the law was in place, real change required a shift in mindset. The most transformative law, even if enforced by the judiciary, cannot bring change if society doesn't accept it as a tool for transformation. I'm able to converse with you in English today due to the legacy left by Savitribai Phule. She led by example, showing society the value of an educated community. Thus, the law became truly effective only after society made an effort to educate itself.

Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

What is the current status of women's education in India?

Kirthi Jayakumar:

To begin, it's important to note that attitudes towards educating girls have significantly changed, with more families viewing it as both acceptable and necessary. The shift also includes a broader understanding of gender, acknowledging non-binary perspectives, which is indeed a positive change. However, this is not a uniform trend across all regions.

I come from a state in India with a high literacy rate, but other states in the country still struggle with access to education, largely because of factors such as patriarchy. The challenge lies in understanding the context and what has allowed this disparity to persist.

In several parts of the country, maintaining the status quo has been prioritized. Challenges related to caste and indigeneity persist, and numerous groups lack the resources that privileged communities have access to.

For instance, in the 1990s and 2000s, my state, Tamil Nadu, had a significant issue with infanticide. If a fetus was determined to be female, it was often aborted or the infant was left to die after birth due to societal rejection of female children. So, how did Tamil Nadu transform into one of the states with the highest female literacy rates?

Two influential leaders sequentially came to power and decided to incentivize families to educate their daughters. One former chief minister, Jayalalitha, introduced a scheme where families with daughters would receive a monthly deposit from the government, accessible when the girl turned 15. While initially a pragmatic solution, it led to a gradual mindset shift as families began to appreciate the positive impact of educating their daughters.

Another former chief minister, Karunanidhi, realized that families were using the government savings to marry off their daughters at 15, exploiting the dowry system. Therefore, the age for accessing the bank account was raised to 18, empowering the girls to make decisions for themselves when they reached adulthood. This policy had a transformative effect, changing the dynamics for girls in our state and contributing to Tamil Nadu's status as one of the most literate states in the country.

Shobe Manuel:

How do you think social change will encourage people to follow the law? Are there specific social changes you have in mind?

Kirthi Jayakumar:

It's fascinating that you brought up this topic. I believe that the law should strive to support societal changes rather than initiate them. The reason I say this is, if the law is creating social change, it might risk creating a new avenue of structural violence. If the law is reacting to social change, it might not necessarily create structural violence, but be more open to supporting positive change and addressing harm. One crucial aspect to consider is the focus of this change. Is it primarily about preserving the privileges of the elite? This is often the case with banking and taxation laws in many parts of the world, where they predominantly serve the elite, enabling them to retain their wealth.

For instance, in India, car loans have lower interest rates than loans for farming tractors. This clearly indicates who benefits more: the elites rather than the disadvantaged. Thus, it's crucial to center our efforts on whose societal change we aim to prioritize when shaping the laws.

As a gender worker, I see the women's, feminist, and queer movements as significant drivers of legal changes. I aspire to see safer online spaces and engagements, as well as initiatives that unite us rather than dividing us based on our racial identity or skin color. Moreover, I look forward to a world where my inclusion in an official role isn't because I'm a woman, but because I have valuable insights to contribute.

Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

Are there differences in accepting gender equality based on age?

Kirthi Jayakumar:

The challenge of societal transformation is continuous. Our nation is still evolving in areas like gender equality. I was fortunate to grow up with feminist parents who chose for me a gender-neutral name, Kirthi. They made this progressive move during the late eighties.

Transformation is an ongoing process. We are witnessing changing attitudes, but also a re-entrenchment of old ones, especially from those in power who fear losing their positions. This push and pull become evident when young people voice their concerns about the challenging world we are leaving for them. They face climate change, a pandemic, a poor economy, potential nuclear and space wars, and personal mental health issues.

Young people constantly advocate for their rights and wellbeing. This includes educating the older generation about their anxiety and the pressure they feel from the curated happiness displayed on social media platforms like Instagram. They struggle with unrealistic job expectations, such as needing five years of work experience to qualify for an entry-level job meant for someone who is just coming out of school.

