While we head towards International Youth Day on 12th August, Safecity is taking this opportunity to honour women peacebuilders through this series on Women Peacebuilders. We invited women peacebuilders to speak of their experience of using different tools towards peacebuilding in an attempt to showcase the massive change women leaders are bringing towards developing peace and to build collective learnings for those who want to be engaged in peacebuilding processes.
Series curated by Vandita Morarka
Edited by Renita Siqueira
Ayushi Banerji, a 25 year old has dedicated her life to enable girls and women to discover their potential and be empowered. She is CEO of The Gender Lab within The Blue Ribbon Movement.
1. What got you started on your peace journey?
Ayushi : It was a very personal journey for me because after college I wasn’t sure what to do and then I got an opportunity to take up a programme that was related to working with school-going girls to build their leadership skills and for some reason it really excited me. That’s how my journey with gender inequality started and which I feel is sort of synonymous with my peace journey because that was the first time I was dealing with the causes of conflict between genders and how we can bring that down. It was personal for me because I realized that while we constantly seek peace in our external environment; we are usually unconscious of our inner conflicts. Finding peace within oneself is the first step to empowerment. This was a very big realization for me. So the work that I do at The Blue Ribbon is to help girls realize their potential.
2. Was it a personal experience or interaction with someone that made you conscious of the presence of an inner conflict?
Ayushi : When I started going to these schools and talking to young girls of 13 or 14 years of age, I felt I was face-to-face with the story of a girl from a school who doesn’t even realize that she’s in a problem and thinks everything is how it is supposed to be. That is when she stops fighting for what belongs to her or what is right. I know the word fight doesn’t go very well with peace.
But when I started doing this programme, I realized that young girls are not accepting of themselves and are constantly changing themselves to become acceptable on the outside which increases conflicts internally. It made me reflect on my life as a teenager, the number of times I tried to change myself for something and I realized there is a direct link between that and gender issues because for girls, there are a lot of stereotypes that make them become a certain way. It all started when it reminded me of myself.
3. How have you engaged with young girls and women towards Peace Building?
Ayushi: My work has been more about empowering young girls and women so I’ve never really done it directly by using the word Peace Building. I took up leadership of a programme called the Avanti Young Women Leadership Programme in Mumbai in 2013, for building leadership skills among school girls through service learning. Service learning is a model where these girls have to go into their communities and take up a social service project though which they build their leadership skills. This type of leadership is not about becoming the C.E.O or starting up a business; it’s more about self-awareness and connecting to oneself. Initially, it took me a while to understand that leadership is not what everybody has been teaching us. Unless you are connected with yourself and know who you are, it’s really hard to expect yourself to be empowered. So to say, I have been engaging with them directly through my work.
Under one project, for instance, we mentor them and discuss their individual self and reasons for behaving in a particular way, like not being expressive in class, feeling under confident or using abusive language. Every experience in the project is mapped back to their own self so it helps them realize their potential or what is stopping them from going forward.
I also started a 10-months fellowship for graduate girls of 20-25 years of age called The Gender Lab Fellowship. They not only mentor the school programme but also have a learning journey of their own which is very specific to discovering one’s potential, if one is becoming a barrier to oneself and how to get rid of it.
As an organization, we’ve always tried to keep it very personal; ensuring that whoever is working with us, whether a fellow or an employee, works not the way we want them to work, but by being fully themselves, bringing their own unique perspective, being open and free. The moment the word ‘free’ comes in; coercion in work life instantly gets replaced with peace which can be translated to all beneficiaries.
4. What are the challenges that you have faced?
Ayushi: A whole book can be written on the challenges that one faces in a journey like this, but the biggest challenge we’ve faced till date is the parents. We go to schools and introduce an alternate form of learning which is not very accepted everywhere. So the first challenge is to explain to them why it’s important for girls to step out of home. Once the school agrees and the programme starts, then the parents become a huge barrier in the sense that they directly refuse to allow their daughters to go out. So we try to address these issues in different ways, such as parent meetings. Luckily we have not yet faced anything major where the girls have not been able to do anything. But parents remain a challenge because they do not understand the point of making a girl do such a project outside her home, especially when there are no marks associated with it. Generally, it is easier to mould the views of a young person than those of an elder person because the latter are less accepting of people they do not know. This has been observed across the school girls and fellows. There was a fellow from Delhi, for example, and it was a massive challenge to convince her parents that the fellowship was for her own benefit.
As you go deeper in the economic segments, the dominance of the male members becomes insanely high and in that case even if the mother wants the child to participate, the father doesn’t. So while parents have the best wishes for their children, they might not be aware of what their daughter really wants to do and that stopping here from going out of the house is part of the problem, not the solution.
5. How do you think working with young girls and women can be leveraged better in everyday life towards peace building?
Ayushi: It is important for us to realize that nothing happens overnight. If I want girls and women to function at their highest potential, I cannot limit my work just to them. It’s not just that they are not empowered, they do not have the opportunities to be empowered. So, I felt that one big aspect was to begin working with boys and men to leverage what girls and women are able to do. For instance, for a teenager, ten years from now, a lot of her life will still be dictated by her father or brother. That’s not going to change so fast. So the focus should be on how to create a better space for her at home because no matter how much we do in school or beyond that, it has to start from their home environments. What I would like to do is engage more deeply with communities, especially with the parents. This year we started working with boys and men regarding gender based violence, including verbal, physical and emotional violence that happens at home. One way to make life peaceful for women is to start engaging with men. But interaction with men is not restricted to making a better life for women. Very often, men are also at the unfortunate end of gender based violence and violence in general. A big conversation about peace building lies in the misconstrued idea of masculinity, which is perceived as violent. If you look at girls who are violent, a lot of times they would be called ‘like a man’, not so much like a girl. That’s what I would like to take forward, to help men debunk masculinity while simultaneously helping girls discover who they really are.
It has to be a fine blend of different aspects, where on one level we work with the girls, on the second level with the boys and on yet another level, with the parents. Peace journeys can only begin with introspection of our real self and the degree of influence external factors have on it.
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