Feminism in Everyday Life means different things to different people. To Dr Martha Farrell it was about identifying the gender stereotypes around us, and chipping away at them. Small actions become big actions which become big changes in our societies. And that was her goal.
Her work in women’s empowerment and gender justice began in 1981. Newly graduated from Delhi University and entering the development sector, Dr Farrell set off on a 34-year-long journey towards equality and equity. But it was cut short in 2015, while Dr Farrell was visiting Kabul. Armed terrorists attacked the guest house she was staying in, killing her and 13 other people.
The loss was deeply felt. But what took centre-stage was the effort to make sure the feminist leader’s values and principles lived on. And that came with the Martha Farrell Award for Excellence in Women’s Empowerment. There are many Indians like Martha who hold those principles close. And it was time to recognise their efforts.
Feminism in Everyday Life means different things to different people. And it leads to different actions for social change. Over the last five years, we’ve discovered five organisations from across India that truly demonstrate Martha’s ideas. And here are their stories:
When Cheruvu Bhanuja first met Lakshmi Devi in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh, the latter was struggling with an unforgiving situation. At 15, Lakshmi had been married to an alcoholic who eventually left her to fend for herself.
For Lakshmi and other women like her, Bhanuja arranged for a plot of land that would provide the economic independence they needed. They weren’t just cultivating groundnuts, tomatoes, and other produce. They were learning about share purchasing processes, share capital, and the entire process of food production.
Bhanuja founded Rural and Environmental Development Society (REDS) in 1996. And for the last 25 years, the grassroots organisation has remained committed to gender equality in its work with communities. But it does something else that’s equally vital – it also walks the talk. What could be better than leading by example? And internally, REDS has indeed set a good one.
“To create a gender-fair workplace and ensure gender equity, REDS follows a non-negotiable policy. 50% of our registered executive body women,” says Bhanuja, adding that “more than 50% of staff members are women as well.” REDS has made it compulsory for its women members to be part of all its decision-making processes.
And that’s what won REDS the Martha Farrell Award in 2020.
Why should parents stop girls from playing football? And if they permit it, why should they wear ‘modest’ and sport-unfriendly salwar kurtas while playing? Why don’t daughters get the same treatment and opportunities as sons? What kind of a life has society forced upon them? These were the burning questions that the girls in Tonk, Ajmer, and Bhilwara always wanted to ask, but couldn’t. Until Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti (MJAS) created a safe space for them to speak their minds and raise their voices for gender equality.
Registered as an organisation in 2000, its founding members are all too aware of the oppressive patriarchal world young girls grow up in. “We are Dalit women who have faced untouchability and discrimination. We are survivors of domestic violence and sexual harassment,” says Co-Founder Bhavri Bai.
Even as they looked at these realities in the eye, the women of MJAS refused to back down. Who better to empower the next generation? At its core, the organisation pursues feminist leadership.
And in 2019, they won the Martha Farrell Award for Excellence in Women’s Empowerment.
It’s no secret that the judicial system, at nearly every level, is hard on women. Double victimization of women survivors of violence is routine in Indian courts. There is fear about taking action, be it filing a police complaint against a molester (often being turned away!), or repeated appearances in court under the gaze of insensitive lawyers and magistrates. What’s needed is a feminist approach to law. And that’s exactly what our 2017 winner Majlis Legal Centre is doing.
The Mumbai-based organisation has an all-women team, and fully feminist policies to support each member. Apart from its work in the outside world, Majlis looks within to create a fair and equal environment. The Centre provides different modes of working for employees who have small children or have recently given birth. Having options like part-time, flexi-time, or work-from-home is proven to help women not only remain in the workforce and gain an income but also encourages the entry of more women.
All law organisations have policies like these. And why stop there? Majlis Legal Centre has set a great example for organisations of all kinds.
The Martha Farrell Award brought onto our radar an organisation with very impressive leadership. The Resource and Support Centre for Development (RSCD) has been working on women’s representation in Panchayats since 1994. They run a campaign called Mahila Rajsatta Andolan all across the state of Maharashtra to make women’s wholehearted participation in governance a reality. And if change starts at home, RSCD has made sure its goal of gender equality and equity is reflected in its organizational structure.
Both senior leadership and district teams are made up entirely of women. And when the teams are in the field, they train all-male sarpanches and panches on gender and governance. These interventions are crucial to change the male-dominated landscape of local-level administration.
No doubt about it; the famous feminist slogan “the personal is the political” is infused in RSCD’s work.
In 2020, the Martha Farrell Foundation introduced for the first time the ‘Special Jury Award’, which went to this very-deserving Ranchi-based organisation. Fondly called ASHA, the Association for Social and Human Awareness has led the fight against witch-hunting in rural Jharkhand. There are innumerable cases of individuals accusing a ‘wayward’ woman of witchcraft.
The charges are mostly levelled against Adivasi women. A manifestation of our society’s misogynistic and undeniably casteist attitudes, it doesn’t take long for entire communities to violently attack the woman. The crime is, more often than not, fatal. In a state with frequent witch-hunting, ASHA’s work is critical.
The year is now 2021, and the 5th Martha Farrell Award is on the horizon. Do you know of individuals and organisations like these that has dedicated the past five years or more to make the world a more feminist and gender-just place? Is there a gender champion in your city who deserves more attention? We want to know all about them. Help us identify this year’s Award winners and participate in the nomination process!
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org to receive the nomination forms.