While dealing with these challenges, there's an ongoing resistance to the status quo. Despite the difficulties, change is actively happening.

Sophia May:

What advice would you give to young adults who want to join the feminist movement but don't know where to start?

Kirthi Jayakumar:

Start where you are. There's no better place to begin since you've already identified the need to be part of the feminist movement. You understand your life best and you'll be the only constant in it. So, begin from there. For instance, I started where I felt discomfort. Despite surviving multiple forms of violence and having a different life from others, I realized others also faced violence. This became my starting point to learn and contribute to the movement.

Secondly, learn, read, and listen to people. There are excellent podcasts available. The more you learn and the more diverse voices you hear, the more engaged you become with the movement. You'll start cultivating deep change from within, developing skills and respect for others in their journeys.

Sheridan Smith:

What advice would you give to other women working towards social change?

Kirthi Jayakumar:

Building bonds of collaboration is crucial. Within the feminist movement, it's common for the patriarchy to cleverly divide us. It presents a limited pool of resources and encourages competition for that pool, using buzzwords like innovation and disruption. Even when our shared goal is to end gender-based violence, we find ourselves competing due to this scarcity of resources.

However, imagine if instead we decided to combine our strengths and knowledge. We could transform that tiny pool of resources by working together, rather than dividing it. This is an idea known as strategic essentialism in feminist studies. While the system might attempt to erase our differences, claiming we're all women with no distinctions, we counter by strategically celebrating our differences. We unite on common ground, aiming to mobilize without tearing each other down. Any division created is a victory for the patriarchy, so we must actively resist such divisiveness.

Chloe Truong:

Could you share some pivotal moments or experiences that shaped your passion for peacebuilding and advocating for gender equality? How did these experiences influence your career path?

Kirthi Jayakumar:

Ten years ago in 2012, a devastating incident occurred in India. A young woman was brutally gang-raped in the capital city, with her plight largely ignored initially. This tragedy sparked nationwide conversations about personal experiences with violence and overcoming it.

Just after my 25th birthday, I shared my own story, having faced 13 years of various forms of abuse, some of them extremely violent. I posted my story on Facebook and left it there. When I returned, I found comments from some of my bullies who had apologized, not realizing the pain they had inflicted. This moment was transformative for both me and those who apologized, as we began to see each other as full human beings, not just as perpetrators or victims of violence.

Six months later, I shared my story in a classroom. A boy who was actively bullying a girl, and the girl who was being bullied, reconciled to the point where they are now close friends. They discovered that both of them came from violent families. One used violence to gain control, while the other lost control due to the violence. Their relationship became a space where one was the bully and the other was the bullied.

These experiences were transformative for me because they made me realize that while we have a significant problem with gender inequality, peace education can be a solution. This realization set me on the path I continue to follow today.

Chloe Truong:

As the founder of The Red Elephant Foundation, you have undertaken numerous projects promoting gender equality and inclusion. Can you talk about some of the major obstacles you've faced in this field and the tactics you've used to overcome them? Which initiatives have proven especially effective in fostering positive change and empowering marginalized communities?

Kirthi Jayakumar:

The most significant resistance I encountered came from individuals who felt they had to surrender some of their control for the benefit of the less powerful in their communities. For instance, I worked with a group of young people struggling with alcoholic fathers. We used storytelling to discuss and understand that violence wasn't a solution to their fathers' alcoholism. This approach angered some parents. Fathers would protest, "You can't teach our children to object to my drinking." Such reactions revealed the fathers' sense of entitlement and disregard for their children's well-being.

Moreover, we faced resistance from communities who thought we were introducing Western ideas, assuming I was attacking their culture. I counteracted this by using stories from our own culture, told by my grandmother about remarkable women in our history. This usually surprised people who were unaware of these figures. Encouraging them to research these personas often led to enlightening realizations that these ideas weren't Western, but rather part of our own history.

