Kirthi Jayakumar grew up thinking medicine was the only way she could help people, until she realised she could do that with development too. SheThePeople.Tv spoke to the lady behind The Red Elephant, a platform that shares stories of women who overcome challenges, violence, prejudice and injustice and helps provide them with the right answers to their problems.
A law student from Chennai, Kirthi reckoned there was a lot of work needed to be done outside the court where people would know their rights and the means to fight for them. “That led me to start volunteering with the UN Online Volunteering System and a couple of organizations in Chennai. With time, I gained some understanding of the way things worked, and realised that one of the most common narratives in the journey remained tied to the gender quotient. If I worked with communities on awareness on their right to public health, I noticed that women were kept out of it. If I worked with communities on their right to clean water, I noticed that women had little to no access. Similarly, for food, education, healthcare, infrastructure, jobs and what have you. That was when it hit me: there’s so much sitting on one domino: gender inequality,” says Kirthi.
The idea behind The Red Elephant was always in the making, but it only catalysed into its form in 2013. When on December 17, 2012, Kirthi was being awarded for her work for the rights of women in the US and in Nigeria, the day-old news of the Nirbhaya gang-rape irked at her conscience. “When I received the award, I truly felt like a hypocrite — because here I was, receiving an award when there was so much more left to be done, and when a girl was battling for her life because we, as a community, sacrificed her at the altar of patriarchy, misogyny, toxic and hegemonic masculinity, and inaction on part of a civilian populace that should have been vigilant. I went to bed that night, thinking of how much we had allowed to pass in the name of “We are like this only”,” Kirthi tells us.
She also opens up about her own experience of facing abuse as a child, which made a ton of difference for a lot of parents. She says, “They began to be vigilant about the vulnerability of their children and began to work with their children to have open conversations towards staying safe.” Kirthi also felt like her personal comfort levels had risen after sharing her own story.
The Red Elephant team decided that doing legal and policy research would be helpful to suggest about change and also started working with the youth and their parents through workshops, to shift mindsets and also to make them internalize gender equality as the norm. “We focus on telling true stories of survival and/or changemaking. We don’t look at the gender of the subject or qualification because we want to create a culture of understanding that men, women, transgender men, transgender women, non-binary transgender people and a-gender people all face challenges in life, and are so fully capable of rising above it. But in the mainstream media, we don’t get to hear all these true stories — grief becomes a statistic, and one out of many powerful stories becomes a posterchild,” adds Kirthi.
“We try to create a space for empathy and equality, and a sense of mutual understanding.”
Educating kids about equality and gender issues is something that seems to be of utmost importance these days. Kirthi believes that giving kids the tools to think critically is what needs to be done. “Show them the right, show them the wrong. Show them the consequences of one and the other. Show them that they also have the independence to be themselves, with the ONLY caveat that they should not harm another living being.”
We asked her how society is responding to women empowerment and she responds, “You have both, receptiveness and resistance. However, the resistance is so strong, and the receptiveness doesn’t always turn into a payforward, that it seems like the resistance is gaining greater ground.” She adds that the work her organisation has done has helped in turning the resistance into receptiveness through education, but of course there are obstacles that need overcoming. “It is not enough for organizations to work with the youth and their parents and address issues like consent and sexual violence and personal boundaries if pop culture is going to normalize the objectification and stalking of women.”
Her only message to our readers would be this:
You are precious. You are important. You make the world what it is by being there.