Women Peacebuilders I Infocus: Sharda Vishwanathan

 

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

 

Sharda Vishwanathan is a communications professional and has extensively worked with organisations in the development sector in areas as diverse as urban planning, governance and gender empowerment. She currently heads the Outreach and Digital Media team at The Red Elephant Foundation and is the Co-founder/ Director of Tale Weavers, an initiative that aims to engage with children and the youth through stories that challenge stereotypes and break the barriers in creating a just society.

 

1. What got you started on your peace journey?

Sharda: I was born and raised in Bombay (now Mumbai). It’s not uncommon for people to refer to Bombay as the City of Dreams. This Maximum City very rightly lives up to this epithet by assimilating people from different socio-cultural and economic backgrounds. This diversity is visible every where- schools, colleges, workplaces or the bustling local trains which are the city’s lifeline. But diversity brings with it it’s own set of stereotypes that get passed on from generation to generation. I was no exception to this. I remember being surrounded by many such generalisations and stereotypes associated with a particular community or a group of people. This would often create an uncomfortable space for dialogue and instil a feeling of being excluded or the fear of being ‘The Other’ in conversations. It made me think and ponder, how one could address this and work towards creating a more inclusive space. I pursued my Master’s programme in Gender, Media and Culture and as part of my research, I looked at the representation of women in conflict, wherein the media  coverage  of  any  armed  conflict  has  been  restricted  to  certain  stereotypical  imagery  in  which  either  women  are  absent  or  are  represented  as  victims  of  war  and  conflict. But their contributions as peacebuilders are hugely ignored and sidelined. And a close analysis only further reinforced how stereotypes around gender, religion, race, nationalism and ethnicity were at the bottom of such representations. For me, it became important to shatter stereotypes that normalize the social and cultural norms. Thus, I embarked on my journey to create an inclusive space which is free of any prejudice.

 

2. How have you engaged with storytelling towards Peacebuilding?

Sharda: I was at a park one day and saw this group of little girls place their hands against each other’s and compare which one of them had a lighter skin. The one with the darkest tone was immediately called “Kaali”(the word for ‘Black’ in Hindi) much to her disappointment. And this was not all. The fairest amongst them shared her excitement of how she was the “Snow White” of the group. I was completely taken aback but at the same time, it highlighted the ways in which our literature peddles stereotypes and creates one-sided narratives that limit women to the domestic sphere and men as the breadwinners who work outside of home. I strongly believed in the need to have more balanced narratives and started writing stories. This helped me see the potential storytelling has as a tool to address complex issues to engage with and educate children. Thus, I co-founded Tale Weavers, an initiative that aims to engage with children and the youth through stories that challenge stereotypes and break the barriers in creating a just society. Through simple conversations, colourful illustrations and powerful characters, I aspire to break stereotypes and help children learn the importance of sensitivity and empathy.  Our stories address issues around gender equality, racial equality, menstruation and child sexual abuse while also exploring themes like financial literacy and STEM education to equip children with life skills.  We are in the process of exploring collaborations with schools and community centres where we can conduct storytelling sessions. Our on-ground workshops will help us deconstruct stereotypes and create sensitivity and empathy among the participants. Students will be encouraged to offer expositions of their learning and their experience, and their behavioural patterns will be tracked using indicators and evaluation methods to see how they internalize and act on the messages shared in the stories. Here I would like to talk about our collaboration with The Red Elephant Foundation (REF). Ms. Kirthi Jayakumar, the Founder and Director of REF facilitated our first workshop on ground in Chennai at Sprouts Montessori on Gender Equality. She worked on the theme of breaking stereotypes through identifying that a preference – likes or dislikes – and a career choice don’t have anything to do with gender. We worked with two of our stories as part of the curriculum- The Princess with the Skateboard and The Little Chef, and then engaged with the children using  REF’s gender equality curriculum and games. It was an interesting and moving session with great participation from all the kids. The stories were really well appreciated and all the kids seemed quite taken in by Krish and The Princess!

 

3. What are the challenges you have faced?

Sharda: Like most nonprofit and community engagement initiatives, access to resources have been a major challenge.

Secondly, as we are working with children, it becomes important to determine the reading levels and we have often found it challenging to find volunteers with the required skills and experience in pedagogy to help us with the same. And the third most challenge is finding illustrators to translate the stories into visually engaging illustrations.

 

4. How do you think storytelling can be leveraged better towards Peacebuilding?

Sharda: Storytelling has a great potential to initiate change and, as a platform, is very collaborative in approach. Both the audience and the storyteller, in the process of sharing stories, enter into a dialogue and openly deconstruct myths, misconceptions and challenge stigma. There is an increased awareness around perspectives which creates a space to empathise. Storytelling is often a shared activity with every person in the room participating in the process. It hereby, helps people to go beyond their own perspectives and understand the other side. On one hand, it helps communities realise that they are not alone and there have been others with similar experiences. On the other hand, people learn to redefine the world around them and understand that everything cannot be painted in black and white. After all, grey matters.

 

Connect with us?
Send us your feedback or nominate a young woman peacebuilder you know of, write to us at info@safecity.in/vanditamorarka@gmail.com

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