One particularly effective strategy I'd recommend is engaging in open conversation. We live in a polarized world with diverse views. Instead of being defensive, try to understand why others hold their views. Ask for evidence and compare it with other verified sources. The power of asking "why" can be transformative and can help break down even the most stubborn defenses.

Nolan Ratsabouth:

You co-host "The Feminifesto Podcast" with Vaishnavi Pallapothu. Could you recommend a guest who had the most impact on you or shared the most thought-provoking messages that we should listen to?

Kirthi Jayakumar:

The first individual is Ruby Hembrom, a member of the indigenous Adivasi community in India. The term "Adivasi " refers to heterogenous tribes across India. Ruby shares crucial voices and histories that are often overlooked, a circumstance that denies these important truths the recognition they deserve.

Another noteworthy individual is Cynthia Enloe, a renowned scholar in the field of women, international relations, security studies, and understanding violence. Enloe consistently embodies her principles, making her a powerful figure in her field. I highly recommend her work to anyone interested in learning more about these subjects.

Lastly, I want to highlight Sally Mboumein, a significant peacekeeper and peace builder from Cameroon. She actively addresses the anglophone-francophone conflict through peaceful dialogue, making her a pivotal figure in her community.

Zevin Sanchez:

You were invited to Michelle Obama's United States of Women Summit at the White House as a nominated changemaker. How did you respond to this invitation, and what was the most significant insight you gained from the conference?

Kirthi Jayakumar:

I received the email at 2 A.M. when my entire household was asleep. I began screaming so loudly that my parents rushed in, thinking an intruder was attacking me. It took them 15 minutes to calm down and realize I was just incoherently yelling out of excitement. At this point in my career, I was still young and often not taken seriously, so the recognition felt significant. However, I was unable to attend because I didn’t have a visa to travel and there wasn’t enough time to apply for one. Instead, I had to participate online. This event was transformative for me as it was the first time I saw such a diverse pool of women from all over the world discussing issues that concerned us all. Nobody spoke for another, each woman shared her own perspective, and all voices were heard.

Ha Nguyen:

What inspired you to develop Saahas, and what influence has it had on survivors and bystander intervention?

Kirthi Jayakumar:

Saahas came about in an unexpected way. In May 2016, I woke up to 16 missed calls and 32 text messages from a person fleeing a violent situation. They were in danger, risking being locked in their house and discovered in a foreign country. While providing support, I realized we often turn to trusted people in difficult times. But what if they aren't available? This thought led to the idea of creating a readily accessible resource, an app.

Apps were becoming popular at the time, used for ordering food or booking cabins. Why not an app to make the journey easier for those dealing with violence? Such an app could bypass challenges like stigma or taboos associated with seeking help. I decided this app had to be created.

Being a lawyer, I didn't have coding knowledge and those I turned to for help demanded substantial payment. I decided to teach myself to code, a process filled with tears, coffee, and support from kind people. Eventually, I released the app on the Appstore.

From its release to the end of the pandemic, the app reportedly helped around 30,000 to 40,000 people. This data is based on self-reported information as I didn't want the app to be a surveillance tool. Users have reported its helpfulness through emails, social media, or in-person feedback.

I also realized the importance of equipping communities to be active bystanders, to prevent or mitigate violence. Through online and offline trainings, around 7,000 people acquired the training. These figures are outputs, not outcomes. While I can't confirm if it changed mindsets or behaviors, I can say these people used the resource. I hope it made a difference.

Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

Imagine that you wake up tomorrow as the new Prime Minister of India. What would be the first thing you do with that power?

Kirthi Jayakumar:

I would begin by recognizing that this position holds significant power and, consequently, immense responsibility. My first action would be to recognize that I don’t have the lived experience or knowledge of the diverse groups of people that make India what it is. So, I would start by establishing councils to represent communities that have historically been underrepresented in shaping India's present.  With that, I will strive to redistribute my political power to help create collective leadership, because that is the only way forward in a world that needs peace.

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