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‘To understand equal rights and gender sensitisation, look at those living on the margins’

An alumna of Apeejay Kharghar, Bhakti Damle, who has been working in the social sector, emphasises a correct and nuanced understanding of gender, sexuality and inclusivity

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Pune-based Bhakti Damle’s decision to work in the social sector was not inspired by a desire for charity but rather a deep interest in spearheading social change. From youth and women’s rights to reproductive health issues, the Apeejay Kharghar alumna has worked extensively to address various such problems through which she encountered the deep-rooted oppression under which the marginalised sections of society–from the queer community to people from lower castes, among others–live. “Once you have learned to see them…it’s impossible to unsee them,” she says. Read on to know what she envisages for the betterment of humankind:

What memories do you have of Apeejay Kharghar? What were your learnings?

I have a lot of memories from school. Apeejay Kharghar always encouraged students to do well. While most people went ahead to pursue Science, I was one of the exceptions from my batch to pursue my bachelor’s in arts. I was genuinely interested in arts more than any other stream. I left school after class 10. A world of possibilities opened for me after- I could explore careers varying from the hotel and hospitality industry to the design industry to subjects in social sciences like psychology. And I explored all of that. 

What I enjoyed about school was the amazing set of friends who were around me. The rare times we got to go to the playground and just be. I didn’t do exceptionally well in school. But I really appreciate those teachers who considered me a nominee for Dr Stya Paul Award for Human Values, teachers who made me think that probably there was something that I could feel good about, beyond getting a particular score on my papers. I also appreciate that there were cultural activities captains for each of the houses.

What did you pursue after school? Why?

I went on to pursue Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of Mumbai and Master of Arts in Development (with a Public Health specialisation) from Azim Premji University, Bangalore. Running in a rat race to become either an engineer or a doctor simply didn’t make sense to me. I was naturally inclined towards more creative career options. The wide range of subjects that the arts field provided was so much more liberating and interesting. 

What inspired a career in the social sector?

Nothing seemed more meaningful than getting to learn and work in the development/social sector. My choice of this field did not come from a feeling of being able to “help” people, more like charity which is very often equated with the social sector. It is so much more and rather different than popular perception. 

Work in the social sector calls for working to bring about change and development. And this is not limited to poverty. It ranges from health, sanitation, livelihoods, and governance to education, law, human rights, sustainability, and so on. The sector is hugely undervalued, both in terms of a field of work/career and financially too. I hope that changes someday. 

Take us through your professional journey.

After completing my master’s, I worked with a women and youth rights organisation. My work entailed extensive research on sexual and reproductive health and rights, including abortion rights in India as well as endogamous marriage patterns in local areas in India. 

More recently, I have been working with Probex Management Consulting that’s involved in providing research, monitoring, and evaluation support to different organisations in India. My work includes reviewing literature in the field of study, developing research tools/instruments for data collection, conducting interviews, focus groups, data collection processes, analysing qualitative data, etc, and informing interventions based on that. It also includes developing Theories of Change (i.e. logic models) for various organisations through a collaborative brainstorming process with the respective teams and developing a mechanism to then monitor and evaluate their projects or programs based on the Theory of Change.   

In addition, I freelance with researchers, journalists, and development sector organisations to provide research support in terms of translation and transcription, data collection, research writing, etc. 

What has the journey been like so far?

As someone working for the rights of people in the country for some years now, there have been some challenges in the way. There is an incomparable system of oppression and control over people who are placed on the margins of the social fabric of the country – including women, queer people, people from lower castes and classes, people from religious minorities, people with disabilities, or those from stigmatised professions like sex work, manual scavenging, waste picking, etc. There has been a constant struggle. 

These situations are extremely difficult to witness day in and day out. Once you have learned to see them with a deeper understanding of the social fabric, it’s impossible to unsee them. But the belief that change doesn’t happen magically and that I must be that agent of change is something that has kept me going. 

What have you learned about the country’s situation in terms of equal rights and gender sensitisation?

It’s plain unfortunate and unacceptable. A comprehensive understanding of gender is close to being absent from people’s understanding. There’s inadequate representation of women and the LGBTQIA+ community in decision-making positions. The identity of a woman is more often relegated to that of a wife who will serve her husband’s family, no matter how high-achieving she has been in her entire professional life. Society wants her to be an ideal daughter-in-law who will look beautiful, wear all possible marks of patriarchy on her body (including sindoormangalsutra, bangles, paayal, toe rings, etc.) and produce a son to fulfill the wishes of her parents and in-laws. My own classmates and relatives are living examples. A single woman, a divorced woman, a woman who doesn’t have a child, a woman who is free of the shackles of patriarchy is a woman people tend to judge. 

The situation is equally bad for queer people, if not worse. I often hear from my peers (who are not in the same field as me) that the situation has changed now. Well, it hasn’t. The more subtle ways in which patriarchy thrives so often go unnoticed! Also, when we make statements like “things have changed”, we often look at similar others around us, who have as much privilege in society. If we really want to understand the situation in terms of equal rights and gender sensitisation, we need to look at those who live on the margins, who are far away from the worlds we live in! Go to a remote village to see the actual extent of change. 

So much of this can be attributed to what’s taught to children in their early years. I think that educators can play a crucial role in changing the narrative. I envision gender-sensitive educators to be those who won’t be surprised or shocked or offended by seeing a queer child in their classroom. One who would inculcate healthy communication about sex and sexuality. Gender sensitisation is not “women should be treated well” — it is the awareness of the range of genders and sexualities that exist, as possibly fluid identities of human beings and, the understanding that irrespective of whether they fit into your idea of “normal” or “acceptable” or not, they must be treated as equal human beings with as much dignity, rights, and freedom as anybody else. Young people should have absolute rights over their lives and their relationships, and not be pressured to conform to social norms. Whether to marry, whom to marry, how to marry, and how long to be married should be decided by youth and not their families. Marriage itself is a patriarchal institution and if we’re teaching children that marriage is the ideal then clearly our understanding of gender is seriously flawed. 

Gender sensitisation is happening with the efforts made by non-governmental organisations working in the field. It is a very slow and long process that requires resources. Changing the centuries of conditioning is not an easy job. 

Would you say there is some level of awareness today through the internet or social media in particular?

While social media has helped organisations to reach out to a larger audience, it’s not a foolproof solution to the lack of awareness. There must be a correct and nuanced understanding of gender. Otherwise, it can only add to the problem. A lot of the larger media messages inculcate the very problematic notions of womanhood I stated earlier. In comparison, the more ideal messages only reach a small audience to my understanding. 

Disha Roy Choudhury is a Senior Correspondent at Apeejay Newsroom. She has worked as a journalist at different media organisations. She is also passionate about music and has participated in reality shows.

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